My Doda Chavi could do anything.
Even though everyone tried to tell her she couldn’t.
They said to her parents she might not live. They said she’d never walk. They said she’d never get married. They said she’d never be able to have children.
So they said…
It’s not that Doda Chavi didn’t listen. She listened to everyone and gave a good word and advice to those who needed it.
But she never gave up. Not even on her last night on earth – she stayed to the end of the Pesach Seder, before she was taken from us, in the morning.
Chava Willig Levy, my mother’s younger sister, was born in New York in 1952, and at age three contracted the polio virus, which gave her physical challenges, but didn’t stop her from becoming a real-life hero and influencer, with the help of her parents, who made sure she could go places. Whether it was an Enrico Macias concert, right after one of her many operations, or a Jewish afternoon program near their Kew Gardens Hills home.
While Jewish day schools were not yet accessible to people who used wheelchairs in the 1960s – when she graduated high school – nothing could stop her from going to Yeshiva University’s Stern College for Women. She not only received a B.A. in French literature, she also continued her education and got an M.A. in rehabilitation counseling from Columbia University and pursued doctoral studies in counseling psychology at New York University.
All the while, she was looking for “the one,” and while many people tried to discourage her, she never lost hope. And in the meanwhile, she played matchmaker. For example, she can even take some credit for the marriage of her sister, my mother, to my father.
And when she finally met Michael Levy, who shares her love for music, words, and children (oh, and also happens to be blind), their almost 40 years of marriage produced beautiful musical Shabbatot, a “Breathtaking” musical podcast, many games of Scrabble, two beautiful children, Tehilah and Aharon, and many grandchildren.
She spoke about being “independently dependent” and was always able to describe eloquently the best way we could help her, whether physically or otherwise. Every time I came to her home in Woodmere, including the last time in January, her house was buzzing with helpers preparing for Shabbat, many of whom later had Chavi dance in their weddings, using her motorized wheelchair, of course.
Ah, that motorized wheelchair… I remember when Doda Chavi visited us in Israel in 1980, when I was six years old, and hitching a fast ride on her “motorcycle.” Nothing could stop her from getting around. She fought to get the New York buses accessible, and made sure to always live next to a synagogue – first Lincoln Square Synagogue when they lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and then Aish Kodesh in Woodmere. And she wrote extensively about her experiences, including the spiritual journey to mikvah and motherhood.
When I shared with my colleagues at Herzog College about my aunt’s passing, one of them commented that he sees that education is an important value in our family. I was going to correct him that my aunt was not an educator. After all, she worked as a vocational counselor, a management trainer, and a communications consultant. But after further thought, I realized he was right: Doda Chavi was an educator! Not only to her family, but to the thousands of students who heard one of her inspiring lectures, such as “Gam zu le’tova, or was this really necessary?” which showcased her positive way of looking at life’s trials and tribulations, or those who participated in her workshop – “Mommy, what’s wrong with that lady?” – in which she and her young listeners would discuss how to see the person and not only their disability.
And what about that article in Parents magazine? “The Bad News About Barney” criticized that purple dinosaur so many children watched, for his lack of ability to face the existence of unpleasant realities. That was also an educational tool. It was even quoted by the United States Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.
During her funeral, we heard from a known scholar who met her in university and shared that Chavi taught her not to sugarcoat things, but to face reality in order to deal with it in a proper way.
I didn’t know that the Shabbat at her Woodmere home in January would be the last time I would see her. But I am so happy I was able to experience again the pre-Shabbat “Shabbat waits for no one” atmosphere which my grandfather instituted, and to have her delicious chicken soup, along with stories about niggunim, which run in our family.
The first musical album Chavi and Michael listened to together was “HaKeves Hashisha Assar” (the 16th lamb), by Yehonatan Geffen, who also passed away recently, and Doda Chavi ends her memoir A Life Not With Standing (recommended reading!) with a quote from his poem “Layla Tov.”
Goodbye Doda Chavi. You will be missed by your family and so many friends.