Asked if he’d ever put up a Christmas tree in his house, 91-year-old Isaac “Irvin” Levin — married for more than a half-century to a cradle Catholic who converted to Judaism for the man she loved — defiantly raised his hand and said, “Never!”
Yet, in his 50 years at his family’s East Baltimore bakery, Levin’s, the good-natured Irv made scores of holiday cakes for goyim upon which edible Christmas trees were fashioned from upside-down ice cream cones.
“You put green butter cream icing on the cone with little colored beads while it’s still wet,” said Levin during a recent visit to his family’s long-defunct bakery at Fairmount and Patterson Park avenues. “You ice the entire bottom of a sheet cake to look like snow and put the cones on top.”
The difference between a Christmas tree that’s a dreidel’s throw away from the living room menorah and one atop a snowy confection in a bakery display case?
“Business,” smiled Levin, chief decorator of the sweets line at the bakery started by his father, Louis, in 1923, about three years before Irv was born in a second-floor bedroom above the bakery.
Irv was standing below that bedroom window not long ago, his first visit in a long time. The building hasn’t been a bakery since sometime in the 1980s. Turning off the ovens for good in 1977, the Levins sold to a Greek man who made long loaves and dinner rolls. The building now bears a sign requesting zoning approval for whatever comes next in the steadily gentrifying neighborhood.
He was brought to the neighborhood a block north of Patterson Park by his 73-year-old nephew, Steve, son of Irv’s older brother, Jacob, a baking savant who could roll some dough on his fingertips and tell what it lacked.
Jacob died in 2014, at age 98. His wife, Charlotte, kept the books and a third brother named Joe — a handsome devil who flitted from adventure to adventure — wasn’t interested in waking up at 2 a.m. to bake kaiser rolls. There was also a sister named Sylvia who helped out. Irv, the baby, is the only surviving child of Louis Levin and the former Paula Lahn, both Lithuanian immigrants.
It was from these people that Irv’s sense of identity — wrought in the mix of culture, religion and family — is typical of the generation of Baltimore Jews born to late 19th-century immigrants. They were raised to be Orthodox, were not overly strict in practice, and if they were especially devoted to anything, it was to family.
“I used to get steamed crabs from Hasslinger’s [at Fayette Street and Luzerne Avenue] for 15 cents each and run into Patterson Park to eat them by myself,” said Irv, a twinkle in his eye. “I didn’t want any of my Jewish friends to see me eating them.”
OK, steamed crabs, a geographical loophole on the banks of the Patapsco, only considered treife by many a local Jew if eaten inside the house. But what about that cute Italian girl raised in a convent, the one whose father ran a grocery named for the apple of his eye a few blocks from the bakery?
She was a badly smitten young woman named Louise “Lulu” Annunziatio who once thought she would become a nun and then worried that she’d have to wait forever for a proposal from the Jewish boy she was crazy about.
“I would never do anything to hurt my parents,” said Irv, explaining that while he was thrilled when Louise converted for love, he would not have done the same for her. Fine by Louise, whose parents were happy in 1962 that she was getting married at age 28 instead of not getting married at all.
Though it wasn’t planned this way, both of Irv’s parents were deceased — Louis in 1955, Paula five years later — before bride and groom stood beneath the chuppah.
Though Louise will now and again say a quiet “Hail Mary” to herself and visits an old friend on Christmas Day, she says she has not missed being Catholic for a moment. All harmonious and sung in a Hebrew key.
After all these years, what really bothers Irv is the state of everyday bread in 21st-century America.
“It’s awful,” he said. “If I don’t toast it, I can’t eat it.”
Rafael Alvarez is the author of “Basilio Boullosa Stars in the Fountain of Highlandtown.” He can be reached via firstname.lastname@example.org
Photo of Isaac “Irvin” Levin by Sean Scheidt.
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