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Milwaukee native finds a home in Jerusalem jazz
December 7th, 2001
Jerusalem — In retrospect, it is easy to see why Milwaukee-born Judy Levine, the classical-piano-fanatic, became Judy Lewis, the non-piano-playing ultra-Orthodox wife and mother-of-four, before reverting to her secular way of life and rediscovering her love for music. When the now Jerusalem-based jazz pianist Lewis gets into something, she doesn’t kid around.
Lewis, 43, first started playing the piano at the age of seven. “There was a law in the house,” she said. “You had to take one year of piano and, if you didn’t like it, you could quit. My brother went onto trumpet and my sister went onto violin and guitar. But I loved the piano.”
Initially she was exposed to a mixed musical bag in her Whitefish Bay home. “My mother sang opera, although not as a professional. We listened to a lot of classical records, but also to a lot of American folk music. My parents [Burt and Frieda Levine] belonged to an American folk dance and folk music club and they had parties — square dance parties, folk dance parties and sing-alongs. Folk music was really important to them. I’d get up in the morning and hear records by people like Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie, and also gospel and spirituals.”
As a young girl she practiced her keyboard skills almost all her non-school waking hours. Classical music became her driving force. Tchaikowsky, Beethoven and Chopin were all studied with great zeal, and Lewis’ life course seemed to be clearly mapped out.
Then, at the age of 16, she discovered religion in a big way; and the teenager from a free-thinking, Reform Milwaukee home began her journey into the ultra-Orthodox world.
Over the next couple of years, Lewis pursued a relentless quest to find meaning to life within a recognized religious framework. The religion bug stayed with her even after she moved to New York to start a bachelor’s degree in music at Columbia University. Eventually, she decided to take a break from her studies to spend a year at a girl’s yeshiva in Jerusalem.
At the end of the year, Lewis extended her yeshiva studies. That was to prove a crucial and life-changing decision.
Soon after that she was introduce to an ultra-Orthodox man and, within a couple of months, they married. Lewis spent the next ten years living as a non-piano-playing, ultra-Orthodox wife, and gave birth to four children.
But eventually, she grew dissatisfied with her religious life and divorced. Her rebellion extended into taking up the unhealthy habit of smoking — true to her uncompromising character she was soon getting through two to two-and-a-half packs a day — and she got heavily into jazz.
Lewis still finds it hard to believe that she married a man with no feeling for music. “Becoming religious may have been a way of rebelling against my Reform parents, but marrying a tone-deaf man is incredible,” she said. “That should have set off some sirens and red lights, but it didn’t. That is really ironic. You’re supposed to rebel against your parents, not against yourself.”
A couple of months ago, Lewis kicked the smoking habit. “I started smoking as soon as I got out of the marriage,” she recalled with a smile. “That was my first stage of rebellion.” In fact, carving a niche for herself, and fighting conformity appear to be staple features of Lewis’ life.
“My parents were seriously connected to Reform Judaism,” she said. “They hated it when I got married to an ultra-Orthodox man.”
When Lewis started thinking about upping her religious profile it caused a certain degree of conflict at home. “My mother refused to allow me to kasher [make kosher] even one burner on the stove so, basically, for two years I lived without any hot food. We Levine women are very strong-minded. My mother stands by her principles. My 18-year-old daughter’s the same way.”
Today, it is hard to imagine the jeans-clad, spiky-haired jazz pianist as the ultra-Orthodox wife and mother of four, hair covered and no piano in sight. During her ten-year marriage the thought of playing music again was not even consigned to the realm of wishful thinking. And it was not easy to find her way back to her first love.
Newly divorced, and with four children to support, for a while Lewis thought she was through with music. “That was the pits,” she said
Eventually, she set about completing the degree she had started a lifetime earlier at Columbia University, and even attained a music teacher’s certificate from the Rubin Academy of Music in Jerusalem. She initially tried to resume her classical music career but she discovered she had moved on. “Classical music just wasn’t it anymore.”
Lewis maintained her search for “the truth” unabated. “I am always looking for more inspiration, even salvation, although not in a religious sense.” Today, she feels she has rediscovered her “inspiration” in the form of jazz.
“I got into jazz by accident,” she recalled. “A friend asked me to go with her to a jazz concert in Ein Kerem [in Jerusalem] and I was amazed by what I heard and saw.” Her new direction was further enhanced by an encounter with veteran U.S.-born jazz saxophonist and educator Arnie Lawrence, now a resident of Jerusalem.
“Arnie was in Israel for a month or so one summer and I went to a gig of his,” she said. “My mind was blown by his playing and I asked him if I could have a lesson with him.” A three-hour conversation about what jazz is all about ensued. “That talk with Arnie opened up so many things for me.”
Two years ago, at the age of 41, she recorded her debut jazz album “Weaver of Dreams,” which was recently followed by “Prayer in Black and White.”
Amazingly, Lewis’ only exposure to jazz before the Ein Kerem concert was when she was 16 years old, when a friend invited her to his house to listen to some jazz records. The only thing she liked out of the friend’s voluminous LP collection was a record by pianist Keith Jarrett. Jarrett has remained a strong influence on her work, and this can clearly be heard in “Prayer in Black and White.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Lewis says she now understands why she made the transition from classical to improvised music. “The person who went into the time warp [of her non-musical ten-year marriage] was a person who felt comfortable in a structure, who was looking outside of herself for a certain level of confirmation. In many ways, I think that expressed itself in my choice of classical music.
“Classical music is a very structured, rigid type of media. In classical music someone else is telling me where the truth lies — it’s in this Chopin ballad. Today, I can’t imagine someone else telling me what and how to play. Jazz is about courage and daring. That’s what life is all about.”
For more information about Lewish, visit www.judylewisgroup.com.
Barry Davis is a freelance writer who covers jazz for the Jerusalem Post.