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Denise Levertov’s Poetic Gifts and Her Hidden Inheritance from Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Liadi

On the 20th anniversary of her death: How the influential Jewish apostate to Christianity and self-described ‘Hebrew-Christian’ Paul Philip Levertoff influenced the art and activism of his daughter

Shalom Goldman
December 20, 2017
Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Denise Levertov at the Living Theatre, New York, 1959.Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images
Denise Levertov at the Living Theatre, New York, 1959.Photo: Fred W. McDarrah/Getty Images

In 1935, a 12-year-old aspiring poet from London asked her father to show her poems to a literary critic he knew from work. Eager to encourage his precocious younger daughter’s artistic tendencies, Paul Levertoff, an Anglican cleric and scholar of religion, asked his friend T.S. Eliot to read his daughter Denise’s poetry. Levertoff knew Eliot well; the cleric and the critic had served together on a number of cultural committees organized by the Church of England. Eliot read the girl’s poems and sent her a two-page letter encouraging her to continue writing poetry. In 1944 Denise published her first essay, an account of her years as a nurse during the Blitz. In it she wrote, “The contact with tragic realities I consider very valuable. To feel death and poverty and disease and dirt, not merely to know them intellectually, made me appreciate the humor and gallantry and human virtues which sometimes spring from them like flowers from a wilderness.” In 1946 she published her first book of poems, The Double Image.

Unlike almost all English and American poets of her generation, Denise Levertoff had no formal education. She and her older sister, Olga, were schooled at home by their father, Paul Levertoff, and their mother, Beatrice Spooner Jones. Born and brought up in Wales, Beatrice loved poetry and encouraged her daughters to express themselves through the arts, while Paul Levertoff, a convert from Judaism to Christianity, enriched their education with readings from the Bible and from legends of the Christian and Jewish traditions. And, in a manner quite unusual for 1930s Britain, Paul Levertoff taught his daughters that Christianity and Judaism were compatible.

Paul’s path to the London suburb in which the family lived explains some part of the unique education he gave his daughters. Born to a Hasidic family in White Russia, Feivel Levertoff was educated at home by his father and local rabbis. As a teenager, he was sent to the prestigious Talmudic Academy at Volozhin, a bastion of the Misnagdim (the opponents of the Hasidim). So it was noteworthy that Levertoff was reputed to be related to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Lubavitch dynasty. According to his daughter Denise, Paul (Feivel) was the Rabbi’s great-grandson, tracing his lineage through one of Schneur Zalman’s daughters.

After a few years at the yeshiva, Feivel, a talented and precocious student, wanted to attend a university and get a secular education, an opportunity denied to all but a small quota of Russian Jews. He enrolled in the University of Königsberg in Germany, a school open to Jewish applicants, where he attended lectures on the Gospels and Christian doctrine. On his first visit home, Feivel told his father about his “discovery of the Messiah.” As Denise Levertov tells the story in her book Tessarae, “When my father met his father’s fury staunchly, it was decided in despair that he must be mad, and he was locked into his bedroom. He climbed through the window in the middle of the night and caught the train to Petersburg, and so back to Königsberg.” In 1894, at the age of 19, Levertoff was baptized into one of the Evangelical churches in Germany. Soon afterward he moved to London to work for the London Jews Society, whose formal name was the London Society for Promoting Christianity Among the Jews. At his baptism, Feivel Levertoff took the name Paul Phillip Levertoff.

In his autobiographical writings, Levertoff described his decision to be baptized as the culmination of a process that had begun a decade before he told his father of his “discovery of the Messiah.” In his account, the conversion process began when he was nine years old, when he found in a neighborhood street a discarded page of a Hebrew translation of the Gospel. The story of the Jewish boy chosen by God to lead Israel and redeem the world took Levertoff by surprise. Feivel’s father, when presented with that page of the Gospels, tore it up and threw it in the fire. To burn a page of Hebrew writing was, as young Feivel knew, a very unusual act. What was so scandalous, he wondered, about the text on the page? He burned with curiosity to learn the answer.

Her father’s “discovery” of Jesus was a recurring theme in Denise Levertov’s poetry and prose, where she imagined the scene of her father’s childhood discovery of Jesus as taking place in the deep of a Russian winter. In the late afternoon young Feivel was returning from playing with his friends on the icy banks of the Dnieper.

As he trudged homeward my father’s eye was caught by a scrap of printed paper lying in the gray, trampled snow. Though he was a playful, disobedient boy like any other, he was also—like his playmates—a little Talmud scholar, respectful of words; and he saw at a glance, too, that this paper was not printed in Russian but in Hebrew. So he picked it up and began to read. Could it be a fragment of Torah? Never before had he read such a story: about a boy like himself who—it said—was found in the Temple expounding the scriptures to the old, reverent, important rabbis!

My father took the scrap—it was obviously a page from a book—home to his father. The effect was startling. No one asked him where he had been, so his disobedience—risking his life once more in the strictly prohibited game of ice-floe riding—went unnoticed. (He would not have lied.) Instead, his father became angry—not with him, exactly, but rather with the text he had brought to show him. He tore it into pieces and thrust them into the stove. My father was vehemently told to avoid such writings, utterly, if ever he should again encounter them; but just what they were, and how to tell them from holy writ, was not explained. My father was awed to see written words destroyed—Hebrew words. It was not as if it had been a mere scrap of Russian newspaper.

Secretly, he wished he had not given up the mysterious fragment. Who was the wise boy in the story? Yet he knew he ought not to wonder. It was wrong; but he could not forget it.

Yet unlike virtually all 19th- and early 20th-century Jewish apostates to Christianity, Paul Levertoff insisted asserting his Jewish identity after his conversion; throughout his life, he identified himself as a “Hebrew-Christian.” He directed his considerable intellectual abilities toward creating a Hebrew-Christian liturgy and a Hebrew-Christian congregation. In his missionary activities, he sought to bring Jews into a religious life in which the two traditions were combined. It was this legacy that Levertoff sought to pass on to his daughters.

Rejected by his family, Levertoff persisted in his hope that they too would one day accept “the Christian Truth.” In choosing the name Paul, he noted: “The Jewish people have considered Paul its greatest heretic.” And he describes Paul’s religious development in terms similar to his own: “Paul’s family sends him to a yeshiva to study for the Rabbinate and later Paul may very well have studied in Tarsus’ equivalent of a university, where he became familiar with Greek thought.”

In 1901, Paul Philip Levertoff became a missionary for the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel, a London-based mission to the Jews. He was to work with the group’s Jewish-born Christian missionaries for the next decade. In his first five years with the organization, Levertoff was stationed in London where he wrote for the mission’s publication The Scattered Nation and produced Hebrew-language materials for its press, Edut Le Yisrael (“Witness to Israel”).

Levertoff’s Ben Ha-Adam, the first Modern Hebrew book about Jesus, was published in 1904. Its Hebrew subtitle was “Chayei Yeshua Ha-Mashiach Upealo” (The life of Jesus the Messiah and His Deeds), and its English title was The Son of Man: A Survey of the Life and Deeds of Jesus Christ. In the book’s introduction, Levertoff bemoans Jewish ignorance of the life of Jesus:

But how then would a “simple Jew” know about Jesus? Have any of the writers who are promoting a return to Zion and the revival of our language written about the Jesus who sought to return us to our land and revive our people? Have any of our modern writers living in the new twentieth century sought to convey the ideas of the man from whose date of birth the centuries are counted? Have our Hebrew writers, who are lustily quoting Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Kant and Tolstoy for our benefit, thought to quote the social ideas of Christian Messianism? Absolutely not! Yet, these writers have given us a Hebrew language life of Muhammad. A life of the Buddha will no doubt appear soon, as well as a book about the Mormons. But Jesus? Who would mention his name? Isn’t this a great irony and a terrible tragedy? And at the same time it is a puzzle, one that is difficult to solve.

In 1910, after a decade with the Hebrew Christian Testimony to Israel, Levertoff moved to Istanbul. There he served as a missionary to the Jews on behalf of the United Free Church of Scotland’s Jewish Committee. By the early 20th century, a Scottish school affiliated with the church was well established in Istanbul. It drew its teaching staff from England, Scotland, and Wales. Among the students were Muslims, Eastern Christians, and Jews from the Ottoman lands. And among the teachers was Beatrice Spooner-Jones of North Wales. Paul and Beatrice fell in love and were soon engaged to be married. As their daughter Denise Levertov put it, “Thus Celt and Jew met in Byzantium.”

After their 1911 wedding in England, the young couple went to Warsaw to serve as missionaries to that city’s large Jewish population. But within a year they were called to Leipzig, where Paul Levertoff was offered a teaching position at the Institum Judaicum (later named the Delitzschanum). This institute trained Protestant missionaries to Jews and had from its inception a professorship in Hebrew and Rabbinics. There, Levertoff taught courses on Biblical interpretation, Rabbinic texts, Jewish polemics, and the Yiddish language, subjects that the institute deemed useful for missionaries wishing to convert Jews. His predecessor in this professorship was Yechiel Lichtenstein, an Orthodox Rabbi who had converted to Christianity in the late 19th century.

Over the next decade, the Levertoffs had two daughters, Olga, born in 1914 in Germany, and Denise, born in 1923 in London. As a colleague of Levertoff’s noted, “Both girls were intellectually precocious and encouraged to be old beyond their years.” Olga sought to become her father’s intellectual and spiritual heir; Denise had ambitious artistic aspirations, which first expressed themselves in music and dance, and later in poetry and prose.

Returning to England after the end of World War I, the Levertoff family moved to Wales where Levertoff served as a church librarian while studying for the Anglican priesthood. In 1923 he was ordained as an Anglican priest by the Archbishop of Wales and soon afterward moved to London to establish a “Hebrew Christian Church.” In Levertov’s vision, this church would be part of the Anglican Communion, but it would have a Hebrew liturgy that would appeal to converts from Judaism. Once converted, those Jews would remain within this community.

In shaping this new congregation, Levertoff sought to create a church in “a congenial Jewish traditional environment where the essentials of Christian Faith and worship are expressed as much as possible in Jewish terms.” For his Hebrew Christian congregation, Levertoff wrote a Hebrew language prayer book that sought to blend Jewish and Christian liturgical traditions. Levertoff held the Hebrew service, which he titled “Se’udata Demalka Kadisha” (“The Meal of the Holy King, a Eucharistic Service”) on Saturdays. In the late 1930s, this service was held every Saturday in two London churches. On Sundays, Levertoff would preach in other London churches about his missionary activities. Levertoff also cultivated contacts in scholarly circles, including the British universities. He served as an examiner in Hebrew and Old Testament theology at the University of Leeds and on occasion was a guest lecturer at Lincoln, one of the Oxford Colleges.

His scholarly contacts were not limited to Christians or to other Jewish converts to Christianity. Jewish scholars, aware of his considerable erudition in both Jewish and Christian texts, would consult with Levertoff, but that consultation was done with some trepidation. Some Jewish scholars visited the Levertoff home in Ilford. The guests of the family, which included literary critics, poets, churchmen, Zionist leaders and refugee scholars, enriched the Levertoff sisters’ education. Rabbi Gaster, the British Sephardic Chief Rabbi, was among the family’s frequent guests.

While apostasy (shmad) constituted an act of “self-destruction” in the eyes of the Jewish community, each case differed and each individual apostate or “meshummad” fared differently. To some extent, this depended on the intentions of the apostate and the social and political situation of the local Jewish community. Before the mid-19th century, virtually all Jewish converts to Christianity were considered threats to both local Jews and to the larger Jewish world. They were apostates, or “meshummadim” in two senses—they had destroyed themselves by turning to Christianity and they were understood to be physical threats to the community they had left. Levertoff was deeply aware of these attitudes toward apostates, and he tried mightily to avoid being identified with famous, or infamous, Jewish apostates of the past. In contrast to them he never attacked the Jewish community, and with the rise of Nazism and the influx of Jewish refugees to England, Levertoff helped many refugees settle in London. For these reasons Levertoff was thought of by some influential British Jews as what Shulamit Magnus has called a “good bad Jew.” Though he had apostatized, and served as a missionary to Jews, he could on occasion be of service and benefit to the local Jewish community.

Paul Levertoff had spent the first four decades of his life on the move—in Russia, England, Palestine, Turkey, Poland, Germany, and Wales. For 30 years, until his death in 1954, he found a stable home at London’s Holy Trinity Church, a small Anglican congregation in Shoreditch. It was in this London congregation that Levertoff articulated his vision for a Hebrew-Christian Church. Its congregants would be,

a group within the universal Church composed of racially, intellectually, and spiritually conscious Jews who, having accepted Christianity and become conscious Christians, refuse to renounce their Jewish identity, since they believe this to be entrenched and completed in Christ.

During his London decades, Levertoff was also in contact with Hans Herzl, the only son of Theodore Herzl, who had been living in England since his youth. After his father’s death, the World Zionist Organization arranged for Hans to be educated at an English public school and then at Cambridge University. The young man came to Paul Levertoff’s church after having converted to Catholicism, which he later renounced. Tragically, Hans Herzl later committed suicide after the death of his sister from a drug overdose.

In those three decades in London—from 1923 to his death in 1954—Levertoff became, in the words of Dana Greene, one of Denise Levertoff’s biographers, “an immensely productive intellectual.” His busy social and clerical schedule did not impede his scholarly production. Rather, these two aspects of his life strengthened and reinforced each other. And these contacts and activities had a profound influence on his daughters. Of this period, Denise Levertov wrote that “I knew before I was 10 that I was an artist-person and I had a destiny … humanitarian politics came early into my life: I saw my father on a soapbox protesting Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia; my father and sister both on soapboxes protesting Britain’s lack of support for Spain; my mother canvasing long before those events for the League of Nations Union; and all three of them working on behalf of the German and Austrian refugees from 1933 onwards.”

As he grew older, Paul Levertoff designated his eldest daughter Olga as his intellectual heir, and he transmitted to her the essential elements of his personal Jewish-Christian synthesis, while Denise’s engagement with the arts superseded her other interests. Her unconventional and rebellious behavior disappointed both her parents. They disapproved of her strong identification with the British Left and of her volunteering to fight in the Spanish Civil War. Olga identified her own rebelliousness with her father’s. “From the beginning, he was a rebel,” she wrote. In her books and pamphlets, Olga expounded on her father’s observation that “Christianity is Judaism with its hopes fulfilled,” and pointed out that, “from the age of eighteen … Paul Levertoff had been following a consistent path—the way of reconciliation between church and synagogue, between Jew and Gentile, between the Christianity influenced by Hellenistic concepts and the ‘Jerusalem Church’ from which it developed.”

Olga Levertoff understood well the price her father paid for his missionary activities and his attempts at shaping a Jewish-Christian synthesis. She wrote that “from the day Levertoff became a Christian the enmity of the Jewish community was directed against him. The very fact that he was sincere in his profession made his apparent apostasy the more heinous a crime.” While some in the Jewish community shunned Paul Levertoff, his adopted Christian community was not completely at ease with him either. As biographer Dana Greene noted, “The Church of England did not quite know what to do with him. His vocation was both to Jews—to show that Christian was not alien to them, and to Gentiles—to point out the Jewish origins of Christianity and thereby illustrate that anti-Semitism was incompatible with Christian life.”

For students of American religion and the Christian-Jewish relationship in the United States, Paul Levertoff’s work, long neglected by scholars, has attracted attention because of the emergence of “Messianic Judaism.” Levertoff’s comparative study of Hasidism and Pauline thought, Love and the Messianice Age (1923), has been adopted as a core text by American Messianic congregations. And Levertoff’s yarzeit, the anniversary of his death, is now marked among both American and Israeli “mashichiyyim” or Messianic Jews. As Boaz Michael wrote in 2009, when “Levertoff wrote Love and the Messianic Age, modern Messianic Judaism did not yet exist; today it is an important book for Messianic Judaism and Christianity.” As Jorge Quinonez noted in 2002, Levertoff is “more relevant to us than he was 75 years ago when he seemed nothing more than a fringe theological curiosity. … He helped the Hebrew-Christian movement push in directions which reflected the modes of thought of traditional Judaism.”

After the end of WWII, Olga stayed in London and carried on her father’s work. Denise went to the United States in 1947 and married an American, Mitchell Goodman. She kept her maiden name and changed the spelling to Levertov. They met at a youth hostel in Paris. In a letter to a friend Denise described him in this way: “He’s 24, Jewish parents, has been through Harvard, had an interesting job there doing sociological research. … He’s tall and dark and though I can’t honestly say he’s handsome, he’s not ordinary or floppy looking. And he’s good—he’s got a real damn-good-to-honest goodness character.”

Denise’s observation that Goodman’s parents were Jewish is quite telling. For Goodman’s family was assertively secular Jews. Neither Mitch or his brother had a Bar Mitzvah, and the Goodman family found Denise’s engagement with religious questions unsettling. She found their “bourgeois concerns” stifling. As Denise Levertov biographer Donna Hollenberg noted, “Jewishness for Mitch’s family was a fact of descent and ethnic identity but not of religious practice.”

In 1996, the year before she died, Levertov was asked if she considered herself a “Jewish poet,” she said:

I don’t consider myself a Jewish poet. Nor do I consider myself a Welsh, English, American, New York, Massachusetts, Californian, or Seattle poet, nor a Catholic poet. I cannot be categorized.

Yet after her father’s death in 1954, Levertov began to take an interest in Hasidic thought. She felt that studying Hasidism was the best way to honor his memory. She read carefully and deeply in Martin Buber’s Tales of the Hasidim—and was especially pleased to find it in stories of her father’s possible ancestor, Rabbi Shneur Zalman of Ladi. She told an interviewer that “My father’s Hasidic ancestry, his being steeped in Jewish and Christian scholarship and mysticism, his fervor and eloquence as a preacher, were factors built into my cells.”

In the early 1960s, Denise contacted Rabbi Moishe Levertov of the Lubavitcher Hasidim, seeking information about her father’s family and its putative ties to Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. Rabbi Levertoff acknowledged that Paul/Feivel was a relative, and wrote to Denise to say that Pauls’ apostasy was explained within the family in this way: Feivel’s father had arranged a marriage for the young Feivel within the Chabad community; Feivel refused to marry the girl and ran away.

Paul Levertoff was not the first apostate among the descendants of the Chabad founder; Moshe, son of Schneur Zalman of Liadi, had apostatized to the Russian Orthodox Church in the early 19th century, a scandal, or shandah that the Hasidim have tried to obscure or deny for two centuries.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Denise composed a number of poems about her father. In “The Peddler’s Pack” she imagines her father going home from his studies at Königsberg University and telling his father of his “discovery of the Messiah”:

You bore such news, so longed-for,
Fulfilling a hope so ancient
it had almost become dry parchment
not hope any more.

At the station you hailed a droshky
Greeted the driver like a brother.
At last there was the street,
There was the house:

But when you arrived
They would not listen
They laughed at you.
And then they wept.
But would not listen.

I have something personal of my own to add to that poem. In 1965-6 Denise Levertov was a visiting professor at New York’s City College. Through a high school friend, I heard that she was teaching a course on American poetry at CCNY Uptown. My friend and I knew of Levertov, and of other young American poets, from the eccentric bohemian English teachers at our Orthodox high school on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. At the insistence of our Rabbis, the students in our yeshiva were shielded from non-Orthodox Jews. Our Talmud classes were, of course, taught by our “Rebbes.” Our “English classes,” which meant everything but Talmud, were without exception taught by non-Jews. The yeshiva paid them low wages and it didn’t demand that they had the city teacher’s licenses required of New York City public school teachers.

Among these teachers were poets, artists and musicians; many of them lived in Greenwich Village or the Lower East Side. (In 1965 the East Village had not yet been invented.) One of them, Mr. Brelsford, introduced us to the work of the Beat poets and to the poetry of Denise Levertov, Robert Creeley, and other poets of the 1950s and ’60s. The following year Brelsford was fired when the principal walked into the classroom and found him strumming a guitar and reading French poetry to the yeshiva bochrim in his class.

On a fall day in September 1965, I took the subway uptown to the City College campus. When I introduced myself to Professor Levertov she asked me to repeat my first name. I told her that it was Shalom, and in answer to a further question told her that Shalom was my given name, not a spiritual name that I had adopted in mid-1960s fashion. She asked if I was a “yeshiva boy.” When I said that I had been raised as one, she told me about her father. He too, she said had been a yeshiva bochur. I realized that at the time she hadn’t met any American yeshiva students. In a conversation after that first class, Denise Levertov told me quite a bit about her father’s yeshiva education, his conversion to Christianity, and his marriage to her mother, Beatrice, the Celtic mystic.

The poetry course I took with her was a seminar; there were a dozen students enrolled. It was not a creative writing course (those would only come later in the decade) but rather a very intense immersion in American and British poetry of the midcentury. The course influenced me deeply, and I suspect, led to my resolve to one day be a university lecturer.

That Denise Levertov was a lifelong religious seeker can hardly be wondered at. In her last decade, she converted to Catholicism. Her engagement with the Catholic Workers Movement and particularly with its very assertive pacifism was the background and catalyst for her conversion. She spent her last few years in Seattle, where she died 20 years ago today in 1997.

In the past decade, Levertov’s poetry and prose have been discovered by a new generation of American readers and writers. Quite recently one of the most widely-read contemporary American poets, Mary Oliver, had this to say about her:

Denise Levertov was musical, fierce, absolute in her honesty and, for us, her public, as indispensable as any modern poet. To young writers asking for direction, Denise Levertov’s name comes to my tongue, always, among the very first of our important forebears. Her work was, and is, a brave gift to us all.

Shalom Goldman is Professor of Religion at Middlebury College. His most recent book is Starstruck in the Promised Land: How the Arts Shaped American Passions about Israel.