J. Levine Co.
A Modern Tradition

"JUDAICA BOOK NEWS", 1981"



    In Vilkameer, Lithuania, in 1890, my great-grandfather, Hirsh Lany, a Sofer (holy scribe), founded a firm that supplied Torahs and other religious articles to communities throughout Europe and America. In 1905, because of pogroms and the deterioration of Jewish communities in the area, he and his family moved to America and settled on the Lower East Side of New York. Here he developed a distribution center for European Torahs, Tfillin and Taleisim.
    In 1920 my grandfather, Joseph Levine, expanded the business to include the manufacturing of embroidered and sewn religious articles. J. Levine Co. became a major manufacturer of synagogue ark covers, Torah covers, and embroideries. Back at the turn of the century there was a need for only one Bible and Prayer book, a few Hebrew textbooks and a small selection of English-language Judaica. The entire stock required only a few shelves.
    After the Second World War the third generation of Levines, my uncles Melvin and Harold, and my father, Seymour, began to expand the company into a department store for the Synangogue, school and Jewish home. For the Synagogue they started manufacturing furniture, menorahs, eternal lights, and wedding canopies. For the school, they developed a line of textbooks and educational supplies. For the home, they offered books of Judaic interest, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Cantorial records and a line of ritual and gift items.
    Each generation of Levines has tried to respond to the needs of the time. In 1951 my father sensed the importance of offering service to all the professional in Judaism. He found the opportunity to reach out to them by exhibiting at their annual conferences and conventions. Eventually this developed into a source of revenue for many of these organizations as they expanded this concept into formalized commercial displays. The convention phenomenon has become an ideal way to introduce new books, products and services to the rabbis, educators, cantors, librarians, chaplains, and Hillel directors who attend the more than thirty different conferences at which the J. Levine Co. exhibits each year.
    If I was to try to pinpoint the major reason for our success and growth in the past quarter century I would have to name Rabbi Philip Kastel, the manager of our establishment for over twenty five years, is a marvel of a man. Not only does he know where every book is on each of the seven floors but he knows almost all of our customers, what they use, and where they live. Never have I known a person more dedicated to bookselling. Trained and ordained at Yeshivah Torah VDaas, Rabbi Kastel is probably on of the most knowledgeable individuals in the field of Judaica today.
    The Mocher Sforim (Jewish bookseller) has always held an important positioning Jewish society. However, when I was in graduate school getting my degree in public relations, it was not the industry I thought I was training myself for. But now after working for two years in our company I see great potential in our industry. There has never been such a proliferation of English Judaica. Whether its the Bantam Jewish Book Shelf, the ArtScroll Series, or the New Jewish Yellow Pages there is much more available in the market than ever before. With the increase in the number of titles is also coming sophistication in the quality of the books being produced. Following this pattern I see the nature of the Jewish bookseller refining itself. Whether its Jack Roths fancy store in Beverly Hills or Israel Book Shops spacious store in Boston, Jewish books are no longer just thrown on tables and shelves. There is quality merchandising to go along with the quality merchandise.


    We are dealing today with a change in the nature of the Jewish population. There is an ever-increasing number of young people reaching out and coming back to Judaism. This is generating a whole new market of people buying all kinds of Judaica. Not having been brought up in it they find excitement in every aspect of Judaism and try to understand it fully.
    Basically we are a specialized but diversified company serving a wide cross section of the world Jewry. J. Levine Co. carries everything from Humanism Judaism and Reform to Chassidism and Aggudah. We find it important to present the full range of Judaica available especially for the many professional who rely on us for resource material, be it a lay leader at an army base in Panama, a Rabbi from Japan, a book store manager in South Africa, a librarian at the Vatican in Rome, or a member of the Ministry of Education in the Israeli Government.
    Our full-color Gallery of Judaica catalogue which was just published in the fall catalogues the hundreds of items that are available from us aside from books. We did a mailing to Synagogues and Rabbis throughout the world and are now selling the catalogue to the public for $5.
    In the New Jewish Yellow Pages by Mae Rockland (published by SBS)it is mentioned that as the fourth generation of the J. Levine Co. I have been given the responsibility of bringing the firm into the 80s and 90s. I have many ideas to further raise the level and scope of our business. My plans include renovating our building to make browsing more pleasant and to create an educational resource center. It is here where rabbis, educators, and cantors will be able to view graded textbooks and teaching aids, find an impartial selection of materials of all publishers and make use of our media center. J. Levine Co. was the first in our line to have its own computer system, and I hope to continue in this pattern of progress.
    Some of my other ideas include the opening of a Yiddish book section-something which has been absent from our store for two generations. I am now in the process of negotiating with an uptown department about opening a J. Levine Judaica boutique. In the future I would hope to open up small branches of our store in those large cities in the U. S. and overseas which have no local Jewish book store, possibly in the local Jewish Community Center.
    We look forward to the renovation of our neighborhood in the near future, but hope to keep the nostaligia of the Jewish Lower East Side alive, where we have been located since 1905.
    It is the possibility of spreading Yiddish and at the same time bringing sophistication to this honorable industry, that excites me. It is the mixture of the traditions that I am carrying on from my great-grandfather and the modern merchandising and ideas that I am trying to use to promote and sell, that inspired me to create our slogan A Modern Tradition Since 1890. I want to improve and develop our industry in a way that glorifies and embellishes the tradition that I so humbly carry forth.