On a spring day last year, Phil Lehman visited his father and mother’s Clarks Lane apartment to assist in a task that many children perform for their senior parents — throwing stuff away.
He disposed of reams of papers that day, but one document in particular caught his eye. After reading it, he made sure not to put it in the trash pile.
A letter, addressed to his father, Merrill Lehman, and dated April 21, 2006, began with, “In response to your letter of January 18, 1937.”
The letter, signed by Jerusalem resident Marlin Levin, referenced a correspondence from the 1930s, when the two attempted to organize a debate between their respective synagogue debate teams. Levin also enclosed the two original copies of a letter the elder Lehman sent in 1936 and 1937.
Although the debate never came to fruition, Levin — who lived in Harrisburg, Pa., before moving to Israel in 1947 — had came across the letters and endeavored to reconnect with an old acquaintance.
Thanks in large part to the curiosity and persistence of Phil Lehman, Levin and Merrill Lehman were
finally able to link up.
“If you’re looking at anything from 1937 you’d say, ‘Hey this is interesting,’” Phil Lehman said. “I became fascinated. I said, ‘I’d like to find out if the guy’s alive,’ considering the age of my father and his age then, I didn’t know.”
After employing an array of methods to locate Levin, Phil Lehman was able set up a phone call, and on Nov. 28, 2012 at 10 a.m. (or 5 p.m. Israel time) Merrill Lehman, 96, and Levin, 91, picked up a conversation that had been hanging in the balance for more than seven decades.
“It was unique, definitely. There was a tremendous gap to attempt to close,” said Merrill Lehman, who, along with his wife, Nanette, is a lifelong Baltimorean. “Isn’t it something when you can make a connection more than 70 years away? I guess it’s a little exciting. If I were to bump into him on the street I wouldn’t even know him.”
Said Levin, “It brought back memories. Memories of many, many years ago. It was a very nice, warm feeling. … I never thought I’d talk to him again. I often wondered what happened to him. I’m very much appreciative.”
In what was about a 45-miunte dialogue, the two did their best to catch up. They discussed their long careers — Lehman, the owner of printing company Sherwood Press, and Levin, a lifelong journalist for the Jerusalem Post and Time magazine — and their military service in World War II. Naturally, the topic of kids, grandkids and great-grandkids came up.
While the two distinctly remember each other, the details surrounding their one in-person encounter are, understandably, a bit hazy.
Levin explained that the two were initially put in touch by one of their rabbis, who organized some sort of synagogue fraternity. Levin, along with other teenage members of his synagogue visited Baltimore for an event, and he ended up housed with Lehman (then in his early 20s) at his residence on Eutaw Place.
Levin and Lehman spent the day together before attending a dance in the evening, and the next morning, Levin returned to Harrisburg. It’s possible the two discussed the prospect of arranging an inter-synagogue deb-ate during their time together that weekend.
“That was my whole contact with Merrill Lehman,” Levin said. “I wrote him a thank you note, and we had a bit of a correspondence, and after that we had no more contact.”
Like Lehman, Levin, too, was going through old papers, when he found the letters he received in the 1930s. When he sent his reply in 2006, Levin included his email address, home address and phone number.
By the time Phil Lehman, six years later, attempted to contact Levin, all that information had changed. The email Lehman sent bounced back, and the phone call he made didn’t go through.
“My assumption was that he was not alive, but I didn’t let it go. I wanted to see what I could do,” Phil Lehman said.
Lehman then began searching “Marlin Levin” in Google and found an April 2012 article the Jerusalem Post wrote about Levin. Lehman emailed the Post in hopes that someone there could provide him with contact information. He’s still waiting to hear back.
Finally, Lehman passed the torch to his niece, who lives in Alon Shvut, Israel, in hopes that she could determine if Levin was alive, and if so, where he was living. About two months later, Lehman’s niece delivered the much anticipated news. Levin was alive and well, residing at a senior home with his wife, Betty, in Jerusalem.
With updated contact information, Lehman could, at last, coordinate a time for his father and Levin to speak.
“We were never quite able to pull it off,” said Merrill Levin of the debate that never happened. “[The phone conversation] was very, very interesting and exciting. But when 60 or 70 years go by, the connection is not airtight.”
“It was very nice, and I was very grateful that I was able to make contact with Merrill,” Levin said. “It was a very good experience in 1936 to meet Merrill, although I don’t remember too much about the whole thing. You know, it’s a long time.”