Friday, September 13, 2013

My best friend's big sister and Syria

Posted By on 09.13.13 at 04:39 PM

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John Kass expressed concern in the Tribune this week for the group that is "hardly mentioned" in the debate over Syria—that country's Christians. I read Kass's column and exclaimed silently, "Yes, and what about Syria's Jews!" It wasn't really a question, because I knew the answer.

As a boy in Canada I had a best friend who was, incidentally, a Jew. That aspect of his life meant nothing to me. We were both younger and smaller than most of our classmates, and unathletic (though I was years away from admitting this). We were both smart, and we were outsiders—Alex Leve's family having moved to Sudbury from Montreal, mine from the U.S. We both had big sisters. Sudbury was a mining town, but our fathers' work had nothing to do with the mines: his was a furrier, mine investigated claims for the railroad.

Walking together to the high school on the first day of ninth grade, we were joined by a friend of his I'd never met before. They talked about what they'd done that summer. That's when I realized—with alarm—that there was an important part of Alex's life that was not and would never be a part of mine. They'd gone to some sort of Jewish camp together. For the first time, I had a sense of Alex's religion as something that made a difference.

Halfway through the school year my family moved to Saint Louis. Alex and I exchanged a few letters but then lost touch. But years later, as a young man visiting Toronto with my girlfriend, I surmised that Alex was no more likely to have stayed in Sudbury than I was, and where would he go but to Toronto? So I looked for him in the phone book, and sure enough, he was now Alexander Leve, attorney. We stopped by and spent a couple of hours. I told him about a trip back to Sudbury I'd taken a few years earlier, when I visited our grade school, Prince Charles, and a teacher I remembered with particular fondness was revealed to me now as a brittle spinster. I could have told you that back then, said Alex.

Many more years passed. My middle daughter enrolled at a college in New York State, and after dropping her off for her sophomore year I decided to drive home by way of Toronto. I spent a night there, and in the morning I thought of my old friend. I decided not to call him: if he suggested getting together after work I'd have to say yes, and I really needed to get on the road. So I picked up a Toronto street map, figured out where his house was, and swung by on my way out of town. The note I left on his door promised I'd see him for sure at the same time next year—but I wondered. The inside of Alex's house looked tossed. Untidiness is one thing, but I was pretty sure I was looking at either serious neglect or abandonment. Was he moving out? Had he left already?

A year later his name was no longer in the phone book. I felt so uneasy about this that I decided to search for him online. Search engines were a fairly rudimentary tool back then, and Alex showed up only once. But once was enough. A brief notice from a Toronto paper reported that several weeks before I stood at his door, Alexander Leve, a Toronto lawyer, had died suddenly in Miami Beach.

After a while I wanted more information than that. By now Google was spoiling me with the amount of information it could instantly dredge up, yet it could tell me nothing about Alex beyond what I already knew: where he died, and the names of the sister and daughter who survived him. Looking for Alex became a pastime, my personal inquiry into the Internet's exponential expansion as a data dump. Every several months, usually during a lull at work, I'd type in the name of Alexander Leve. I figured it was a matter of time until further details of my boyhood friend's life and death showed up there.

Yet they didn't. Alex had somehow lived life as a Toronto lawyer completely under the radar. It was 2007 before I tried something that I should have done long before. I think I didn't because my past experiences searching the net for girls I used to know back in the day had so often been so frustrating. They'd married, changed their names, and now could not be found; and so many simply hadn't stomped out into life and left boot prints the way the guys did. Alex's big sister Judy was now Judith Feld Carr, and after I gave her name to a website that looks for phone numbers and it had no luck locating her, I must have assumed that if Alex was hard to find, she'd be impossible.

But one slow afternoon in 2006, after yet another search for Alex turned up nothing, I had a thought: Why not google her? What's to lose?

So I did. And my jaw dropped.

In a matter of seconds I was marveling at a Wikipedia entry that begins: "Judith Feld Carr . . . is a Canadian Jewish musicologist and human rights activist known for secretly bringing to freedom thousands of Jews out of Syria." I was staring at a picture of the big house on Larch Street in Sudbury where she and Alex grew up. It had been posted there as part of a "my hero" project by a schoolgirl in Sudbury who was eight years old when she met Judy in 2003. She wrote, "Female, Jewish, and a busy mom living a busy life in Toronto, Judy Feld Carr secretly (without even her family knowing) collected money; she risked her life and almost singlehandedly brought over 3,000 Jewish people out of Syria between 1977 and 1991. The last person she rescued was on a plane flying from Syria on September 11, 2001." And the girl marveled, "I was totally amazed at how ordinary she was."

I read that in 2001 her nation's government awarded Alex's big sister the Order of Canada. And this week, when I googled her again to get up to date, I found out that in June of 2012, when Israel's newest civilian honor, the President's Medal of Distinction, was awarded for the first time, Judy received it along with Henry Kissinger and Zubin Mehta. On the very same day, the Queen's Diamond Jubilee Medal was issued to her in Toronto. A daughter stood in for her at that ceremony.

When I called and introduced myself back in '07, she had no memory of me. Why should she? Friends of kid brothers have no place in teenage girls' lives. And certainly our big sisters were mysterious and marginal figures in our own. She and I have talked occasionally, most recently on last Wednesday, when Kass's column inspired me to call. She told me that for all her travels on behalf of the Jews of Syria, and despite the danger she frequently felt she was in, she never set foot in Syria itself. If she had, she said, "you wouldn't be talking to me today." The method of evacuation she developed in the 70s, briefly working with her first husband, Ronald Feld, and after he died in 1973 alone, involved coded messages, underground contacts, and bribes. But there was more to it than that, and she said that not even the book about her by Harold Troper, The Rescuer: The Amazing, True Story of How One Woman Helped Save the Jews of Syria, has the whole story.

To the Jews in Syria she was known as "Mrs. Judy in Canada." She said to me, "I never offered to help anybody. They had to find me. They managed through friends, their underground, through people they could find. Everybody knew somebody who knew my phone number." Encouraged to study music by the same teacher who flunked me on the trombone in ninth grade, Judy had been educated as a musicologist. But she gave up teaching when the rescue work (and the six children she was raising) took over her life.

Did Alex know what you were doing? I asked her. "I don't know if he showed any interest," she said. "My kids knew. My [second] husband knew. But they didn't know how. The 'how' is the very difficult part of the story I've never told. The 'how' stays with me until after my death." The "how" is in her files, she said, and the files belong to the national archives in Ottawa, along with her instructions on when to open them.

"I didn't take them all out [of Syria]," she told me. "There are 11 Jews left." She knows who they are. She says they wanted to stay.

I wondered if she had strong feelings one way or the other about President Obama's desire to launch missiles against the Assad regime. She sounded disgusted. "Assad is a murderer and a killer," she said, "but as stupid as it is to say, he's the only stability in the country." She said that if Obama wanted to support the rebels, the good rebels, the time to have done it was two years ago. Now it's too late—"You don't know who anybody is. The good ones have probably left the country." She remarked, with what sounded like a dollop of satisfaction, that Obama (and also Bill Clinton) didn't receive the President's Medal of Distinction until this past June, a year after she did.

What happened to Alex? I'd asked her in an earlier call.

"He was crossing Arthur Godfrey Boulevard in Miami Beach against the light and a van hit him. It was his fault," she said. "My brother died the way he lived. Recklessly."

And there we left it.

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