“My interest in my Jewish heritage is to know who I am.”
What happens when a literary agent (aka literary genius) in his golden years opens up about his culture and respect for his roots? You get unfiltered, authentic, tell it like it is, story after story goodness. Michael Levine prefers to be a “man in the shadows” behind the works of Canada's who’s who like Adrienne Clarkson, Silken Laumann and Margaret Trudeau. We loved getting him to talk about his story, his thoughts, and his approach, now that he’s seen it all. It’s no wonder that he deduces very simply that “My interest in my Jewish heritage is to know who I am” full stop.
Some of our favourite moments:
2:00 Michael jokes that he is the product of a mixed marriage
3:08 The revelation that led to him discover that his family was affected by the Holocaust
7:19 Jewish people aren’t just white people
9:20 Religion & being a social Jew
11:55 What storytelling has meant to him and how he celebrates the good guys
13:25 His friendship with Michael Ignatieff & Ignatieff’s book “Finding Solace in Dark Times”
15:40 Shakespeare’s “to thine own self be true” informs Michael’s approach to life
It’s a charming conversation that we can all benefit from. Give it a listen.
Michael Levine is a retired partner of Goodmans LLP, is Chairman of Westwood Creative Artists/Literary Agent, and an Executive Producer. Through Generic Productions Inc., he has acted as EP of over 65 productions in Canada. He has represented a number of film, television, and live theatre producers, writers, directors, and personalities in many media fields and has guest-lectured in the entertainment field for many universities and organizations in Canada and the US.
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Hey, my name is Anika Chabra and you're listening to Root & Seed, a podcast about tradition seekers who were sparked to explore, define and celebrate their family and cultural identity.
Unpacking celebration as a theme has been a ton of fun this season. We’ve heard recollections of celebrations and have been delighted in hearing about the meaning behind the rituals, traditions and actions, yes but perhaps more importantly it’s been about understanding the WHY behind celebrations and the WHAT that we appreciate. It’s all about the sifting and sorting that one goes through as we decide what celebrations to keep and perhaps those that we wish to forgo.
In our last episode, the beautiful Kirthana gave us a peek into the WHO in celebration. She has arrived at the point of appreciating her parents both as humans that she can learn from and celebrate with. She’s also really acknowledged the fact that she herself feels a responsibility to carry the legacy of her own culture to the next generation of descendants of Tamil culture.
With focusing on people in celebration, it only makes sense to introduce Michael next. Michael Levine is our oldest guest so far, in his seventies and he has stories for days! Even though his goal is to be and I quote, a man in the shadows, end of quote. That role has meant that we all get to benefit from him being a champion in bringing many great works to the world, a number of them that celebrate a set of diverse cultural themes. With a 50 year career as an entertainment lawyer, literary agent, and producer, Michael is someone we want to celebrate. His perspective, contributions, curiosity, and intuition is admirable and we're left with the feeling that this conversation was a real gift to us and this platform. Michael has produced books, films and theatre works for the who’s who of Canada, including Adrienne Clarkson, Silken Laumann, and Justin Trudeau. We loved hearing what Michael has learned about his background as he dug in deeper and deeper over the years.
Well, my background very simply is that I came on both sides of the family, to families that had been in Canada for quite a long period of time. Both families were by their roots Ashkenazi Jews. My Father's family came in the 1870s from Middlesbrough in England, probably Lithuanians. My Mother's family came from a little shtetl called Ivansk. Ivansk was in, well depends which hour, Poland, the Ukraine, Russia. It depends what week.
They came in the 1890s. I had assumed all my life, my Dad's family was very anglo. I always jokingly say I was a product of a mixed marriage and not only just a man and a woman, but a Father who did not speak one word of Yiddish and a Mother who tried to tell him secrets about the children and their bad behaviour. And whenever he would say something in Yiddish, she would say, "Pardon dear?" And that is one of my great childhood memories. In any event, I had simply naively assumed that my family had escaped all of the horrors of World War Two, The Holocaust, et cetera. In fact, the Rotenberg family, my Mother's family, was in the business of importing Jews.
So Joe Rotman, his grandparents, Peter Sussman from the film industry, Danny Iron from the film industry, all these families were brought into Canada by my family. And there is something in the Ontario Jewish archives called the Rotenberg ledger and it is a list of some thousand names of people who were brought in.
This is the largest population of Ivansk Jews in the world. Very inspiring and of course I never thought anything of it. And then the family intermarries, intermarries and intermarries and one day in 2017, I am at a party with a bunch of my third cousins. To clarify, my Great-Grandfather and his brother came to Canada together.
The brother had many more children, he had eight children. My Great-Grandfather only had five, only one of whom, my Grandfather had children. So I have many, many, many cousins who are actually my third cousins, but we're extremely close. All of a sudden my Hin-Jew cousin, I have a cousin who was a doctor whose father I think was the Indian ambassador and whose mother was Bluma Rotenberg who then became Raja Ahuja and converted to Hinduism.
He walked up to me and he said, "you know, my mom had a friend in Holland and they thought they might be cousins." Well, lo and behold, I get an address from him, I write to this Dutch family and I immediately get back a response and it turns out that when our Great-Grandparents came to Canada, their uncle went to Holland.
So they're actually very close relatives, but they've been separated for 125 years. Unbeknownst to me, they had suffered in the Holocaust and many died in the Warsaw ghetto. And then there was the one character that I think we will talk about, which was a man named Isaiah Rotenberg, who exhibited all the qualities of our family, which is that they were incredible entrepreneurs.
He buys a cigar factory in Dresden in 1932, suburb timing and spends the next six years suing the Nazis, getting thrown into prison, trying to protect 700 employees, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And his granddaughters, two journalists, actually write the story and I convince the Dutch publisher because it's quite successful in Holland to give me the English language rights.
And it was just recently published in January by Sir Wilfrid Laurier University Press. And I got one of my third cousins, Bobby Rotenberg, criminal lawyer, and murder-mystery writer to do the afterward rejoining the Siamese twins after a hundred and twenty-five years.
What a moment of pride that must have been, for someone who has been bringing other people’s stories to life to get to amplify his own family’s story. Maybe it was the empathy that comes from telling a personal story, or maybe it’s just lived experience. He told us the parallels of the racism and prejudice between different marginalized groups and he’s right. And that brought us to an extension of the idea of cultural roots, and how perhaps we are more similar than we think.
Well, the other thing that I wanted to mention, when you say cultural roots, et cetera. One of the most important historical books that I have ever read is Belonging by Simon Schama. Belonging is the history of the Jews from 1492 to 1900. And when you realize that Jews aren't white people, Jews are everybody. And that is a major problem in a world that is full of nationalism, because if you're not a Croat, or you're not a Serb, or you're not a Francophone, or you're not a Belgian, but you're a Jew. Where does that put you? Now many, many Jews hide. They hide in plain sight. For example, many years ago, I had the privilege of representing the honourable Adrienne Clarkson and her husband, John Ralston Saul. John came to me and he said, I think I'm Jewish.
And I said, "if you're Jewish, I am Scottish shortbread cookie." His mother dies, she's been hiding in plain sight. She's 100% Jewish, she's married a Scottish army person and it's probably the only, it's almost the opposite of the Indigenous community, where people are not, you know, if you want to be a Jew, you're a Jew, if you've got blood fine. I appreciate what the Indigenous community wrestles with.
And I totally appreciate the indignities they've suffered, but I've been somewhat not in the center of support for some of their reaction to people who are not quote "Indigenous enough". For example, Michelle Latimer, I'm a defender so you know, I'm a man of my own thoughts.
On the other hand, my Mother who I adored was the absolute equivalent of Mordecai Richler. In fact, when I met Mordecai and that's a pretty funny story, I said, "oh my God, you're my Mother." And when I was eight years old, my Mother came in on the Jewish high holidays and I mean, remember she and my father had opened, raised in Orthodox Jewish households.
By the time I was growing up, they were conservative. Ultimately got all the way to reform, but in the course of the conversation she turned to me and she said, "darling, I want you to understand that all religion is bullshit, that we are all the same and that however, your father is a social Jew. He likes to go to synagogue on the high holidays. I wouldn't be caught dead there. So would you take him?" So I took him from the age of eight until he passed away in his nineties. And I always felt, I liked the music and I kid mercilessly with Rabbi Yael Splansky at the Holy Blossom. I keep telling her I'm a Pagan and she says, you're the most Jewish person I know.
So clearly I've got a huge cultural history and a huge sense of belonging, but by the same token, I don't judge anybody and I have never, ever, ever cared of the colour of your skin, who you sleep with, any idiosyncrasy.
There was a play called Root Out of Dry Ground and what it basically said is if you don't know where you came from, you don't know who you are. So my interest in my Jewish heritage is to know who I am. It isn't the way I treat the rest of the world.
Knowing who I am helps me ground myself. It's like taking an electrical cable and grounding it so it doesn't short circuit, but then I turn to the world and I have an open lens.
I am blessed with one thing and that is a very, very clear sense of my own values.
I know what I believe in, and I know what I don't believe in. It doesn't mean that I'm not open to discussion and argument on marginal issues, but it does mean that when I see Putin go into Ukraine and call the Jewish president a Nazi, he's crazy, not me.
The idea of identity and religion and affiliation as proof of one’s belonging is such an interesting concept and the thought that Michael conveys around being “enough” in order to truly be accepted by community groups is so honest and thought-provoking. Now that we have a picture painted of Michael's own identity, values and opinions we spoke next about his vocational passion in the literary world.
Clearly, storytelling brings me joy. Clearly, living a life of passion so that every file I pick up, I care about. Hundreds of people walk in our front door at the literary agency with ideas and the nose only twitches every so often because you cannot possibly do it. One of the ways I've celebrated is by finding the great literature like Sir Martin Gilbert, like Shama, like Hollywoodism and turning it into a medium that reaches a wide audience and it says nice things about the heritage I come from.
We all recognize that as I jokingly said from time to time, I really hope the next sex offender is not named Epstein or Weinstein. We all know that there are good guys and there are bad guys. We all know that some of the oligarchs around Putin were born Jews. We also know that some of the greatest human beings on the planet, including people like Albert Borea, who brought us the Pfizer vaccine, including people like Albert Einstein were Jews.
We are every man, we are the good guys and we are the bad guys. So I celebrate the good guys and I celebrate the value of the good guys. For example, one of my favourite books, one of my oldest friends and you may find this very interesting, is a man named Michael Ignatieff. Michael Ignatieff and I met at university and in the model parliament, I was the Prime Minister.
He was my Foreign Minister and Bob Gray was Leader of the Opposition. Whenever I introduce Michael anywhere now, I always say one of us learned our lesson early, don't go into politics. Well, Michael after a brilliant literary career slipped into politics, then running George Soros' university in Hungary.
Well, after a contract I signed 26 years ago, he has just published a masterpiece called On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times. It has all of the indicia of religion without any specific religion, the closest you can get is Baháʼí. In other words, all points of view welcome. What are the values that underlie it?
So my life, I celebrate values, I celebrate humanity and I celebrate productivity. Those are the things I really celebrate and I'm proud of my heritage, although I am the first to admit that there are bad guys,
The other part of it, imagine this, Michael and I have been best friends since the mid sixties.
His great grandfather was the Minister of the Interior under Czar Alexander the Second. When Czar was assassinated, he said the Jews, he kept the Jews out of Russia. Now, here we are two or three generations later and Michael and I are best friends because we both learned from our predecessors. I learned to shave my beard and he learned to be tolerant.
I'm kidding, I'm kidding, he's one of the great human beings.
Exposure makes us all better, beautiful. We love how Michael wants to learn the good, bad and the ugly so that he can better understand himself and therefore try to be a better person. These are lessons we can all use. We were hungry for more of Michael’s sage wisdom, so if we were going to ask him any question from the Root & Seed conversation tool, of course it had to be about the best advice or lesson he’s ever been given.
Shakespeare, "to thine own self be true." That integrity, the willingness to confront reality, to be aware of your defects, to be aware of your strengths, to treat people with dignity and respect, but to move forward. Of course, I could also quote in a more amusing fashion the famous quote of Winston Churchill who said, "diplomacy is being so polite that when you tell someone to go to hell, they ask for directions."
My feeling about this has simply been that I will do everything in my power to be who I am and not some artifice. I don't need fame, I sure don't need greed, I've watched people destroyed with both of those elements. You know, would I rather be able to afford to go out for dinner or not, of course, but do I need to pile billions on top of billions?
Do I have to act like these crazy oligarchs and do that? Nope, it's of no interest. I've been to the funerals of some of the richest people and you know what, the box is the same size. If I had said, give me half your fortune and you can have 10 more years, they would have given it to me in a nanosecond.
So I value life. I value every day.
To have the level of conviction, and confidence in oneself. I hope we all can learn something from our conversion with Michael because I certainly feel like instinct is something that comes from our roots and we need to nurture it, so we can be better for ourselves and everyone around us. So yes, we want to celebrate Michael and his celebration and role as champions of other’s stories, cultural and not. A big thank you to Michael Levine for sharing his honesty and his life stories with us.
In complete contrast, we’re hitting the other side of the spectrum next episode to pure unbridled, liberating, dancing in the streets celebration. We can’t wait for you to meet Serena, so follow us on social media, or sign up for our newsletter at www.rootandseed.com to get alerts for when our next episode is out.
Root & Seed is hosted by me, Anika Chabra, Executive Produced by Jenn Siripong Mandel and Edited by Camille Blais.
Hosted by: Anika Chabra
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Executive Producer: Jennifer Siripong Mandel
Edited by: Camille Blais
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