Joseph A. Levine, a prominent Philadelphia cantor and Jewish musical scholar, died on Dec. 30.
He was 88.
The music enthusiast, who died of kidney failure, left behind a wife of 60 years, Doris Levine, and three daughters: Rona Black, Lisa Phillips and Donna Harlev.
In his cantorial career, Levine served two synagogues in Philadelphia: Congregation Emanu-El in Oak Lane and the Ramat El Congregation in West Oak Lane. He also held cantorial positions in Baltimore, Long Island, Connecticut and St. Louis.
But after earning a doctor of sacred music degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, Levine spent the last half-century of his life in Philadelphia. The cantor taught classes at the New York City-based JTS and at the Academy for Jewish Religion; he was editor of the Journal of Synagogue Music for 16 years; and he published many books and hundreds of articles.
“He really became a resource not only for Philadelphia cantors, but for cantors all over the world,” said Levine’s friend David Tilman, the cantor emeritus at Beth Sholom Congregation in Elkins Park. “He had very strong opinions about how services should and should not be conducted.”
According to another friend, Benjamin Maissner, who met Levine while serving as a student cantor at Beth Sholom in the 1960s, the scholar had one core belief about synagogue music.
“Not compromising music to the lowest common denominator,” said Maissner, who became the cantor at Holy Blossom Temple in Canada for 41 years but maintained a friendship with Levine.
The scholar was not against the inviting culture of asking congregants to sing along during services. He liked that.
But he didn’t want synagogue renditions to devolve into “a singalong service,” as Maissner described it. Levine preferred service music to be true to the Jewish tradition and to have the grand, formal feel of a performance.
The cantor wanted traditional hymns, Hebrew typing in prayer books and well-trained choirs. With all those features, cantors could then invite congregants to sing along.
“He advocated for great standards,” Tilman said. “And if the music was done with great sophistication and integrity, the whole community would rise to those standards as well.”
As he got deeper into his scholarly career, Levine wrote and spoke about that argument more and more. The cantor believed that liberalizing Jewish synagogues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries were cheapening the standards a little too much.
English translations in prayer books, rock versions of Jewish songs and the decreasing size and use of choirs — Levine disagreed with all of that.
The scholar felt modern synagogues were pandering to popular, American tastes.
“For people concerned about declining synagogue attendance, if you make the music more relatable to American tastes, you bring people back,” said Tilman, explaining the shift.
Levine understood the challenge of trying to keep people coming to synagogue, according to Tilman. But that didn’t stop him from making his argument against the common, Americanized answer to it.
He argued for classical standards of musical sophistication and Jewish integrity with friends and students, in his books and articles and on an email list with members of the Cantors Assembly, a worldwide association of more than 600 Conservative cantors.
Levine’s candor must have gotten through to them because when he died, emails started pouring in mourning his loss, according to Tilman.
“The Jewish world had lost one of its greatest thinkers and scholars,” Tilman said, summarizing the notes.
But in those messages, there was another recurring theme.
“He was as generous as could be. He wouldn’t say no,” Tilman added. “If you needed something, he would find it for you.”
Both Tilman and Maissner found Levine to be a great conversation partner.
“He was strong-willed,” said Tilman. “He had very intense opinions about things, and he could express those opinions very sharply.”
“What’s the best way to keep the congregation involved and be spiritually moved?” added Maissner, asking the question that animated Levine’s career. “He was very passionate about it. We had fiery discussions.”
Perhaps ironically, Levine’s wife describes the private Levine as the opposite of the public version. Doris Levine said her husband was “soft-spoken, sweet and funny.” He loved to be home with her and to travel with her to places like Europe and South America.
He also loved to draw and paint in his spare time, often giving away his creations to neighbors in Rittenhouse Square.
“In our earlier lives, we liked to hike, take long walks and be a part of the cities or mountain areas we were in,” Doris Levine recalled. “Then we took a lot of cruises.”
Of the days ahead, Doris Levine said they would be “lonely” and “long.” She also said she would miss “just having him here.”