Lately my thoughts have turned to attributes; those inherent elements of our being that make us worthy individuals. Some, like beauty, physical strength, intelligence, creativity and talent, are lauded – in some cases over lauded – in the press, on television and radio, and especially online. Others, like empathy and strength of will, reveal themselves quietly and consequently receive less attention. But one attribute receives almost no attention despite being perhaps the rarest of them all: courage.
The person responsible for my recent reflections on courage is my Uncle Lee. We Newman siblings always called him Uncle Lee, even though we were not related. Rabbi Lee Levinger was my father’s close friend and my godfather. We saw him frequently when we lived in the Bay Area and occasionally after we moved to Philo in 1959. Following the move, my father stayed with Uncle Lee during his overnight business trips to the Bay Area.
Uncle Lee was a senior citizen in my growing up years. He wore old-fashioned wire rimmed glasses and had a “lazy” eye that wandered outward. He was of medium height, but slightly stooped. He was a reserved individual; affable but not gregarious. I knew he and his wife Elma Levinger (who died in 1958) wrote books primarily on Jewish history and culture. They also traveled extensively and he always brought back little souvenirs for my siblings and me.
He was a gentle presence in my childhood and teen years. While he was my godfather, I don’t remember him offering spiritual guidance. Nevertheless, his version of “The Good Shepherd” – which I learned at a young age - remains an element of my evening prayers to this day. Rabbi Lee Levinger died in 1966 at age 76: I was 17-years-old-when he passed.
In short, in demeanor and personality, Uncle Lee would not be the person we envisage when we think of courage. So I was surprised to discover how courage shaped his life.
After becoming a rabbi, getting married, and fathering a son and then twins, Lee Levinger - on his own volition - joined the United States Army as a member of the newly established Jewish Chaplain Corps. Commissioned as a First Lieutenant, he was soon sent to France with the American Expeditionary Forces to minister to Jewish troops serving in the trenches during World War I. He spent nearly a year in France, including time on the front lines.
He recounted his service in World War I in his first book, A Jewish Chaplain in France, published in 1921. On the front lines with the 27th Infantry Division during the last months of the war, he visited most of the infantry units along the Hindenburg Line and in Second Battle of the Somme, ministering to Jewish and non-Jewish troops alike.
He also worked with the medical corps at first aid posts close to the front lines, carrying stretchers, binding wounds, helping those blinded by mustard gas, and ministering to the wounded, frequently under artillery fire. In one instance, a shell hit 20 feet away while he was helping load ambulances: he was unhurt, but shell fragments killed troops nearby. He wrote of guarding captured German troops brought back to one such post, his authority backed by a recently captured Luger pistol which – as a non-combatant – he had unloaded as soon as he received it.
Before leaving the front, he also helped lead the funeral service for the last U.S. troops to be buried at the St. Souplet Cemetery.
After the Armistice, Rabbi Lee Levinger would remain in France for another six months, first at a rest area in the north of France and later at the American Embarkation Center near the Riviera. During those months, he received news that one of his twin babies – the boy – had died from influenza. He returned to the United States and was discharged from the Army in May of 1919.
It is clear his chaplain experience in World War I influenced the rest of his life. Within a few years of returning stateside, he gave up work as a congregation rabbi. He became a national chaplain for the American Legion. He served as Director of the Hillel Foundation at Ohio State University from 1925 to 1935 and joined the faculty of the school as a philosophy lecturer from 1928 to 1940 (where he met, befriended and mentored a young Irving Newman, my father). He worked as a field representative for the National Jewish Welfare Board from 1942 to 1947. In 1948 he became chaplain at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Palo Alto, a post he held for more than 15 years.
And he wrote. Books mostly, either solo or with his wife, but articles, too. His most significant books are The Story of the Jew for Young People, published in 1929, History of the Jews in the United States, published in 1930, and the prescient Antisemitism Yesterday and Tomorrow, published in 1936.
Why some people demonstrate courage and others do not is a question with no clear answer. Is it nature, nurture, or something else? Circumstance clearly plays a role, as courage is demonstrated (or forsaken) both in split-second choices and carefully considered decisions.
Another question is whether people with courage know the potential price of their courage. On this question, there is a hint in Rabbi Lee Levinger’s family’s subsequent history. His eldest son, Samuel Levinger, then 20-years-old, went to Spain as a volunteer member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade to fight the Fascists. He was killed in action there in 1937. He wrote a letter to be passed on to his family in the event of his death. Within the letter are two telling sentences. “If I were alive again I think I would join in the battle again at this critical place. There is an extremely important job to do over here and I am one of the men who decided to do it.”
A single example does not a meaningful sample make. But in its way, it speaks volumes. Yes, the courageous often know the potential price. Yet they do the difficult things they do despite the risks. That is the reason courage is rare, and also the reason it deserves more visibility and appreciation.