Listening to Jacob (Jake) Levin hold court in the lobby of the Envoy with his fellow residents and some family members in Pikesville, one can easily imagine him chatting up customers at his family’s bakery in the 1940s with as much vitality and interest.
“As soon as I jumped out of my playpen, my father said, ‘If he can stand, he can work,’” said Levin. “I could make Kaiser rolls. I learned to make doughnuts. I could make challahs, I could make it all. I learned from all the bakers; we had all kinds — Polish bakers, Russian bakers, Italian bakers. But they had to make Jewish products; everything was kosher.”
When he was young, Levin, who soon will be 98 years old, would sell bread and rolls door-to-door to help out the family business in tough times. Sometimes, he would trade a loaf for a watermelon with a boat merchant from the Eastern Shore. When he returned from serving four-and-half years in World War II, even though he was tempted by dreamy plans and other cities, he willingly took over the bakery from his parents and made it succeed. Levin’s Bakery (eventually Levin Brothers) was a fixture in the Jewish community at 1153 Lombard St. for 50 years.
“I worked hard, I had to be in at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Levin said. “The bad thing, let’s say I’d come home about 1:30 or 2 o’clock [in the afternoon], I’d take a nap for a couple hours. Then I’d get a call: The cake baker didn’t come in… So many times, I’d have to go back to work after a long day. On those days, I would lie down on top of a bag of flour and take a nap.”
Levin Brothers was best known for its bread and rolls, and patrons felt free to squeeze them — they were unwrapped — to check for freshness.
Levin described what it was like inside the bakery: “There’d be two girls behind the counter. As soon as you walk in, you see the rolls, you see the bread, and to your left there’s a case of all kinds of cookies, and to your right I had a case where we sold ice cream: pints, quarts, whatever you want. Then you’d see pictures of all different kinds of decorated cakes.”
He attributed the cake decorating artistry to brother Irvin, his business partner for many years. He praised his late wife, Charlotte, for her bookkeeping abilities.
The bakery closed in 1972, but Levin couldn’t quite retire. He went on to consult for places such as H&S Bakery and created sweets for several caterers. He helped one friend who, in a panic, called him because nobody knew how to make hamentaschen. Levin happily came to the rescue.
During 50 years in the bakery business, Levin saw a lot of change.
“I never thought in my wildest dreams they would come out with a bagel machine,” he said. “I would make them by hand; I would cut it, roll it with my hand, I’d make a ring out of it. I could do it fast. Then they got a machine that makes it round, cuts it and everything. Anybody could make bagels. You get the machinery, and you’re in business.”
But Levin seems to find the positive in everything. Not that there weren’t hard times and struggles. But he’s persevered and always with a positive outlook. Even now, it still shines through. He doesn’t labor long hours anymore, but he is available full time to uplift his fellow residents.
“Jake kind of takes everything in stride, he always has the positive attitude, and he makes the best of every situation,” said Jean O’Hara, activities director at Envoy Health and Rehabilitation. “We call him the mayor of the Envoy. He greets everybody, and he makes everybody feel welcome. Everyone who comes here has to adjust, and Jake is the first step in adjusting toward the new surroundings. He finds something in common with the diverse crowd. He’s proud of his family, of Baltimore, of his business and of his Jewish faith.”
What’s Levin’s secret to longevity?
“I tell people, please don’t be negative; be positive. That’s how you have longevity. It takes people. They say in Jewish nor a steyn zol zayn aleyn —only stone should be alone, not people. Be with people. Don’t be negative. That’s the way I feel. And I’m no baby!”
Levin created a successful business, raised a caring family, showed unwavering dedication to his parents and served in two wars. Now, nearly a century later, he still has genuine zest for life and cares deeply for his family and fellow residents. As Levin’s son, Steve Levin, said, “He’s led an ordinary life in a very extraordinary way.”
Melissa Gerr is JT senior staff reporter and digital media editor — firstname.lastname@example.org