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Levine, Morris, Dr.
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Dates of existence
August 14, 1903-October 9, 1990
Morris Levine (Jewish name Maishe Simcha Doctorovich) was born August 14, 1903, in the Red Bank district of Manchester, England. His father, Jacob, was born in Vilna, Lithuania, coming to England with his four brothers at the very end of the nineteenth century. Morris’ mother, Sarah, was born in Smolensk, in White Russia (now Byelorussia). Sarah came to Manchester, after arriving in Hull in Eastern England. Like many Jews of that time she was travelling through England on her way to the United States of America – the new promised land. Sarah’s mother died in Philadelphia and her sister ended up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Sarah did not travel on to the USA because she met Jacob.
Sara and Jacob had met in England and were married in 1899 or 1900. Their first son Samuel was born in 1901. When Morris was born, his birth registration listed his last name as “Le Vien.” His 1931 marriage certificate listed his family name as “Levene”. And when he came to Canada in 1947 he became “Levine” (rhyming with “fine”, he was probably surprised to discover was the Vancouver custom). After Sammy and Morris, Sarah and Jacob had five more children, all born in Manchester: Elsie, Becky, Bailey, Harry, and Sarah.
When Morris was a baby, the Levene family moved away from Red Bank to the district of Salford, one of Manchester’s inner suburbs. He grew up speaking Yiddish, which was the language of the street in that largely Jewish quarter of the Salford district, in the shadow of the infamous Strangeways Prison. Nowadays, the Jews have moved north to the outer suburbs of Manchester and the house on Pimblett Street is currently being used as a sweat-shop factory, staffed by Bangladeshi immigrants.
The house on Pimblett Street was small – two-up, two-down, like many English terraced-houses, without electricity or in-door plumbing. It was heated by its coal-fireplace, over which food was cooked in a large pot. Morris only ate with a spoon until he was nine years old. His parents kept an orthodox Jewish home: there are family stories that his father, Jacob, was a Hasid.
Jacob Levine worked a variety of jobs. He was described as a “cigar-box maker” on Morris’ birth certificate. He also did some street-peddling and other odd jobs. At some point during Morris’ youth, his parents set up a corner-store in their front parlour. Sarah helped out, as did the girls. Like many immigrants, Jacob and Sarah literally worked themselves into early graves by toiling for eighteen-hours a day when their family was growing. By the time they were in their forties, they were physically worn-out and increasingly supported by their children’s earnings.
Morris was the only one of the six surviving children who went to school past the age of twelve. Like Sammy before them, the girls - Elsie, Becky, and Bailey - all left school at the minimum school-leaving age: twelve. They bitterly resented Morris’ prolonged schooling because they had been required to go out to work as little more than children while he went to Manchester Grammar School on a scholarship. (At that time – and, in fact, until the present - MGS has been known as the most famous grammar schools in Britain.) Sammy emigrated to the US in 1918 (where Sarah’s parents and siblings had moved), eventually rising to become a department store manager in Jackson, Michigan. Harry, too, like his sisters, left school at twelve. He ran a little tailoring factory; he had been a sewing machine operator. Sarah died as a baby.
Morris went to Southall Street School and won an open scholarship to Manchester Grammar School at the age of eleven. Seven of the twelve open scholarships to MGS were won by Jewish boys from Southall Street School in 1914. At Manchester Grammar School, Morris blossomed into a classical scholar, completing the “Transitus” (Latin and Greek) “with distinction”. His success won him a scholarship and admission to Brasenose College, Oxford. However, he turned it down and used the funds from his scholarship to pay for his tuition at Manchester University’s Medical School, from which he graduated in 1926. As the oldest male child living in Manchester, he was expected to provide for his parents, to release his sisters from that obligation, and to provide them with modest dowries. He therefore declined the prestigious opportunity to study at Oxford and had to turn his back on employment in the John Rylands Library in Manchester.
Morris Levene married Ruby Hattenstone on August, 18, 1931; he was 28, she was 26. The Hattenstones were well-off in contrast to the Levenes. After their honeymoon in Devonshire and Cornwall, they moved into an apartment above his medical office on Ashton Road in Denton, Manchester, where he was a GP as well as doing psychiatric work. He was also the physician-on-call for the local police constabulary.
In March, 1933, Morris and Ruby’s first son, Sefton Lewis, was born in Manchester. In the late winter of 1940, during the period known as “the phony war”, Ruby and Sefton, together with a large number of aristocratic ladies and their children, boarded a ship in Liverpool which was to take them to relative safety in Canada. Ruby and Sefton came to Vancouver, living with Ruby’s widowed mother (Jane Groberman Hattenstone), as well as her sister (who was then Doris Schwartz – later Doris Berg) and her son (David Schwartz – later David Berg) on West 35th Avenue in the Dunbar neighbourhood, where they stayed until 1945. Meanwhile Morris had been enlisted in the military in England and given the rank of captain; he spent the war years in public service, continuing to work as a doctor in Manchester.
In the summer of 1945, after VE Day, Ruby and Sefton returned to England. In October, 1946, Morris and Ruby’s second son, David Cyril, was born in Manchester. A year later, after Morris’ parents had both died, the family left England from Liverpool aboard a CPR ship, “The Empress of Canada”, arriving in Quebec City in November, 1947. From there, they took the train to Vancouver. Before leaving for Canada, Morris cut all ties with his siblings in England.
When the Levine family came to Vancouver, Ruby’s mother, Jane Groberman Hattenstone, had purchased them a house on 49th Avenue, just east of Hudson Street. However, they moved almost immediately to 5990 Hudson Street, where they lived until 1989.
Morris wasn’t expecting to continue practicing medicine in Canada (he had been a doctor for twenty years by this time). He thought he could get a job with his wife’s relations, the Groberman family in Vancouver. That didn’t work out. He had to study all his basic medical courses once more in order to re-qualify so that he could be licensed to practice medicine in Canada. To do this, he went to Toronto in 1948, taking exams to gain his medical license.
Once he had re-qualified, Morris set up his practice in the Birks Building, on Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, where he employed one nurse. However, Morris was not interested in a high-overhead medical practice and he would move down-market, whenever his rent went up. In the early 1960s he moved from the Birks Building to a medical-dental building on East Broadway at Main Street. There, he maintained a low-cost, family practice and worked alone, without a nurse. In the 1970s he moved again, taking an office on Kingsway below Main Street.
Morris worked as a doctor to make a living; he had a core group of patients, mainly from the working and lower classes. At that time, there was no medicare and he often waived a fee for his services. As a family doctor, he looked after pregnant women, delivered babies, cared for infants, counseled adolescents, and was the doctor-on-call for his patients and their families. For many years, he was a geriatric-doctor working with the city’s large number of older men and women who lived alone, in retirement, or in “private hospitals”, which were located in large houses in the West End before the massive demolitions and their replacement with high rise apartment blocks.
In the 1950s Morris began to write poetry. He had a few poems published in local literary journals such as The Simon Fraser Review during his lifetime and was much more interested in this activity than in his medical practice. He was an avid reader and surrounded himself with books. He read widely and passionately – literary essays, short stories, classical Greek and Latin poets and playwrights, as well as personal favourites such as William Blake, Thomas Hardy, and John Cowper Powys. He subscribed to, and followed debates in Encounter and The New York Review of Books. He was also drawn to twentieth-century poets such as Nikos Kazantsakis, George Seferis, Osip Mandelstam, and the poet laureate Ted Hughes.
Morris had a prodigious memory and took great enjoyment in showing it off by reciting, off the cuff, favourite bits to visitors and family members before launching into a disquisition that careened from one interesting idea to another, often in no obvious order. He just loved an admiring audience, and there was much to admire and lots to infuriate his listeners. He was not particularly interested in debate since he often said that he refused to be bound down by other people’s categories.
He wrote largely for himself. His own poetry, which by the end of his life added up to many shoeboxes full of papers, was almost exclusively in the form of Shakespearian sonnets. Much of his work was composed in bed, after midnight, and seemed to have the attraction of a mental challenge. The sonnet form suited his purposes. He admired their shapely concision – the two-line turn at the end and the chance they offered, in fourteen lines to compress a great deal of word play and allusiveness.
He was not fazed by the fact that many of his listeners found his allusions opaque – and, indeed, he sometimes admitted that years later he was himself unsure of his references. He took great pride in his sense of difference, achievement, and experiences. Much of his poetry is shot through with personal reminiscences and reflections of self-discovery. He poured himself into his writing – his ghetto childhood of deprivation, parental love and sibling rivalry, his opportunities for advanced classical education, his experience of medical practice, and his life-long awkwardness in his own skin. He was ambivalent about authority, in whatever guise, and was suspicious of power, in whatever form it took.
By the 1960s, as he was increasingly drawn to his literary pursuits, he would often close his office, leaving a note on the door that emergencies should go directly to Vancouver General Hospital and all others should call him at home so that he could provide them with a home-visit in the evening. On such sunny days, Morris Levine was to be found at Spanish Banks, sitting on a deck chair reading or else composing his own verse. He was torn between his two callings and, increasingly, he became aware that his commitment to science was lagging behind the dramatic new innovations that transformed medical practice in the post-war era.
In these years, he was a quintessential family doctor – running a practice of the kind that was being out-dated by new developments in group practice and specialization. Aware of the leaps and bounds being made in medicine, when his patients needed more specialized care, he would arrange for it to be made available for them. His willingness to refer his patients to specialists created tensions with the BC Medical Plan; they thought that Dr Morris Levine was providing too much care-per-patient. In any event, Morris retired from his medical practice in the late 1970s.
Like many couples, Morris and Ruby Levine didn’t see eye-to-eye – he enjoyed the company of counter-culturalists while in contrast she wanted to be involved in Vancouver’s Jewish society. Their divergent interests and obstinate personalities resulted in a kind of stalemate. Morris had developed an alternative work and lifestyle, becoming connected to a group of “beatniks”. These young people referred to him as “Uncle”, because that was how the charismatic David Berg referred to him.
Morris was opinionated and not in the least shy about arguing passionately about anything and everything. He was gifted with a fabulous memory and remained mentally alert all his days. Intellectually, he was something of a gadfly. He was also very cheap – it was said he quit buying “LifeSavers” when the manufacturer put a hole into the candies. Before it was chic, he took great pleasure in dressing shabbily. He might have been born into an orthodox Jewish family, but Morris Levine was an atheist and a communist in his youth; as he grew older, he soon became disillusioned with party-politics and developed into something of an anarchist in his attitude towards hard-line authority of any stripe. He was always contemptuous of The Royals and suspicious of privilege. He always felt like an outsider yet he always wanted to be given the “respect” that his own position as “the Doctor” provided. Like so many people, he was a bundle of contradictions.
Morris was a terrible driver and, in the interest of public safety, gave up his license in the late 1970s, when he retired from his medical practice. No longer driving, he was isolated on Hudson Street but he remained a mesmerizing storyteller and a prolific writer of sonnets. He would recite Homeric verse with (or without) an invitation to do so. He also took enormous pleasure in composing naughty limericks.
Morris had been a heavy smoker, from the 1920s-1950s, smoking as many as four packs-a-day. Then, in the 1950s he quit “cold turkey” but subsequently he put on a great deal of weight. In 1973, while vacationing in Hawaii, he suffered a heart attack. In response to this setback, he threw himself into a rigorous program of power walking and diet restriction. His weight dropped from 230 pounds to 165 pounds in a couple of years.
In retirement, he spent a lot of time working in his garden, reading, writing poetry, and actively grand-parenting Sefton’s three children – Sara, Jason, and Ben – who lived nearby, on West 46th Avenue. He always took enormous pleasure in having his grandchildren sitting on his knee, telling them stories about “Jimmy and Teddy and Inspector Smith”. Having the grand-kids sit on his lap, rubbing his “story spot” in the middle of his forehead, he would reach back to his Manchester childhood and “gurn” - making-faces by sliding his false teeth in-and-out. Morris Levine was in his element. Later, when David’s children, Matthew and Rachel, would come to visit from Toronto, the same mad-cap antics prolonged his grand-parenting, which was a special joy to an old man.
Sometime in the early middle 1980s, Ruby became afflicted with Alzheimer’s Disease. Morris tried to provide in-home care but it became increasingly difficult as she became violent, anxious, and mistrustful of anyone and everyone. In 1989 Morris and Ruby sold their house on Hudson Street, moving to Toronto to live with their son David and his family. In a state of deep depression, and feeling bereft of hope as Ruby’s mental competence slipped away, in July 1990 Morris had surgery for an abdominal aortic aneurysm. To his great surprise and disappointment, he survived the surgery.
Morris had thought that he was killing himself by electing to have this surgery. A short while after recovering from this surgery, Morris took matters into his own hands. He stopped eating and drinking. Nine weeks later - on October 9, 1990 - Morris Levine died; his death was an attenuated form of suicide.
By this time, Ruby was living in a care facility with advanced Alzheimer’s Disease. At the time of Morris’ death, she was incapable of understanding that he had died. After Morris died, Ruby lived for almost three more years, increasingly losing touch with the world around her; she died on August 18, 1993 – the 62nd anniversary of her marriage.
Both Morris and Ruby Levine are buried in a family plot in the Beth Israel Cemetery in Burnaby – a long way from Red Bank, Manchester.
Vancouver, British Columbia
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Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia
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Last revised March 17, 2015