I’m Naomi Schottenstein and I’m interviewing Aaron Leventhal. I’m
going to let Aaron tell us a little bit about where he lives and his name and so
forth. And we’re going to start with you Aaron.
Leventhal: Okay. My name’s Aaron Leventhal, Aaron Jay, J-A-Y, Leventhal and
I live in German Village at 759 City Park with my wife Beth, our dog Sunshine
and our cats Slam and Ciman.
Interviewer: Great names. And they’re beautiful animals. Aaron do you have –
can you tell me anything about your Jewish name?
Leventhal: Aharon ben Avraham, Aaron son of Jack and my father Jack
Leventhal, may he rest in peace, his name was Abraham and they called him Jack
and so that’s that.
Interviewer: Was this your original family name, Leventhal?
Leventhal: No, Leventhal was the name that was given to my grandpa Louie
Leventhal when he came off the boat in 1907 from Belarus, which they called
White Russia. He came in 1907 to the immigration port at Baltimore and the name
was Leviathan, L-E-V-I-A-T-H-A-N and in fact we have relatives in Israel that
still have the name Leviathan and they just changed his name to Leventhal right
there as they did with so many other immigrants. That’s the name we have.
Interviewer: I know you’re not, you’re not originally from
Columbus are you?
Leventhal: No I’m from Cleveland, Ohio, Cleveland Heights, Ohio, to be
Interviewer: And how is it that your family came to Cleveland?
Leventhal: Well it’s a great story and I’ve written about it at length in
a number of features. I’m a professional writer and I wrote a long feature on
Grandpa Louie Leventhal. Grandpa Leventhal came from a very renowned family in
terms of wealth and scholarship in the country that we talked about, Belarus,
from a little town called Dachschitz. He never wanted to tell anyone he was from
Dachschitz and we only learned late in life because once he learned English he
said that wasn’t a very respectable name but it’s spelled . . . .
Interviewer: Could you tell us, yeah, how it’s spelled?
Leventhal: It’s spelled totally different. I have a, the reason I know a
lot of this is that my cousin in Israel, Aaryeh Leviathan, actually didn’t
get out of Russia till after World War II so he’s kind of like the family historian and once
Grandpa Louie left, he never, never went back and so basically we do have a
history but Grandpa went into the Czar’s army in the early 20th century. He was not supposed to go. His older brother was supposed to go but the grandfather paid off certain officials, didn’t want his older son to go, so Grandpa Louie who was a flutist, a very accomplished musician and Jewish scholar, yeshiva bocher, went into the Czar’s army, ran away, went AWOL, got to America through Baltimore, went to New York and worked in the sweat shops of the lower east side and right off of Delancey Street and had my aunt
Millie Naft, Millie and Al and Nathan, and then he heard about a great business
opportunity, he was fixed up through a matchmaker by the way and married Grandma
Fannie, whose father was a butcher in Brooklyn.
Interviewer: Let me stop you for a second. You mentioned your aunt and uncle
and you told me their last name. Can you spell it for us, Naft, Naft?
Leventhal: N-A-F-T is, is, the sister was Naft. And then anyway he heard about a great business opportunity in Cleveland. There was a broom company for sale. So he went to Cleveland, heard about it through a relative. The company consisted essentially of one handmade, manual machine that would make brooms by hand in the garage behind this house in Cleveland and decided that this was an opportunity and so his family moved to
Cleveland and the rest is, you know, one of the great American success stories
we all hear about. He had three more sons, my father Jack, and then he had
Harry, George and Fred. There were six sons and a daughter and they grew, it’s
a long story but they grew to be the largest broom manufacturing company in the
world at one time, Sunshine Industries, and then the sons went on to Springfield
and formed Vining Broom which was acquired by O Cedar some years back. There’s
still some cousins operating both businesses but basically that’s what I grew
up as a child in the broom business in Cleveland, Ohio.
Interviewer: Did you ever work in that factory?
Leventhal: Yeah. I would load trucks for, as a kid, for the company and I
would make deliveries after school in station wagons. My father was a broom
peddler and so someday I’ll write the book called The Broom Peddler’s Son.
Something I want to do some day, but it’s, it’s really, it’s one of those great Jewish sagas of a family and how they created this business
and developed the business and . . . .
Interviewer: It could even become a movie.
Leventhal: It could even become a movie.
Interviewer: Let me ask you, you mentioned your grandfather. Were there other
. . . .
Leventhal: He was called Lazer. Louie was Lazer Leventhal was
his name but it was Louie Leventhal and, very renowned. I’m very proud of my
grandfather. My grandfather was the President of the Number One Orthodox shul in Cleveland which became Taylor Road Synagogue. If you know Taylor Road
Synagogue . . . .
Interviewer: . . . . Still there.
Leventhal: Yeah. On Taylor Road. He was one of the founders and President
when it was in the city, in Cleveland, before the Jews moved to the east side
suburbs, Grandpa Louie. So he was Orthodox. Because he had to earn a living, he
worked on Saturday even though they kept kosher. Then essen-tially his sons
became Conservative and all my cousins essentially are Reform or not religious
so it’s another part of the American Jewish experience.
Interviewer: Kind of . . . . through that.
Interviewer: Yeah. But are there certain traditions that your family still
Leventhal: Yeah well they’re very, the family as a whole is very committed
to Jewish philanthropy. They’re all major charitable contributors. They all
support Israel very major with major involvement and contributions and it’s
another whole story about the cousins that have lived on kibbutsim and
such as me, I’ve lived and worked in Israel and been there nine different
times, sometimes for as long as a year. So, but there’s, today there’s
nobody that is practicing in an Orthodox manner. There’s some cousins that are
Conservative and, but most are Reform or they, they’re just unaffiliated.
Interviewer: Did you, you lived in Cleveland as a child, you lived in
Cleveland all your childhood . . . .
Leventhal: Cleveland Heights; Cleveland and then Cleveland Heights. And then
I came to Ohio State after spending a year at Miami and was a student at Ohio
State and studied Business, particularly Marketing and had some great
professors, one of them Theodore Beckman, if you remember Dr. Beckman in
Marketing. So I got a degree in Marketing and made a decision I didn’t want to
be in a business with all those uncles and all those cousins. We wound up with
four first cousins in the business as well as the three uncles. So in the
Summers I would always go to camp, Camp Wise was the Jewish Federation camp in
Interviewer: It’s still in operation.
Leventhal: Yeah? So I would go to camp every Summer, Jewish camps, in particular
Conestoga, a lot of different Jewish camps. And so I was interested in it and
after I got this undergrad degree I decided I would be interested in running my
own camp and so I went to Indiana University and got a Master’s in Recreation
and Park Administration and spent more time working. I worked at Emma Kaufman
Camp, the Pittsburgh Jewish Center Camp outside of Pittsburgh and Blue Star
Camp. Worked at a number of places and actually had a camp that’s still going.
It’s called “Days of Creation ‘ Arts for Children,” arts for kids,
and it’s in its 21st year.
And I started that program here at, in Columbus, Ohio, but that’s kind of a
diversion. What I wound up doing was, after I got that degree I ran student
unions in the 60s. I was Director of Programming at Indiana University of
Pennsylvania (IUP) and Prince George’s Community College and then through my
student union work and through my background in recreation and so forth, just a
curious set of circumstances took place where Rabbi Gainer who was Hillel
Director got very ill, had cancer, and I had been to Israel for the period of
time prior to, this was 1970.
I had gotten a degree from Ohio State, B.S. Degree in Marketing in ’64. Got
a Master’s in ’66 from Indiana University in Recreation Administration. And
then ran student unions through the rest of the 60s. Was in Israel for a period
of time. Came back, happened to be in Cleveland and Rabbi, our Rabbi, Assistant
Rabbi at Park Synagogue, our family was affiliated with Park Synagogue,
Assistant Rabbi asked what I was doing and I said, “Well nothing at this
moment.” And he said, and I was living in Washington, D.C. at the time when
I came back from Israel. He said, “Well I have a friend there at the
National Hillel office. You should talk to him. You have an interesting
So I went there and it was just one of these serendipitous
moments in life where I had been a student at Ohio State, I had run these
college student unions for a number of years, and there was this rabbi that was
very ill and they wanted somebody to fill in for about six months till they
hired another rabbi. And so I was looking to go back into my field which was
student personnel and student union professional career in that field and so I
took this job for six months. Miriam Yenkin was on the board at the time, Lee
Skilken, Malcolm Robbins, on and on, all these people. And basically we took a
very moribund institution and I ran all kinds of free university classes and
coffeehouse and music and speakers and we created a Jewish student union which
is very interesting. I was complimented about that by Joseph Kohane, who is at
Hillel now. Uh huh, he looked in the files almost 20 years later after I left
and he saw the files and he called me up and he said, “I was looking
through the files,” he said, “and you were doing things 20 years
before anybody else was doing it because that’s the concept today to not be a shul on campus but to be a student center, which was very unusual at that time.”
Interviewer: But were there student unions before that at . . . . Hillels?
Leventhal: No, Hillels were basically being run as synagogues on campus with
kosher meals and davening and services and very little of the dynamic
sense of like the Hillel today at Ohio State with all kinds of activities,
social and cultural and, you know, different kind, everything from, you know,
fitness programs and so forth, so. So I ran the Hillel, I was going to leave
after six months and the board said, “We want him to stay,” and so
basically I continued to do what I was doing and then the National Hillel said,
“If you’re going to be a professional in this,” I was like the first
non-rabbi, I always like to be a “non,” (laughs) non-entity, but I was
the first non-rabbi that was running a major Jewish institution on the college
campus for B’nai B’rith and now today it’s very normative to find people
like Joseph that are not rabbis. But at the time that was very revolutionary so
they said, “You need to get a Master’s Degree at Ohio State. They have a
Jewish Studies Program that we think very highly of.” So I went part time
for six years and took courses from, you know, the giants of American Jewish
academics, Marvin Fox, Marc Raphael, Robert Chasin, just Yehrel Hayon, just
tremendous faculty that I took courses from and in 1976, I completed a Master’s
in Jewish Studies and I stayed till 1980. In 1980 I decided to stake out a
career in special event fund raising.
Interviewer: Well I’m going to have you go back just a little bit. You
mentioned Rabbi Gainer and I know that part of, some of his family have been
interviewed but I’d like to have your interpretation of your relationship with
Leventhal: I only knew him a few months till he passed away in 1970 but I
found him a very lovely man, a very kind man. I got to know his wife who has
since passed away and Moses and the twins. He was a Reconstructionist rabbi and
he was very, you know, basically open that, you know, there’s always a tension
working at Hillel to this day because you have the Orthodox, Conservative and
Reform and Recon- structionist and secular Jews and you got this whole mix of
people and everybody perceives of their Judaism as the, you know, the one that
should prevail and be the dominant force and you have to somehow work with all
the different denominations and points of view. And he was very open to
everybody and so in that sense he was an inspiration to me because that’s what
we did when he passed away and I became Director. I had three different rabbis I
worked with. In the early 70s, I started in ’70 and ended in ’80 so during
those ten years I had Jeff Siegel who was this young Hassidic rabbi. He
was a colleague of mine. Then I had Chaim Feller who went on to UCLA where he’s
been Head Rabbi for over 20 years at UCLA in the Hillel movement. And then I had
Paul Golum who’s a Reform rabbi and Chaim was an Orthodox rabbi. So we had the
full range of rabbis that I worked with over those ten years.
Interviewer: Yeah I appreciate your giving us the picture because we haven’t
had a lot of information that I know in that field and you certainly were
involved with that.
Leventhal: Well I was and it is, there’s, it’s a great history because B’nai
B’rith owned the college campus and they basically ran, like I said, the
Hillels as the campus religious center and cultural center, you know, because
Rabbi Kaplan had many cultural activities. He had theater as we know and lots of
things but basically it was perceived primarily through these rabbis as
religious institutions and I was part of the evolution of the Federation
becoming the dominant player on campuses, having the resources, having a, you
know, a broader view of what a college campus center should be. So I, you know,
I was part of that whole kind of evolution and change that took place in the
70s. It was an interesting time. You had Soviet Jewry was a big thing. I had all
kinds of marches down High Street, you know, we had a free university. I had
one, I was running almost a thousand students a quarter, believe it or not, out
of a Hillel free university and we were the pre-predecessors of what became the
Student Union Cap Program for years. The Creative Arts Program grew out of
something like we were doing. And I worked closely with Mim Chenfeld, still a
friend of mine today. And so there was a lot of changes that took place in the
Interviewer: What can you tell us about Hillel today? Hillel . . . .
Leventhal: Just that I’m very impressed with it today. I’ve been away for
over 20 years and like very much what I, I like the new building and I like the
diversity of activities and they have a great lecture series and outreach
programs and just all kinds of things for every interest on campus and I think
they’re doing a great job. Yeah community and faculty, sure.
Interviewer: Great, well you’ve given us a good review of Hillel and your
background there. I’m going to go back just a little bit . . . .
Interviewer: . . . . Do you remember any, do you have any buddies, neighbors
that you remember in the . . . . in Cleveland that you’re in touch with at
all? Do you have any contact?
Leventhal: Yeah I, first and foremost I’m still close with my cousins. I go
back to Cleveland often and even though most of the family has moved to other
cities or have, are deceased or whatever, but I have, I’m close with my
cousins still in the company, Donald Leventhal and Leonard Naft and I’m close
with some of the students that were at Hillel, are now, you know, close to 50
years old. Things go fast so one of my closest friends is a former student.
Steven Wexberg is a pediatrician, been practicing for close to 20 years, so I
see him often and his family.
Interviewer: And you enjoy the nachas from his kids.
Leventhal: Yeah, right. Dennis Seeman is a high school friend. He’s a big
attorney downtown. Stuart Garson from Seaway Foods, is an attorney downtown, was
a Hillel student and would operate our coffeehouse at Hillel to make, kept
connections with them. So yeah, I get back to Cleveland often.
Interviewer: Do you have siblings, brothers and sisters?
Leventhal: I only have one brother, Harold Leventhal and unfortunately he
died of cancer, melanoma, at 50, about 10 years ago. So . . . .
Interviewer: And where did he live?
Leventhal: Cleveland. He was with the business also.
Interviewer: And did he have children?
Leventhal: Yes he had a son Jeffrey who is in New York City and his daughter
Allison is in Denver and I have two daughters, Shayne and Danielle.
Interviewer: And where are they?
Leventhal: Shayne is around the corner, lives in German Village. She’s 31.
She is a college graduate from Ohio State in Education, Art Education, and she
now works for the past year full time at Faith Mission as a resource counselor
giving homeless people jobs. That’s her full time job, finding jobs for the
homeless. My other daughter Danielle is 29 and she’s in a Master’s program
on a full fellowship at University of Illinois, Chicago, in art, particularly
sculpture and video. So the two daughters.
Interviewer: And they sound very creative like . . . .
Leventhal: They are.
Interviewer: like their father.
Leventhal: Well they’re fine girls.
Interviewer: Yeah. Are either of them married?
Leventhal: No not yet. We’re hoping.
Interviewer: Okay, I hope so too.
Interviewer: So you can tell us about grandchildren later at another time. Do
you have any stories about how your parents met? Well first of all, let’s back
up. These are questions that sometimes I start at the beginning but . . . .
Leventhal: Sure. Do you take these pieces and edit into a piece?
Interviewer: Sometimes we do, sometimes we do. It just depends how much help
Leventhal: So basically this is the raw material . . . .
Interviewer: What you see is what you got.
Leventhal: It’s there. Aaron Leventhal will be somewhere in the archives.
Interviewer: You got it.
Interviewer: You got it. Not only that but on computer too, on the web.
Interviewer: Give us your mother and dad’s full name.
Leventhal: My mother is Rosalyn Horowitz, H-O-R-O-W-I-T-Z from Cleveland and
Jack Leventhal. And my mother had a very fascinating and difficult life as a
child. Her father died of pneumonia when he was in his early 30s. Her mother
Minnie Horowitz, an immigrant from Poland, had five children and all five wound
up at the famous home in Cleveland, Belfair or Montefiore now, the Belfair Home
for the Jewish Orphans. So my mother grew up essentially 15 years in an orphan
home. Right, her mother could not raise the kids and work at the same time so
all the children were raised in this orphan home with very famous people that
went on to tremendous successes out of that Belfair. And she still goes to
reunions, you know, 50, 60, 70 year reunions.
Interviewer: . . . . people who I’ve heard of in Columbus who . . . .
Interviewer: grew up that way too.
Leventhal: Yeah, yeah. So that was my mother and she grew up that way. And
then she was working out of high school in sales at the May Company and had a
couple of friends, Gertie Miller and Ida Baylis that remained her life-long
friend till they passed away. My mother’s, right now she’s 86, living in
North Miami Beach and she’s going to be moving this year to Aventura, to a new
assisted living complex that’s being built by the Hyatt Hotel so she’s, she
lost my dad two years ago and Jack Leventhal passed away at 86 and he lived a
very good life.
Interviewer: Tell me about your childhood, some of your memories as a kid of
maybe how your family, well you said that . . . .
Leventhal: Well one of the things that shaped my life is that my parents
loved to travel and I’ve spent 30 years as a professional travel writer and
the impetus for that was, you know, the fun of traveling and I actually have
scrapbooks that go back 50 years that I would keep and put post cards and write
little journals and I’ve probably written over 500 stories that have been
published in terms of travel features now.
Interviewer: Well that’s a change of career.
Leventhal: Yeah we would go to, what, we would go to New York City, we would
go to Washington, we would go to the Catskills, go down to Florida and stay at
South Beach. My Grandpa Louie would spend his winters there when he was in
retirement in the 50s, which is now Ocean Drive, the very posh Ocean Drive was
where he would go to this Jewish area. So I would do a lot of traveling and that
stayed a part of my life and something that I really enjoy and they were
associated with a fascinating program called “Alowise” which was the
alumni of Camp Wise and they would have these famous, famous weekends where
hundreds of people would come out to Camp Wise after the camp season and they
would do sports and they would put on plays and they would have big costume
balls. I mean it was like an amazing phenomena that we know nothing about today
but it was absolutely THE thing to do in Cleveland was to be involved with this
Alowise, this alumni out of, and there would be mother’s camp where the kids
would go with their mothers to a special program. And so . . . .
Interviewer: Created many memories, didn’t it?
Leventhal: Yeah. Well it just created my career. I liked those things and
they were close to me and that led to me going into, professionally into camps
and recreation programs and travel and it’s been part of my career to this
Interviewer: That sounds great, like a lot of fun. You had a great, fun
Leventhal: Absolutely. I had a trauma in my life that shaped my life big,
very big. I was in a batting range hitting balls when I was 13 after my Bar
Mitzvah and the machine stuck and I turned and I turned back and the ball
hit me and I would up with a detached retina. I spent the better part of a year
in a hospital blindfolded while they were trying to heal the back of the eye
which you can do now in a three-hour outpatient. But in those days in the 50s
there was, it was a totally different world. So that was, that shaped my life a
lot that I was very active, very athletic and then this thing comes down and so
I was not allowed to do sports for a couple of years and I had to be very
sedentary and was worried about since I was blind in one eye, losing the other
sight in the other eye and so this led to a lot of reading so there was kind of
a ying and yang in my life. I have this kind of reading and writing part and I’m
a very shpilkey, very active hustler on the other part. So (laughs) . . .
Interviewer: Did you lose the sight in that . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah. I got it back. In about ten years ago I had a cataract and
when I got the cataract, the operation on the cataract, the doctor said, ”
I can put in a lens and you’ll be able to see,” and he threw a lens in
and I can’t see to read but I actually can see for the first time about ten
years ago, after about 40 years of . . . .
Interviewer: That’s really amazing.
Interviewer: That’s pretty amazing. Well that’s interesting. You
mentioned your Bar Mitzvah. Can you give us any memories of your Bar
Leventhal: Yeah. Bar Mitzvahs were very big time in the 50s when I
came of Bar Mitzvah age. At Park Synagogue they were, you know,
everything that you would see in, you know, “Goodbye Columbus,” big
affairs. They were, you know, like weddings. Today there’s nothing, you know,
unusual about it but when I did it in the early 50s they were just emerging as
these big parties so all the cousins at Park Synagogue, which is the largest
Conservative Synagogue in America, about 2000 families, Armand Cohen was the
Chief Rabbi. Basically you spent a year learning your Haftorah and
working with some coach. It was Mr. Diamond coached you on and you had to go to
Hebrew School twice a week after school and Sunday School. And so you got ready
for the Bar Mitzvah and then when the Bar Mitzvah came, it would,
you know, the relatives and friends and they’d fill up the sanctuary and then
at night you’d have the Diamonds Executive Caterers at, right at the
synagogue, throw this thing, you know, with a ten-piece band and the whole, you
know, everyone more or less did the same thing. It was like a cookie cutter. You
just had the big buffets and everyone would dress, you know, with the suits and
the long dresses and, you know, suits and ties and it was a big thing and I had
one of those Bar Mitzvahs at Park as a kid.
Interviewer: Did that have any influence on your, on your development?
Leventhal: It was just another show, another big time show.
Interviewer: Another show. They are shows today, that’s for sure.
Interviewer: Do you still have reunions with your family?
Leventhal: Yeah. We have family now, when you consider all the cousins, aunts
and uncles and extended, you know, mishpocha that married in, we’re
like over a hundred people now. And we have a once-a-year newsletter, a
Leventhal newsletter, that some, it rotates. Some cousin, I did the first one. I
spearheaded the idea and the energy around it and now it’s been going on now
for maybe 10 years. So once a year a cousin will do that, update the names and
addresses and phone numbers of all the children and their children. It’s like
four generations now. And there’s a Leventhal directory and then people can
write in once a year and tell what they’re doing. And then periodically we
have family reunions so that we don’t always have to meet at a funeral. ‘Cause
that’s what’s happening today is that that generation are all in their 80s
and they’re passing away. So it’s just curious, you mentioned it ’cause
next year, August 1 and 2, the next reunion’s at Oglebay Park and so people
are clearing their calendars and there’ll be, you know, there’ll be the four
generations coming of aunts, uncles and cousins, the cousins’ kids and it’ll
be . . . .
Interviewer: It is, it is really special if you get these reunions other than
Leventhal: Yeah. Well we, you know, we put a Jewish layer on it. There’s a,
we start, and there’s a Shabbat dinner and there’s a little, you
know, brief service and we make sure that it feels like we’re getting together
as a family and that there’s a Jewish part to it.
Interviewer: I like the idea of the newsletter. That’s great and to share
the responsi- bility. Often times one person ends up doing it all. Do you have a
lot of photo albums or memorabilia of your family that you’ve gathered?
Leventhal: Yeah I still have my Bar Mitzvah album, I still have, you
know, pictures that go back 75-80 years with my parents so yeah, we have a lot
Interviewer: Yeah, the pictures are really important and movies and things
Leventhal: Now are you asking me ’cause you’d like to have, look at some
of these to pick some things out, or are you just wanting to know as a question?
Interviewer: Sometimes, you know, people have extra things that they, they .
. . .
Leventhal: Well I’d be more than happy to have you see it. I mean we’ve
got some interesting historic photographs. Be happy to share with you.
Interviewer: Well that might be . . .
Interviewer: something that we can . . . .
Interviewer: add to our archives.
Interviewer: Sounds good. Just kind of curious. When, you know, often times
we try to talk to people about how it was when you were a kid, what toys you
played with, how you got around, you know, how, about transportation. Did you
take buses to places? Did your parents have to take you?
Leventhal: Well I grew up in Cleveland where they had in the 50s a great
trolley system and they still have, you know, the trains that come out to Shaker
Heights and so, you know, I have big memories of being a little kid between the
ages of 9 and 15 let’s say, in the late 40s into the 50s, before I went to
college, going with my cousin on one of these trains downtown and walking over
three-four blocks to the stadium to see the Cleveland Indians play. We did that
all the time as little kids. It was a different time. There was a total feeling of security. We
were on a street on Bainbridge off of Taylor Road, this huge Jewish section in
Cleveland Heights with maybe 400 houses from Taylor and Bainbridge up to
Staunton, all Jewish, essentially all Jewish, 95 percent Jewish. People left
their doors open, their garage doors open in the 50s. People would come in. You
never worried about a thing. So, I mean, it’s kind of, I consider it now
fascinating that here’s this very protective mother who went through an orphan
home, didn’t have a clue about how to raise a kid out of the context of that
kind of organized structure, unbelievably protective but would think nothing of
having your ten-year-old kid get on a bus, go on a train, go to the Cleveland
Indians game and come back, I’m serious, at 10 or 11 years old. Never thought
a thing of it.
Interviewer: But a lot . . . .
Leventhal: Can you imagine today?
Interviewer: a lot of kids did that.
Leventhal: Everyone did it. That’s the point. That’s the way life was,
you know, we couldn’t imagine in a million years a 10-11-year-old kid doing
that today in this society. But that’s the way it was then, that we would
drive our bikes to Cane Park in Cleveland Heights and be there till 9:00 at
night when it’s dark and drive home, you know, with our lights on our bicycles
totally unchaperoned, unsupervised, with no fear or worry. It was, again, it was
a different world.
Interviewer: Your parents didn’t have to worry about . . . .
Leventhal: Never worried about a thing.
Interviewer: That sounds great. When your mother was in the home was she
able, was she still in touch with other family members or . . . .
Leventhal: Well they were all; all the children were in the home . . . .
Interviewer: her immediate family . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah but she was in touch with her mother and cousins that weren’t
in the home and there was the Boudins and they had a big family structure in
terms of her family so yeah.
Interviewer: I’m just curious. Maybe you can help us recall some of the
favorite movies, actors, songs, things that were going on as you were growing
up. Just to give us a flavor of . . . .
Leventhal: Well I’ll tell you, to me . . . .
Interviewer: Just tell us . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah. To me the most . . . .
Interviewer: Do you recall your favorite sports?
Leventhal: No I liked baseball, I liked, loved the Cleveland Browns. I was a
Browns fan, a Cleveland Indians fan. No, I’ll tell you something pivotal in my
life when you look at, you know, why you are what you are, this is an amazing
recollection and an amazing experience. As a child in the 40s, born in, I was
born in 1941, remember in the 40s going to Hebrew School and Sunday School and
putting coins in the Karen Ami box for Israel when it was Palestine. It wasn’t even the state.
Interviewer: It was established . . . .
Leventhal: And I remember a moment in my life that was just so amazing when
it became a state and the war in ’48 and it was declared a State Israel. I was
seven years old and I remember that. That was like, you know, just a tremendous
memory of putting money in this Karen Ami box for Israel and then having
it become a state and just having that be just a very big part of my life.
Interviewer: So it was very satisfying all, your visits to Israel?
Leventhal: When I went in, when, I went in my freshman year in 1962. I read
the book that summer, Leon Uris’ Exodus in 1962 and I finished that
book and I was a very, very unusual person. I mean you have to understand I came
out of this very, very ultra-protective Conservative environment of Cleveland
Heights, all Jewish community, business community, religious community, and
whatever the dynamics are that I totally understand, I read that book and I was
on an airplane to Israel. I had saved money myself and the year before I
actually spent a year living in L.A. loading trucks for the Teamsters and going
to Los Angeles City Night School. My dad had a contact for me. So it’s too
long of a story in an hour tape but you can read someday The Broom Peddler’s Son. I’m working on a slim edition of the book but basically . . . .
Interviewer: . . . . sufficiently inspirational . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah. Leon Uris’ book Exodus and just the whole history
of remember- ing the state and so I went over in ’62 and I’ve been back and
forth and been there nine times.
Interviewer: . . . . just tell us about your first visit.
Leventhal: That was ’62. In ’62 I went by myself and I traveled around
Israel . . . .
Interviewer: So you weren’t involved with a program . . . .
Leventhal: At 20 years old I just went over there and met the cousins that
came from our family that instead of going to America went to Israel and they
were in touch with them, our family, and met them for the first time and
hitch-hiked around Israel and picked apples in a kibbutz at Rosh
Hanikvah in the hills of the Galilee for part of the Summer and had that
Summer experience and continuing to go back.
And then when I had a sabbatical from Hillel after seven years, I spent a
whole year living on Disengoff Street in Tel Aviv going to an ulpan
to study Hebrew and writing freelance stories. I wrote dozens. I probably wrote
more stories for a period of time than anyone in the State of Israel. I was
writing for Ha Aretz, Maariv, Yideo Ahronot, the Israel Digest. They were translating my
stories. I was just writing about people that I would encounter and happened to
meet a very famous photographer, probably the best known photographer at the
time. He passed away, Yaakov Agore, and he was the Chief Photographer of Habima
Theater and the Batsorv Dance Company, an older man. His wife was a ballerina.
They were from Russia and we became friends. I was a young guy at the time. I
was in my early 30s and he was in his 70s. And I would meet these meshuginehs.
I met a guy that was building a yacht to go around the world in his apple
orchard outside of Tel Aviv. I met a guy that had been on a bike and had
190-some flat tires traveling around the world. I met a Vietnamese woman who had
a restaurant in Tel Aviv and I would meet these people and spend time with them,
write these stories and they were popping out 2000-word feature stories and he
would be taking my pictures. I have my scrapbooks. Just, they would be writing
them in, translating them in Hebrew and writing the stories.
Interviewer: What an exciting opportunity.
Leventhal: Yes it was. That was a good year. So.
Interviewer: And your other visits to Israel. What were they about?
Leventhal: They were just going over, just going over to see the family,
writing stories. I had four or five stories in the Columbus Dispatch
and the Jewish Chronicle and Cleveland Jewish News
that I’ve written and then in 1993, I had a great trip and I took my wife
Beth. I took Richard Trelease who’s been my friend for over 30 years. He used to
be the priest at the Newman Center and wound up getting married and left the
Catholic priesthood and we’ve stayed friends to this day. We still golf
regularly, and took Larry Hamill who’s a top photographer in the city and we’re
still friends. We still do work together. And I put the three of them in a car
and we spent two weeks seeing all of Israel and they saw it like nobody’s seen
it from the Galilee down to Eilat, to up to Masada, to Jerusalem. We saw it all
so that was a special time. I’ve taken my daughters there three times, shown
them Israel. They’ve lived on kibbutzim. They’ve been there a number
of times. So I’m very saddened obviously about what’s going on today but I’m
sure Israel will prevail.
Interviewer: Yeah I wanted to ask you about that. Do you have some optimism
about the future of Israel?
Leventhal: Well I am optimistic but things are real bad right now.
Interviewer: It’s a long haul, isn’t it? Have you ever organized a tour
of, other than your friends going to Israel?
Leventhal: No, no, I haven’t done that. So, let me just get this last part of the story and we’ll be caught up. So I leave Hillel in 1980 and I decide that I want to actually start
a camp. And so I created Days of Creation – Arts for Kids which still goes on in
its 22nd year and I got Mim Chenfeld, dancer, writer, educator and
Phil Boiarski, poet, and we sat down and we created this idea to have a arts
program to teach kids the arts using professional artists and . . . .
Interviewer: I’m going to stop you now Aaron because I’m going to turn
the tape over.
Interviewer: So we’re at the end of Side A, Tape 1. Okay, we’re on Side
B. Okay, continue your . . . .
Leventhal: So in 1980 we created this camp. It was a revolutionary idea. It’s
been modeled now and used everywhere from COSI to the Art Museum to the Cultural
Arts Center. All the institutions today have summer arts programs. But it was
very special then and we had just the best artists in the city from Arnett
Howard the musician and singer to writers, painters, dramatists, Leslie Zacks
known for dramatics, just a whole host of out- standing professional artists
teaching kids the arts. It still goes on at Jeffrey Mansion. They’ve been
doing it for 20 years now, running these Days of Creation arts program. We’re
in Worthington and we’re in Dublin and Hilliard and they do things in the
schools but . . . .
Interviewer: Is it called . . . .
Leventhal: Days of Creation ‘ Arts for Kids. And so I directed that for
seven years and the first camps were held at Camp Agape and the minister there,
Lloyd White, Reverend White, had this camp and I used to take kids out to the
camp for Shabbatons over the years when I was at Hillel, at this camp in
Newark, Ohio in the hills, beautiful place. And so we ran it there for a few
years in the Summer and then we used Camp Akita which is the Community Church,
what’s that church in Arlington? They own the Camp Akita outside of Lancaster.
We used that for a few years and so we had day programs and overnight sleep
programs and I did that for seven years and . . . .
Interviewer: How was this all funded?
Leventhal: Just out of camp revenues. Just all done, just independent. We got some grants from the Ohio Arts Council and the GCAC to help out but basically it was done, and I ran that from ’80 to ’87 and then in ’83 I was seeing all this great art work that
was coming from these children. We had Yasue Saoka who’s a super artist today
in Columbus. She does Origami and Londa Brunetto is a known fashion designer.
She’s in Columbus. We had terrific artists. Larry Hamill also did painting,
David Browning. These are super artists. And I was seeing all this great artwork
So I said to these artists, “You know, we ought to have a way of
showcasing this,” and I created a magazine called Kid’s Connection
which I published for 14 years which came out three times a year, showing all
the children’s artwork and it was funded by sponsorships from different
corporations and so I did that for 14 years.
And then in 1986, well from 1980 at the same time I was running the camp and
doing the magazine, from ’80 to ’87 Multiple Sclerosis invited me to do a
special event fundraiser through Miriam Yenkin who was working at MS at the
time. And she told them about my background and what I do and writing and so on
and so forth, and so I ran a thing called the “Multiple Sclerosis Ugly
Bartender’s Contest”. Do you remember that in the 80s? It was a huge
Interviewer: Yeah I remember being in . . . .
Leventhal: Well I raised almost two million bucks for MS Society and we would
have all these bars and restaurants and hotels and bowling alleys raise money in
February for three weeks for the Multiple Sclerosis Society. So I did that up to
’86, from ’80 to ’86 while I was running my camp and my magazine and doing
And in ’86 I get a call from Fred Holdridge, Fred and Howard of German
Village. “We have seen your work and you’re living in German Village and
we want you to bring Oktoberfest back to German Village. We need a
fundraiser.” So we sat down and we talked and he had this idea to take this
Oktoberfest and put it down where there’s was a whole bunch of old buildings.
And he took me down there and he said, “We’re talking to Rodney
Wasserstrom who owns Wasserstrom, about using this parking lot.”
Interviewer: Where was this located?
Leventhal: On Front Street. And . . . .
Interviewer: The Brewery Area?
Leventhal: Yeah, well the point is I put out, I took a position, I put out
the first press release and I named it the Brewery District ’cause he told me,
“Here’s where all the old breweries were.” So I have the actual
press release. I also was the first one that founded the Community Festival that
just celebrated 30 years. I called the first meeting, named it “The
Community Festival” and held the meeting and it was held through the Campus
Ministry, in terms of the Methodist Center, Hillel and the United Christian
Center right on 16th Avenue. So I’ve had some great times over the
years. But anyway . . . .
Interviewer: Lot of satisfaction.
Leventhal: Anyways, we took it down there in 1980, the first Oktoberfest, ’86
the first Oktoberfest. It was budgeted for 10,000 people. Over 100,000 came. The
Fire Department closed it down, there were so many people. And we ran it there
for four years and then moved it over to Livingston. Any- ways, I ran it for 15
years and in its 15 years its goal was always to net out after expenses a
hundred thousand, of which I hit that goal 11 of the 15 years. The four years I
didn’t hit it, it had to do with either bad weather or the Buckeyes playing on
Interviewer: Well that could be interference.
Leventhal: You can’t compete against the Buckeyes. But I had a 15-year run and I decided that I had done enough. In 19–, in the year 2000 I ended 15 years doing the Oktoberfest and I had an idea for another magazine which is what my livelihood is today.
Interviewer: Wait, let’s stop with Oktoberfest. So is it not operating anymore?
Leventhal: Yeah it still goes on. The Society still runs the Oktoberfest. Yeah.
Interviewer: On Livingston or . . . .
Leventhal: No, now they’re back in the Brewery District. So through my travel writing, one of the places I love is Toronto and five years ago I was in Toronto writing some travel features and I picked up this little kind of rag of a thing, almost like Xerox called “Queen
Street,” just loaded with advertising and information about Queen Street
and it goes through all these neighborhoods and I turned to my wife and I said,
“High Street is just as good as this street”. Said, “When I leave Oktoberfest, I’m going to put out a magazine called High Street.” And so when I left Oktoberfest I basically conceptualized this magazine called High Street celebrating nine neighborhoods running along High Street from German Village and the Brewery District through downtown, the Arena District, Short North, up through the campus, Clintonville and Worthington. And I do this twice a year and we put out 100,000 copies . . . And it’s underwritten with corporate sponsorships and advertising and so I call it my “semi-retired project”. I hit my 60th
birthday last October and my mother came up from Florida, my daughter came from
Chicago and we had about 60 people, one for every year, and we had a big party
at the Westin and celebrated 60. So I’m now semi-retired. I put the magazine
out and I do travel writing.
Interviewer: What a fun thing. You’re really enjoying that and it’s a
nice way to retire.
Leventhel: Very semi-retired.
Interviewer: That’s a good story.
Interviewer: You mentioned your wife Beth. Let’s give her a plug here.
Leventhal: All right. Sure. Beth and I met in 1983. I had a position open as
an Administrative Assistant position working for me at the Multiple Sclerosis
Society and she saw that position and took the position because she wanted to
work on a Master’s in Journalism. She had a degree, undergrad, in Social Work.
So I essentially was divorced and single and she worked with me for seven years
on that project, helped me start Oktoberfest, and she went on now to a ten-year
career. She’s Director of Communications at the Greater Columbus Convention
and Visitors Bureau (Experience Columbus). And she has a Master’s in Journalism and she’s a very talented lady and so . . . .
Interviewer: Was she from Columbus?
Leventhal: five years ago we got married. No, she’s from a little town
called Wellston in southeastern Ohio.
Interviewer: So you were married five years ago?
Interviewer: Let’s see, let’s go back to World War II. Do
you have any memories or any thoughts . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah I remember my Uncle Teddy, my mother’s sister Leona’s
husband, came back from World War II. It’s probably the oldest memory I had. I
was five years old and remember Uncle Teddy coming back from the war and showing
us his guns and his helmet and stuff like that from World War II. So that’s a
very vivid memory.
Interviewer: What about the Korean War, Viet Nam war? Did you . . . .
Leventhal: Well Viet Nam, I was one of the first anti-Viet Nam. I walked in
the first demonstration at Indiana University around Showalter Fountain, famous
fountain on the campus of Indiana University. I was a grad student in Recreation
Administration. The year was 1966. It was before the whole movement really got
underway and really became a full-blown anti-war movement in the late 1960s. I
remember walking around the fountain in this demonstration and somebody saying
in the crowd, “What’s he doing in this demonstration,” meaning he’s
got a shirt and a tie on and looks like a normal human being. So that to me
symbolized what that was all about, that instead of rationally looking at this,
there was all the emotion- ality of people, you know, basically stereotyping the
two sides as the radicals and the hippies and the anti-war, you know, and the
establish- ment and instead of kind of looking at it objectively, it became just
kind of a battle of two very polarized forces.
That was a memory I had. And I was very active and they probably have a huge
file somewhere at the CIA or the FBI on me because I ran student unions in the
60s and I had the most activist speakers and films and I was running a student
union in Pennsylvania for three years and then I was so involved that I actually
moved to Washington, D.C. when they had the marches with millions of people and
Nixon was in office and in power and so I was very much involved with that. I
held one of the biggest environmental days. The whole movement of Earth Day
started in 1970, the Spring of 1970 and I held, I was Director of Student
Activities at Prince George’s Community College and I held a massive teach-in
on the environment for Earth Day and had all these bureaucrats from Washington
so . . . .
Interviewer: When I picture your involvement in these movements, I go back to
your interest in Israel and did you ever give thought to joining an Israeli Army
at one time?
Leventhal: No, no. I did, I gave thought to actually moving to Israel and I
love to tell the story that I parted ways ’cause when I was on sabbatical to
learn Hebrew, I went to an ulpan in Tel Aviv and lived with a lovely
lady, Leah Tamari. I wrote about her in a number of features and her apart-ment
in Dizzengoff and I would go four days a week to the urban ulpan and
there would be Russian Jews and Jews from all over the world speaking all kinds
of languages. And here’s a guy, a kid that had, you know, Hebrew School,
Sunday School and everything else and I could not grab the language, you know.
And so there is the classic moment when she moved from the present and the past
tense to the future tense, and if you know Hebrew, the whole language changes.
So when you move to the future tense, the verb construction doesn’t sound
anything like the word. So if kore means “read” then the future
for “I will read” might be yakere which sounds nothing like kore.
So the point is I picked up my teak which is “the bag” in
Hebrew and I turned to my students and I said, “Shalom yelladim, shalom
yellodos, there’s no future for me in the future tense.” (laughter)
Interviewer: So you were out of there?
Leventhal: Yeah. Without really being able to have a command of the Hebrew
language, you know, you can’t really make it in Israel. Even though everyone speaks English, the reality is that you really need to be able to speak Hebrew to be part of the fabric of the society. And so that was really a great stumbling block for me or I would have, I really
seriously considered living in Israel.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Aaron, you’ve just been a great person to interview
and you, you’re, I’m racing through these questions.
Interviewer: And you’re way ahead . . . .
Leventhal: Well that’s okay.
Interviewer: way ahead of me.
Leventhal: That’s all right.
Interviewer: You’ve really given us a lot of great information. Let’s
see. Well you’ve traveled a lot. So you’ve traveled really other places
other than Israel and you’ve been around the United States a lot and you still
enjoy traveling, do you?
Leventhal: I travel professionally. I’ve had columns with all kinds of
publications in Columbus. Started out with Living Single at the
end of the 70s and another alternative paper called Focus and I’ve
written for Columbus Alive for years as a columnist. Daily Reporter,
I write now for the Messenger newspapers and lot of stories have appeared
in the Dispatch and the Plain Dealer in Cleveland and so I
still travel professionally all the time. This year I’ve already been to Taos,
New Mexico and Mackinac Island, the Blue Ridge Mountains and I’m going to
Sonoma Wine Country in September and Hawaii in October and so that’s part of
my life, is traveling and sharing those experiences with readers.
Interviewer: That sounds like there’s a lot of fun in your background.
Interviewer: Yeah. And living in German Village, how long have you lived…
Leventhal: Since 1983 and I love German Village. It’s a very special
neighborhood. About five thousand people in a 10-by-10 block radius and it’s
very open. You’ve got every imaginable kind of person professionally,
artistically, straights, gays, every kind of background and there’s just kind
of a very live-and-let-live kind of environment in German Village. It’s a
very, very warm place to life. You just feel like you’re truly in a village in
the midst of a big city. After a while you know an awful lot of people.
Interviewer: There’s a lot of people contact?
Leventhal: You get involved with, yeah you get involved with volunteer work
and there’s parties going on all the time and cultural activities and social
events and so it’s a great place to live, German Village.
Interviewer: Did you tell us about the house you’re in? You were telling
Marvin . . . .
Leventhal: Well this house, the house we’re living in was built in 1855 and
we bought this house five years ago. I’ve lived in three houses on City Park.
This is on City, I lived at a house at 865 City Park that I lived for a few
years in a rental. Then I bought a house at 572 City Park. And then this house
came on the market and I bought it the first day it was on the market and it’s
a very special house. It was featured on the cover of a national home magazine, Better
Living Home Magazine because the architect Damon Baker lived in
this house and expanded the house and so you have an 1855 historic cottage and
then it’s built back and it’s a three-bedroom, very modern house and we
enjoy living in it.
Interviewer: With the addition. So when you moved in you didn’t have to …
Leventhal: No, John McDonald who’s an attorney with Schottenstein-Zox lived
in the house and his wife’s a decorator. It was decorated and it’s decorated
and you see it as is.
Interviewer: So it was all done for you?
Leventhal: It’s not my shtick. I’m not, that’s not part of my shtick.
I’m not into the decorating. I just want to come in and live in it. It’s a
good place for me between running around the world.
Interviewer: It’s very comfortable, very attractive.
Leventhal: Thank you.
Interviewer: Yeah, I think at this point we’re going to start winding up.
Interviewer: I’d like to ask you if you might spend some time in the near
future and put together some information for us, pictures, maybe some of the
stories you’ve written . . . .
Leventhal: Yeah I’ve got dozens and dozens of news clips. I can pull some
articles I’ve written on Israel and I’ve written about Jews around the world
when I travel that have been published from Spain to all over the world. So I
can pull those. I have clip books that’s easy. I’ll be happy to do that.
Interviewer: That would be great. That would be appreciated for our archives.
And on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society I want to thank you for
your time this afternoon and for your patience.
Leventhal: And you have me as a member. I got your form. I’m going to go
out and fill out the form and give you a check today to be a member again.
Interviewer: Amen. That’s exactly what we’re aiming for.
Leventhal: Amen. Good. You got it.
Interviewer: Thank you again. Thank you.
* * * *
Addendum: June 2007 Update. Publisher Aaron Leventhal, age 65, is launching a
new magazine in Cleveland entitled The Euclid Avenue Guide, September 2007. Daughter Danielle taught art for two years at Duchess Community College in Poughkeepsie, New York and a semester at New Paltz. Aaron is a regular travel feature contributor to The New Standard and Travelhost of Greater Columbus. Aaron and Beth celebrated Sunshine’s 10th
birthday in June 2007 with a special party at Schiller Park in German Village, with a dozen canine guests and their “peeps.” Her sister, Annie the cat, chose not to attend.
Transcribed by Honey Abramson
Proofread by Marvin Bonowitz
Edited by Peggy Kaplan
Corrected by Aaron Leventhal