RABBI John Levi this week recalled his friendship of seven decades with national treasure Barry Humphries, who died on Saturday, aged 89.
The Temple Beth Israel emeritus rabbi first met Humphries when they were students at Melbourne Grammar in the 1950s. In a satirical essay Humphries penned for a book in 2020 celebrating the 60th anniversary of Rabbi Levi’s ordination, he’d written, “I think I remember meeting John Simon Levi in the quadrangle … I was struck, even then, 70 years ago, by his black hair, his narrow countenance and his look of amused intelligence. He has retained at least one of these attributes today.”
Reminiscing to The AJN, Rabbi Levi said that in the Anglo world of Melbourne Grammar back then, “I think I was the only person in my class who had dark hair.” Indeed, he reflected it was his friend Barry’s thirst to explore beyond his vanilla heritage that led him to befriend Jewish students.
In his essay, the famed entertainer mused about Rabbi Levi, “We struck up a wary friendship rather quickly and were soon cronies; part of a small group of subversive students who thought we knew better than our preceptors. Unfortunately, we did.”
Humphries befriended the school’s Jewish cohort after noticing they were the butt of an antisemitic student’s frequent jokes. He became a regular guest at the Levi family’s Victorian-era Malvern home. “I only knew boys who lived in new houses,” wrote Humphries. “How wonderful to live in something old, with books and pictures, and a mother like Maxine, John’s very attractive, sophisticated parent.”
In their university days, Humphries and the rabbi were on national military service at the Puckapunyal army base, when Humphries sketched his friend. Rabbi Levi later donated the 1953 artwork to the National Portraits Gallery.
Before Humphries’ 1959 departure for London, Rabbi Levi’s grandmother Katie Joel gave the budding performer a letter of introduction to the producer of The Mousetrap on the London stage.
Their friendship navigated Humphries’ rollercoaster life and his four marriages. (His fourth wife of 30 years, Lizzie Spender, is Jewish.)
Decades ago, Rabbi Levi and the late Rabbi Brian Fox made sure Humphries received attention for his alcoholism, the rabbis driving him to a Melbourne hospital for treatment. In the past two months, Humphries and Rabbi Levi spoke multiple times.
Humphries once mirthfully described Jews as “Red Sea pedestrians”. His last excursion from his hospital bed was to visit the Sydney Jewish Museum, not for an event, just to tour around, surprising the staff, noted Rabbi Levi.
“I always knew he was a genius,” the rabbi summed him up. “He remembered everything, and that’s how his characters grew.”