Cantor Mark Levi possessed a vibrant baritone voice and a devotion to the melodies handed down by some of the most admired cantors of the last century. He learned cantorial music by ear, never having trained formally.
From 1964 until 1984 Levi brought his traditional style to Jewish sacred music, called chazzanut, to Beth Tikva, a Conservative synagogue in Rockville. Later he became cantor emeritus of Beth Tikva’s successor congregation, Tikvat Israel Congregation.
Levi died Dec. 28. He was 103.
“In that chazzanut style, Mark often sounded like he was crying when he davened,” longtime Beth Tikva and Tikvat Israel member Sam Gilston said in a eulogy on Jan. 2. “That sound is sometimes called a krechtz. It is something that comes from deep in the soul of a cantor, and Mark Levi had it.”
Levi was born in 1914 in the Transylvania region of Romania. He was the youngest of 10 children and his family home was the center of the small Jewish community of the town, serving as a grocery store and farm as well as a cheder where the village’s Jewish children went to school.
During World War II, he was arrested and spent three years in a forced labor camp. At the end of the war, he found his village burned to the ground. His parents are believed to have perished at Auschwitz.
Levi met his future wife, Otilia Vainer, in Romania; they married in 1947. In 1950, they moved to Israel, where they lived on a kibbutz near Haifa. They moved to New York in 1953. It was there that Levi learned about a job opening for an embroiderer in the Washington area, and the family moved to Hyattsville in Prince George’s County in 1958.
“In Hyattsville, they became members of Beth Torah Congregation and Mark joined the synagogue choir,” Gilston said in his eulogy. “Members of the congregation soon discovered the power of Mark’s voice and asked him to step out of the choir and become the synagogue’s cantor. That was the beginning of Mark’s cantorial career.”
He served at Beth Torah part time and moved to Beth Tikva in 1964.
Levi was known by congregants for his generosity, which included annual concerts to help the synagogue raise money. Stephen Raucher, a Beth Tikva president in the 1970s, called Levi “gentlemanly” and said the cantor rarely asked for anything. The cantor once requested a closet for his robes instead of a raise, Raucher said.
“When I asked him what he wanted to put in the budget that was his answer,” Raucher said. “It was just simply an example of the kind of modest gentlemen that he was.”
Levi’s son, Ron Levi, a Potomac resident, recalled his father’s frequent singing at home.
“The shower was the best, because he had a nice little echo chamber there,” he said.
Cantor Levi befriended the esteemed Cantor Sholom Katz, of what is now Beth Sholom Congregation in Potomac. Levi was devastated when Katz died in 1982, Ron Levi said. Cantor Levi considered Katz a mentor, and rehearsed along with Katz’s records, Raucher said.
“Mark never read music. He learned everything by ear,” Raucher said.
Ron Levi said music was an integral part of his father’s life. The cantor taught himself to play violin, and had a collection of a dozen pitch pipes — tools used to help musicians stay on pitch.
“No matter where you were, he had a pitch pipe handy,” Ron Levi said.
Levi also owned a business, the American Monogram Company, which provided stitching of names and initials on shirts, towels and the lining of fur coats. He also sewed portraits of famous people, including Presidents John Kennedy and Richard Nixon, and celebrities Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Tennessee Ernie Ford. He embroidered the patch worn by the Apollo 8 astronauts.
In 1985, the Levis moved to Florida where he became cantor at Beth Ami Congregation in Boca Raton. The couple moved back to Rockville a few years later, and he became Tikvat Israel’s cantor emeritus. For several years, he participated in Yizkor memorial service on Yom Kippur, when he chanted El Maleh Rachamin for the departed.
“I don’t think there were many dry eyes in the congregation when he finished,” Gilston, said.
Levi is survived by his wife, Otilia, of Asbury Village; his sons Ron Levi (Debbie) of North Potomac and Allen Levi of Annapolis; grandchildren Erin (Brad), Adam, Haley and Brianna; great grandchildren Orly and Augie.
Ron Levi said his father stayed active during retirement, driving until he was 97.
“The man could not stop,” the son said. “He hated retirement. He didn’t play golf. He didn’t travel. All he did was work. He kept his mind going and he kept his body going.”