All in the family

After years of encouragement from their children and grandchildren, the time to make aliyah had come.

(photo credit: ALAN ROSENBAUM)
"Forty trips to Israel and no bonus points," quips Norman Levitz, 94, as his wife, Doris, 91, looks on approvingly. The couple may not have received any perks for their frequent visits to Israel, but now they are receiving the ultimate bonus – they are making aliyah.
Sitting in their rented Jerusalem apartment, they tell an endearing story of how love, longevity and a bad back can conquer all.
Norman Levitz was born in Prohibition-era Chicago in 1924, and grew up on the city’s West Side, which was predominantly Jewish. At 18, he met Doris Berger, then 15, when his sister and brother-in-law moved to an apartment upstairs from Doris and her parents. Seventy-six years later, after three children, 12 grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren, they sit next to each other, clasping each other’s hand, cheerfully completing each other’s sentences, and gently needling each other. “He’s an interesting fellow,” she says affectionately.
Levitz was drafted in 1943, and served in the infantry in Italy during World War II, returning home in 1946. He and Doris married in 1947, and after graduating college, Norman embarked on a 50-year career as a chemical engineer for Argonne National Laboratory in the Chicago area. “We had no religious background,” he says. However, once they moved to the suburbs, they became more active, and eventually he became president of the synagogue.
The turning point in their interest in Israel came after the Six Day War in 1967. Norman recalls that there was a party in their synagogue celebrating the victory, which gave him the idea of taking the family to Israel. And so, in the summer of 1970, Norman, Doris and their three boys packed up and flew to Israel for a month’s vacation. Doris fondly recalls their travels throughout the country on Egged buses, and staying in hotels that had little or no air conditioning. Especially memorable, she says, was their visit to the Vered Hagalil ranch, which was run by Norman’s cousin, former Chicagoan Yehuda Avni.
In 1978, their youngest son, Ephraim, went to Israel to study for a year, and decided to remain permanently. Since then, the Levitzes visited Israel most years, spending time with their son and his growing family for Passover and family celebrations. Unlike some parents, who felt they were “losing” their children to Israel, the Levitzes were thrilled their son was in Israel. “We loved it,” she exclaims, “because we loved visiting here.”
Norman and Doris solidified their involvement in Israel by participating in Volunteers for Israel in 1990 and 1994, a program that joins Americans to Israel through volunteer service, by partnering with Israeli military and civilian organizations that enable volunteers to work side-by-side with Israelis. Clad in olive green IDF uniforms, the couple volunteered on IDF bases, labeling medical products and cleaning drum tops. As was his wont, Norman became a devoted volunteer, and headed the organization for eight years.
As Ephraim’s family grew, the Levitz grandchildren encouraged their grandparents to consider aliyah. “Every time we would come,” explains Doris, “they would say ‘Grandma, why don’t you guys move here?’”
Doris, who had returned to her college studies after their children were grown and had graduated at the age of 42, was busy working in a medical office, and Norman was involved not only in his work, but with numerous charitable causes, as well as the Orthodox synagogue they attended near their home. They continued their annual trips to Israel, but were not ready to commit to moving. Doris, whose grandmother was born in Chicago, has a great affinity for the city where she was born, raised and lived most of her life. In her best Midwestern accent, she says plaintively, “We love Chicago.”
As the interview continues, there is a knock at the door, and Rabbi Ephraim Levitz, their youngest son, enters, followed by his married daughter Orthodox Rabbi Na’ama Levitz Applbaum, and two of her children, for an impromptu visit. The Levitzes are delighted to see their son, granddaughter, and two of their great-grandchildren.
This spring, the Levitzes planned a slightly longer trip to Israel, through mid-June, so they could remain in Israel for their eldest great-granddaughter’s bat mitzvah. By the time of their trip, however, Norman’s back and legs were causing him great pain, and he had difficulty standing. After they arrived in Israel, before Passover, he could no longer walk. Says Doris, “I said to him, ‘what are you going to do going home? You can’t walk well.’ He said, ‘I don’t know’.” She continues in her plain-speaking Midwestern manner, “He was really up a creek. He didn’t know what he wanted to do.” Doris resumes her account. “So, I said, maybe we should move here.” She pauses. “Wow. The bomb went down, and he thought about it and he said ‘Nah.’” Norman, smiling, interjects. “Forty years I said no, and one day, he [pointing at Ephraim] took a movie of me saying ‘yes’ at the Nefesh B’Nefesh interview.”
Having decided to make aliyah while in Israel, Doris will soon fly back to Chicago to sell their home, pack up their belongings and discard what they no longer need. “I have four coats I have to throw away,” she chortles.
In the meantime, Norman’s back and legs have been improving somewhat, but he still can’t walk well, and will stay with his family until Doris returns. “Now that he’s getting better,” she says, “I’m going to let him start to make breakfast again.”
“I was in the infantry for three years,” he says ruefully, “and now I’ve got to walk.” Ephraim smiles and interjects, “There was only a gap of 75 years in between.”
Norman continues, “Sometimes I’m practical. Aliyah seemed to make a lot of sense. We love coming here.” As Doris says, the best part of living here is “my family. And I love Israel.” She pauses, and adds, “no more fur coats.” Recalling the founding of the state 70 years ago, she adds, “There was no great thing going on in my life with Israel at that time, but I always had the feeling I wanted to see it and be there and that’s where we are.”