By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News
One of Norm Levitz’s most outstanding characteristics is that he’s delightfully stubborn.
He grew to love Israel on his annual Passover visits over four decades with his wife of 71 years, Doris, to son Ephraim Levitz and family. “The country of flowers, as I describe it,” said the descriptive Norm, 94. The scenery was great, the history was even better and the multi-generational welcoming committee in the spring was the best.
After Norm finally retired in 2000 from an astounding 52-year-career as a chemical engineer, the bulk of the time handling nuclear materials, at Argonne National Laboratory, Ephraim and mishpocha kept pitching him the concept of moving to Israel and becoming an even bigger, happier family in the Jerusalem area. They’d move the needle a bit on Doris, like her husband a confirmed Chicagoan, living in a longtime Lake View townhouse on Pine Grove Avenue.
But Norm kept saying no. A rabbi and day-school educator, Ephraim Levitz prayed here and there for his father to one day see the light. Perhaps the devotion was answered in an odd way. On his parents’ Passover visit this year, Norm was not in great shape physically. He had aches and pains, his mobility was limited, and he was getting around in a wheelchair.
“I told him he shouldn’t get on that plane (back to Chicago),” Ephraim recalled. “I asked if would stay on, that you just have to realize it’s a change of life. He looked me in the eye, and said you’re right. This is the time.”
Israel has turned out to be an elixir for the Levitz’s. One of the oldest couples to ever make Aliyah, the dynamic duo has found both emotional and especially physical benefits for their in-the-process transition. Norm Levitz has regained some of his mobility.
As a man who used to spend his lunch hours at Argonne jogging on the laboratory track, he knew all too well he’d need to move it or lose it. The climate change has enabled him to graduate to a walker. The Levitz’s Chicago home had only stairs. Now, he is in an elevator building with a mall for strolling, albeit slowly, next door.
“His pain is almost gone. He is almost pill-free now,” said Ephraim Levitz.
“We got him to a couple of doctors,” said Doris. “They said we cannot have a house with stairs. We’re very eclectic. We blend in very well with whatever we’re doing.”
Of her husband, she adds, “I like this guy. I’ll stay with him another 10 years.”
So other relatives are helping the Levitz’s clear out decades of chazerai in the townhouse as it goes on the market. “Norm never threw out papers,” said Doris, who nevertheless has pressed him into service as a faithful dishwasher.
The Levitz’s made Aliyah via Nefesh B’Nefesh’s Guided Aliyah Program, which works together with Israel’s Population and Immigration Authority and the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, along with the Jewish Agency, Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael and JNF-USA. The organization has helped facilitate the Aliyah of more than 57,000.
Nefesh B’Nefesh may never have worked with a more accomplished couple than the Levitz’s, who already have done volunteer work in Israel. Their needs are straightforward now – comfortable, accessible retirement digs and medical care. And perhaps Aliyah advocates should get both new immigrants and sabras together to listen to the surplus of storytelling the couple could conduct.
Their story was deemed so appealing the Jerusalem Post gave the Levitz’s the celebrity treatment in the newspaper’s magazine section.
Both Doris, who graduated Roosevelt University at age 42, and Norm needed to wear badges that detected whether they had a too-large exposure to radioactivity on their jobs. Doris worked for a laboratory at Northwestern University, then at the Veterans Administration.
Norm was a World War II GI in the infantry. Later, he helped found the B’nai Israel synagogue in west suburban Westchester, of all places. He went on to serve as president of Anshe Shalom synagogue in Lake View.
“If he wasn’t at work, he was in volunteer service, taking care of poor people and those stricken with cancer,” said Ephraim Levitz.
The couple met in 1942. Living on the West Side, the 18-year-old Norm met the 15-year-old Doris Berger when Norm’s sister moved upstairs from Doris and her family. But budding romances were often interrupted by the war. He was soon drafted. Going overseas, he landed in France some months after D-Day.
“I wasn’t very religious at the time, but we had a Jewish memorial service I conducted (by the French coast),” Norm recalled. “We were then taken by plane to Italy, and flew in over the Leaning Tower of Pisa. We were the first U.S. troops to walk to the Austrian border from Italy.” To this day Doris is thankful Norm was not enmeshed in heavy combat.
Norm did not have enough “points,” awarded for length of service, for a quick discharge. So he did not return to Chicago until 1946. Doris was waiting for him, though. They married in 1947. Completing a college education interrupted by the war, he graduated from the University of Illinois in 1948 with a degree in chemical engineering.
Norm started work at the Argonne lab, then located at the Museum of Science and Industry, soon after graduation. “A buddy said they were hiring,” he recalled. The lab was an outgrowth of physicist Enrico Fermi’s original nuclear reactor at the University of Chicago in 1942.
Physicists and engineers were charged with developing new reactors for generation of power and other research, with no weapons work included. Soon Argonne took over a huge tract of land near west-suburban Lisle for its permanent headquarters. The establishment of a nuclear facility near Chicago attracted the curious. Guards caught ABC reporter Paul Harvey – yes, that Paul Harvey – when his coat became entangled in barbed wire as he snooped the lab’s perimeter early in 1951. Harvey was not charged with any crimes amid the paranoia of the McCarthy Era.
“We processed nuclear materials that came out of Hanford,” Norm said of the original U.S. nuclear weapons plant from the Manhattan Project in Washington state. “We converted uranium to plutonium, and dealt with getting rid of nuclear waste. And we worked with Adm. Hyman Rickover’s projects with breeder reactors.”
He did not fear getting an unintentional dose of fatal radioactivity. “I made up my mind someone upstairs was watching,” Norm said. “Our work was monitored. We wore counters with our badges that measured radioactivity to which we were exposed.”
Ephraim Levitz had some interesting go-to-the-office with Pops expeditions to Argonne. He, too, was monitored for radiation exposure.
“Dad took me many times to the lab,” he said. “I always enjoyed it. We used to go early in the morning. Dad ran on the track and they had a swimming pool.”
Norm stayed on full time for 38 ½ years, then was allowed to continue part-time with less demanding office work for another 13-plus years. He did not want to sit around in retirement.
“I worked with a great bunch of guys,” he said. “It was great, productive work.”
Doris Levitz also had her own aspirations and talents. She had a scientific aptitude. But like the majority of the women of the early post-war era, she had to initially defer education and career to raise a family. Ephraim was the youngest of three Levitz boys. Oldest son, Bruce, is an attorney in California. Middle son Sidney is the executive chef at North Central College in Naperville. “He feeds 2,000 kids a day,” said Norm.
But as the boys grew up, Doris returned to Roosevelt, to get a bachelor’s degree in biology with a minor in chemistry at 42. Going to college with middle age approaching was challenging. “Your memory isn’t as sharp, but I got A’s,” she said. “At one time, I wanted to be a doctor, but I’m glad I didn’t do that.”
Doris worked at a laboratory at Northwestern University for more than two decades, then moved over to the VA Research Building. Ephraim also has fond memories of visiting Doris on the job.
“I worked in one place for 22 years, he worked at Argonne for more than 50,” Doris said. “Never a dull moment.”
The couple early on became active in Jewish life. While Argonne set up shop in southern DuPage County, the Levitz’s moved in 1950 to west suburban Bellwood – an unusual place for Jews then and now – to cut Norm’s commute to the lab. An Orthodox synagogue had operated in nearby Maywood, but a new synagogue for other Jews was needed nearby. The Levitz’s helped build B’nai Israel in Westchester. A young rabbi, Paul Greenman, was recruited. Nearly seven decades later, they found out truly how small the world was.
Norm and Doris checked out a senior’s building recently in the Jerusalem area. Of all people they should encounter in the lobby, there was Greenman, also in his 90s.
“It was a total shock,” said Ephraim. “My dad said, ‘I can’t believe I’m seeing my rabbi from (nearly) 70 years ago.”
After serving as president of B’nai Israel, Norm also ascended to a similar job at Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel congregation after moving to Lake View. His consciousness about Israel was raised witnessing a synagogue party celebrating the victory in the Six Day War in 1967. Three years later, the Levitz’s took their three sons on their first, month-long visit to Israel.
Ephraim took a class trip to Israel, and decided to become the first family member with a permanent address in the Jewish State in 1977.
“He told me he would be a Yeshiva boy. This guy just loved it. He’s happy,” Doris said of Ephraim, who went on to earn a master’s degree in education and a PhD in Jewish Letters.
Ephraim’s growing family became the nexus for his parents’ annual visits. But their time in Israel was not all family kibitzing and bouncing new grandchildren on their knees. In 1990 and 1994, Norm and Doris joined Volunteers for Israel. Americans work side-by-side with Israelis in civilian and military organizations. Norm got back in uniform along with his wife to label medical products and clean drum tops at Israel Defense Forces bases. Norn headed Volunteers for Israel for eight years.
Now life revolves around family. “We have 16 9/10 great-grandchilden,” said Doris, her careful accounting factoring in a very pregnant granddaughter.
The urging about making Aliyah has ended. There’s no consideration for working or volunteering. The Levitz’s, firmly planting a little more of Chicago in Israel, can simply enjoy life – and each other.
“They are enjoying the ride,” said Ephraim, happy to have the extra responsibilities of older parents at hand.
“Their love for each other is remarkable.”