Last week, a massacre took place in a Jerusalem synagogue. Four rabbis and the policeman who attempted to protect them were shot at close range or brutally attacked with butcher knives. One of the rabbis, Cary Levine, grew up in Kansas City. While still in his 20s, Kalman, as I knew him, decided to forgo a career in dentistry to enter the rabbinate. For a month during that transition period, I was his roommate.
The month was July 1981. I’d returned to the States from a year of religious study in Israel. Just before I was to start medical school, I’d enrolled in a four-week program at Yeshiva University in Los Angeles. “We’ve got the perfect roommate for you,” the administrators told me. “He’s brilliant, but he’s not a stick in the mud.”
As I entered my new room, the baby-faced Kalman offered a high-five and said he’d see me later; he had a movie to catch. His announcement was reassuring. Although intelligent and religious, he had chosen something other than an ascetic lifestyle.
Within a few days, I learned that Kalman shared my love of baseball — although, clearly, he’d fallen on the wrong side of the Yankees/Royals divide. We shared, too, an understanding that the ancient biblical stories need not conflict with logical, scientific advances.
Kalman introduced me to two staples of California: guacamole and mango. A sheltered New Yorker, I’d never seen an avocado. My roomie demonstrated how to meticulously split the fruit and scoop out the pulp. However, while he approached avocados with surgical precision, mangos were dealt with ritualistically — based on a song that he composed. The tune had a reggae beat. He insisted I accompany him during the chorus (“…mango-mango, mango-mango”) performing as a percussionist on the inedible stone while he danced around, all the while adorned in Caribbean shirt and straw hat.
During Sabbath strolls, while Kalman confided his reasons for abandoning dentistry, he encouraged me not to stray from my own professional pathway. He understood the temptations of curiosity in multiple disciplines but realized the problems inherent in trying to pursue more than one mission in life. “Hear your calling,” he advised, gently recommending that, despite my interest in religion, I was not cut out to be a full-time Torah scholar. I was struck by his sensitivity to my needs and the broadness of his world view.
Sadly, our ways parted. Only when I read of his tragic death did I learn that Kalman resided in Jerusalem, less than two miles from my home. Images of the savage slayings were macabre. The snapshot of Kalman’s face was haunting. As I gazed at the picture, my mind struggled to “PhotoShop out” the black hat and gray beard.
Suddenly, I could recognize the innocent visage that, more than three decades earlier, had greeted me in our dorm room.
I don’t know whether the ultra-orthodox man whose obituary I read might still frequent the cinema or whether he was even aware that his beloved Royals made it back to the World Series. I am certain, though, that, until the end, Kalman had the strength of spirit to stand for his values in the face of peer pressure and even fatal danger.
I remember his passion for learning and for life. His influence has been and will continue to be with me each time I interact with a student, patient or any other citizen of the world for which Kalman felt so much enthusiasm and caring. Nor, I’m sure, will I ever look at a mango again without smiling in loving memory of Cary Levine.
Benjamin Corn is a professor of oncology at Tel Aviv University Medical Center and the founder of Life’s Door, an NGO.