Dr Leon Litvack is Reader in Victorian Studies at the Queen’s University of Belfast. He is a renowned Dickens scholar and broadcaster, working primarily on the novelist’s letters, manuscripts, and photographs. Leon is also a Cantor, and has sung in synagogues in the UK and Ireland, Spain, Italy, South Africa, Canada, the United States, and Israel. He is also the principal tenor of the Belfast Bach Cantata Consort. He recently appeared on Radio Four’s ‘Sunday’ programme, talking about Dickens and religion, and in January of this year he presented ‘Prayer for the Day’ on Radio Four, including one on Dickens — the first time this has ever been done on national radio.
If you could escape to another world, what would there be that is missing here?
Universal literacy. There are far too many young people and adults who do not have the necessary reading and writing skills to communicate effectively, to get good jobs, and to give themselves a better chance in life. It’s unfortunate that even with all of the advances we have made since Dickens’s day in technology, social support, and human rights, there are more and more people being left behind because their literacy skills are not up to the required minimum standard
What is the book you “inherited” from a parent or teacher that made a profound impression on you?
Tehillim (the Book of Psalms). At my school (Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto – Canada’s premier Jewish high school) we studied Tanach (the Hebrew Scriptures) constantly, and I competed in the Chidon Ha-Tanach (National Bible Contest) for many years. In preparation I learned many of the Psalms off by heart, and my dad (who attended Yeshiva in Radom, Poland, before the War) used to help me. He was able to reel off many portions of the Bible from memory, and I always came away hugely impressed. As a gift he gave me a tiny book of Tehillim which I could carry in my pocket. Many years later, when he lay dying in hospital, I read from this little book at his bedside. It was a great comfort to him, and to me.
What is the book you would like to pass on to the future generation?
There are several: David Copperfield is my favourite Dickens novel (and the author’s own ‘favourite child). It offers us much personal insight into Dickens’s own life, and there are whole passages repeated verbatim from a fragment of autobiography which he wrote in the 1840s. In speaking about the time, at age eleven, when he went to work in Warren’s Blacking Factory, he uses the haunting phrase ‘No words can express the secret agony of my soul…’. They are echoed in chapter eleven of David Copperfield.
As for Jewish books, the choice is more complex, because many of these tug at my soul. At school I always enjoyed Mikra’ot Gedolot, which offered all the classic commentaries of the chumash on single pages. Rashi was always my favourite: he has withstood the test of time. After more than nine hundred years, he is still worth reading (and his idiosyncratic Hebrew script is actually easy to read if you try hard enough!).
As for Jewish fiction, I always enjoyed the novels of Chaim Potok – especially The Chosen, for the way its characters negotiate the ‘ancient’ and ‘modern’ worlds. It’s still immensely relevant.
More recently I have become interested in Jewish meditation, and have conducted deeply moving meditative services filled with chanting, silence, and atmosphere. The best book on the subject is Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s Jewish Meditation: A Practical Guide. Meditation was always a part of Jewish worship, and deserves more attention. On the High Holy Days, after I led a meditative service, an elderly gentleman came up to me, and said that this was the second time in his life that he had experienced God. The first time was during World War Two, when, he claims, he was saved from enemy gunfire strafing the runway by praying to God that he would be saved. For mehat was very powerful .
What is the most Jewish thing you have ever done?
Kissed the stones and prayed intensely at Kotel Ha-Ma’aravi (Western Wall) in Jerusalem
When did you know you would become what you are today?
I always knew that I would be a Cantor. I sang Jewish liturgy from the time I was a child! The beauty of the words, and the ways in which the music brings this out, have the capacity to stir the soul.
As for being an academic, that career choice came while I was at University in Canada. As an undergraduate I attended a summer school in ‘Victorian Literature and the Arts in London’. I was taught by the people who were top in their fields (literature, art, architecture) and was hooked! Many of these people are still my friends, over thirty years later. I then came to the UK to do my postgraduate studies, and never went back.
If you had not, what would you be?
A doctor. That’s what my parents wanted me to be, and I’m glad that I didn’t take that route; but I can recall my dad saying to me, well into my thirties, ‘It’s not too late: you can still go to medical school!’
What is the best piece of advice you ever received?
Learn how to say ‘No’.
What would your superpower be?
The gift of physical healing. Music has the power to move, and to heal — psychologically; but I would still like to be able to heal the body. Perhaps I should have been a doctor after all!
Who (living or dead) would you invite to your ideal Friday night dinner?
Dickens (of course), because he was so jovial, high-spirited, and generous to friends.
Ellen Ternan (Dickens’s supposed mistress), to see how she behaves in his company.
Louis Lewandowski, because he left us an enormous legacy of beautiful cantorial music, which is known and celebrated round the world.
Debbie Friedman (the Jewish singer-songwriter), to thank her for her touching melody for Havdalah, which moves me to tears every single time I sing it with a congregation.
On the very distant day when you will make it to the other side, what would you like God (assuming there is one) to say to you?
‘Tell me what you did in your lifetime to help others’.
Incidentally, God does exist: there’s no doubt about it.