First I must be totally honest about this book, A Life Not with Standing by Chava Willig Levy. I do know the author. We spent a lot of time together in the 1970’s during her visits to her grandmother’s Jerusalem apartment a floor under mine. Her Bubbi, parents, Aunt Nettie and other relatives adopted us as family, which I’m grateful for to this very day.
My daughters were totally enamored with Chavi and somehow always heard the taxis pulling up. They’d rush out to our merpeset (balcony) just to check, and then quickly down the three flights of stairs they’d run to take Chavi’s bags to her apartment. They didn’t do it because they felt sorry for her; they did it because they loved being with her. That’s the Chavi we all remember, warm, caring and full of an emotional and intellectual energy that captivated everyone.
I must say that the Chava Willig Levy revealed in her memoir is a frightened little girl, the only Orthodox Jewish girl in a series of hospitals far from home and family. Chavi’s memoir allows us to see the pain and panic she suffered as a little child, weak, helpless and alone. Reading that early section of the book has me traumatized. It’s only due to the strong love she got from her family, their faith and support that she became the amazing person she is today. What’s very interesting is that in the book’s Appendix, she has excerpts from her father’s pocket diary which shows much more frequent family visits than it seemed in her memory of the time. No doubt that the days between her parents’ especially her mother’s visits seemed impossibly long, endless, and the same for her infrequent “vacations” home for Shabbat. This is Chavi’s book and Chavi’s memory from childhood onto her marriage with Michael Levy.
In the 1950’s, when Chavi was stricken with Polio and given all sorts of treatments and surgeries to counteract the effects, children didn’t have many rights, especially in the hospital. Parents were also kept away with very restricted visiting times. Things have certainly changed, especially in Israel. During the times my sons were hospitalized, the hospitals counted on the families to care for the children. The staff only handles medical issues/chores.
Chavi writes a lot about the years she dreamed of marrying and having children. I remember her talking about the specially designed kitchen she wanted to have in order to cook for her family. And I remember her complaining that people just tried to set her up with handicapped men, rather than looking at her intelligence and talents for matching. All this she elaborates in her book with her great honesty and humor.
“My Tante Chadsha gave my mother music too, but a music foreign to their Chasidic home. The first of her nine siblings, brilliant, multilingual Chadsha was twenty-four years old when Imma arrived on the scene in 1923. Single until 1930, she gladly helped raise her baby sister. And in the eleven years they were destined to share, Tante Chadsha filled Imma’s ear with note after glorious note of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Chopin and Grieg. Together with her parents and unmarried siblings, Imma immigrated to the United States in 1934, taking with her Chadsha’s passion for, and encyclopedic knowledge of, classical music. She gladly would have given up that treasure if she could have taken Chadsha with her instead. But three of Imma’s siblings—Chadsha, Aidel and Chatzkel—stayed behind with their spouses and children. Hitler’s henchmen murdered them all. Whenever I asked my parents for which departed relative I had been named, as is customary in Ashkenazic families, they would answer vaguely, “Well, for a wonderful aunt, we named you Chava. And your middle name, Yehudis, is also in memory of an aunt.” I always assumed they were referring to two of their own aunts. But ten years after Imma died, I learned that they had been referring to one aunt: mine.”
Finally, it was the gift of music that brought her together with her husband Michael.