There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
This time of year, I often think of Gershon Levin.
Levin was the cantor at Shaare Tefila Congregation—founded in Northeast D.C. in 1951 before moving to White Oak for 40 years, and now located at a new site in Olney, Maryland—from 1966 until his retirement in 2005. I’m not sure when I last saw him lead services, but it was well before he retired. Despite that, when I picture high holiday prayers in my head, they’re led by Cantor Levin, a big man with an equally big voice.
This year, during the Ten Days of Repentance between the Jewish new year of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, I thought of him for a totally different reason: because tight end Vernon Davis caught a touchdown to extend Washington’s lead over Oakland in the Sunday Night Football game on Sept. 24.
It’s not an immediately obvious connection to make, even if you’re looking directly at the reason. The D.C.-born Davis has a lot of tattoos on his 6’ 3” frame; the relevant one is on his right forearm, Hebrew letters surrounded by a rose and thorns. The text comes from the Song of Songs, chapter 3, verse 4, and the original design was hand-calligraphed by Cantor Levin.
The bridge between the two men was Cantor Levin’s daughter, Dahlia. Dahlia worked at the University of Maryland from 2001 to 2013 in an assortment of academic advisory roles, providing academic guidance to student-athletes. It’s the kind of job that, when done correctly, can have a real impact on the lives of the students—Dahlia helped develop Davis’s love of art and encouraged him to change his major from criminal justice to studio art.
It’s also a job in which the advice given might cover a wide variety of topics. In 2005, Davis wanted a new tattoo that would represent a sentiment that was hugely important to him at the time. He discusses it briefly in a video profile created by Jess Atkinson for the university that year, showing the tattoo, saying “That’s what this tattoo on my arm represents. The things that I used to do when I was kinda lost … the things that I’m doing now, I kinda see that as being found.”
Davis had always been intrigued when he heard Dahlia and her father speaking in Hebrew on the phone, so he turned to them both in helping him craft the tattoo. “One day I think we just asked my father,” Dahlia says. “Was there a Bible verse that embodied that sentiment of finding himself but in an artistic and poetic nature?”
Cantor Levin, on campus to visit Dahlia at work, also appears in the video profile. First Davis summarizes the tattoo in English—“My heart has found what my soul’s been lookin’ for”—and then the cantor recites it, first in Hebrew (“Ma’tzati et sheh ahava nafshi”), then in a slightly more direct, less-colloquial English translation (“I have found what my soul has searched”).
It was exactly what Davis had been looking for. “It was spot on,” Davis says now, reminiscing. “It worked, and I put it on my arm.”
Davis drew the rose and thorns that surround the text, after reviewing Song of Songs with Cantor Levin and finding that imagery in it. The Hebrew letters were a different story, as Davis neither speaks nor reads Hebrew. It was fortunate for him—bashert, or ordained, as Jewish people sometimes put it—that Cantor Levin just happened to be a gifted calligrapher. He picked up the skill decades earlier, working a printing press for his father in Israel at the age of 10, and honed it throughout his life—including while earning a degree in art from, coincidentally, the University of Maryland.
So the cantor wrote out the Hebrew words and the tight end added his own artwork and the whole thing remains on his right forearm, sharing skin with tattoos in honor of his kids and his grandmother and many other things. “All my art is meaningful,” Davis says. “Anything I put on my body, I try to make it so that it’s meaningful and it’s something I could cherish for the rest of my life.”
Art has become an essential part of that life, from the personal—Davis had an art gallery in San Francisco during his time with the 49ers—to the profound—his Vernon Davis Foundation, created to promote art education and appreciation among disadvantaged kids, recently gave scholarships to students at Maryland and Howard—to the goofy—he took Huang’s World host Eddie Huang to Chris Cooley’s pottery studio to recreate a scene from Ghost.
Cantor Levin died in 2014. In Judaism, the traditional phrase to insert after the name of someone who has died is “may his memory be a blessing.” Davis’s tattoo and the story around it feels, in some ways, like the physical manifestation of that concept—a verse from the Bible, done in calligraphy by a cantor with an art degree from the University of Maryland, on the arm of a D.C.-native football player who studied art at the University of Maryland, who now plays for his hometown team and gives art scholarships to kids at area schools. Dahlia, who found a framed picture of Davis’s tattoo among her father’s things after he died, finds it fitting. “My father would always nurture those sparks he saw in others,” she says.
All of which is why a perfect Vernon Davis touchdown made me think of Gershon Levin and somehow seemed like a fitting part of this year’s high holidays.