A man of valor, strength of character, and determination to make a better life for his family. Your stories of heroic courage inspired all to pursue their dreams. A remarkable talent for speaking six languages brought you friends from all four corners of the world who admired you dearly. Your desire to genuinely help others earned you praise from countless admirers and your holy, blessed life was spent in ways that will outlast it.
by Elie Levy
My earliest memory of my father comes from about age 4 when he’d sit me on his knee while living in Tira – a community in Haifa and he’d say to me “Yom Eichad holcheem le America” One day we’ll be in America. He’d claim we’d have a car, big home and enjoy luxuries we missed in Tira. So -- 1963 arrives and we’re on a ship to New York – busted with two bottles of whiskey he needs to sell to cover a room in a hotel and some food. He sells the whiskey for $16.00 – gets us a room at a hotel and he gets us bread and cheese. Joey was 6 months old, Betty was 4, Ezra 5 and a half and I was 7. The next day we’re on a flight to Odessa, Texas where my dad’s sister Jeanette lived and where we stayed for a few months. My dad desperately searched for work with no luck – then he’s off to Chicago alone to inquire about becoming a butcher at a kosher meat plant. He’s hired – and we’re on a train to Chicago in 1963. Chicago welcomed immigrants – with its established, ethnic enclaves and it pulled for the muscle and unlimited psychic energy in my dad – a pure, raw force accompanied by knuckle busting work to ensure our survival. This was Chicago -- manufacturing, commerce, sports, finance,jazz and high culture. My dad and mom relied on self to survive – they were industrious and resilient not retreating from challenges. I’d join my dad when he worked on weekends at Halstead street at a flea market selling PANTALONES with the rabbi’s son. Dad also did yard work on weekends to earn extra money. Mom worked at a beauty salon and together, the family thrived spiritually and we lived within the just good enough limits.
In 1966 – we celebrated the purchase of a 1966 Chevy Chevelle . Dad surprised us when he drove that red beauty right in front of our apartment. In 1967 we moved into a condominium on the North side of Chicago – he paid $16,000 for it and mom and dad were proud. We’ve always been anchored to our Yiddishkeit -- Jewish community – Shul every Saturday and my parents managed to find the funds to send the older ones to full time Hebrew Day School a few years. We were now on the move – all championed by these foreigners with inexhaustible energy to assimilate into a country glorifying self-determinism. Chicago laid the foundational years – the scaffolding my parents erected to sustain the family. Dad always held more than one job – and Chicago provided him with limitless opportunities to bust himself. His buddies included Manuel, Lieto and a bunch of other immigrants we all met at the Sunday picnics at Austin Park – that park where them Italians, Germans, Mexicans, Czechs, Irish, Poles and Jews met to celebrate cultural pride and liberty. There was never any shame – just pride we were surviving in the land of self-discovery. Chicago ultimately revealed to my dad that he possessed the MOJO to make it. By this time – any uncertainty he imagined about his abilities to achieve for the family vanished. In 1969 – we move to Long Beach and dad finds work as a butcher at Lucky – and mom works. It was tough though – and dad doubles up with work to provide. I remember the days he worked at Arby’s because he brought home roast beef which wasn’t kosher – and mom yelling at him to keep that stuff out of the house. With time – we buy a home – sell – get into another home – sell and dad starts buying property with a partner and we’re good. Mom and dad purchase a bakery and dad manages while mom sells cakes. After 15 years they retire, enjoy life and become grandparents. Dad and mom loved traveling and we all enjoyed vacationing in all parts of the world.
Here’s what you need to know about my dad. He was born in Cairo – and as a child was sent to a Catholic, French orphanage with his older brother Maurice. The family couldn’t afford to raise the two boys – there were 6 kids. To gain admission to the school they changed my dad’s name to Jules Narbonne and he didn’t know he was a Jew. He excelled academically – learning French and Latin and he impressed the faculty enough to be trained as an altar boy. The administration encouraged him to enter the Priesthood. His parents visited my dad and his brother Maurice a couple of days a month – bringing both of them pieces of fruit. Years later my dad leaves the orphanage and he’s told his real name is Nessim Levy and that he’s a Jew. He works for a couple of years as a tailor with his dad and at a department store in Cairo in their import/export department. My dad says he was the youngest to be hired in the department store because he achieved a perfect score on the test they gave him. It was dangerous living as a Jew in Cairo at the time – and he was beaten up on a few occasions for being a Jew. A good friend of his was charged as an Israeli spy and was executed. My dad was given a tip that they were coming for him next and he was smuggled out of Egypt the following day. He got on a ship to Naples, Italy before moving to a refugee camp for Jews in Rome – then finally to Marseille, France. My dad was 19 at the time. He arrives in Israel in time to fight in the 1948 war for independence and the 1956 Suez War. He meets my mom and they marry in 1954 – have me in 1956 followed by Ezra, Betty and Joey.
My dad lived fully – pushing the boundaries only to discover his limits – and I think he learned he could push, pull and grind out results that benefitted all of us. Dad sacrificed – self-denial was his makeup – and this ensured our economic, spiritual, physical and social needs were met. He was absolutely selfless – altruistic and comforting. He never chased the accessories of life – fancy cars, big homes or objects that displayed his success. His penchant was to level out the field of life for anyone -- giving in any way to support others on the move. All of his earnings were spent on family and he gave graciously to the 10 or so employees of the bakery. Together – dad and mom funded, as much as possible the college education of four kids. For being a utilitarian man with simple needs -- dad was discerning, intuitive and took well measured risks which got him the results he wanted. He intuitively operated with a psychology that enabled him to understand others and his place in the world. He never took a business course – yet bought and managed property, including the famous Leona Rose Bakery in Long Beach that he and mom operated. He taught himself financial management and accounting – and his managerial skills were innate. His employees at the bakery adored him for being the ultimate manager – empowering, empathetic, kind and always over-extending himself to ensure they were cared for in every way. His employees never left because he showed them genuine care and love.
Anyone that knew my dad would undeniably assert he was a gentle soul – worthy of praise and kind words. He didn’t compare himself to others – and if he did it was a downward social comparison – throwing a lifeline to the underserved. I’d bring him to Founders – my residential care program for the mentally ill – where he’d be the ultimate storyteller to the folks living with Schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders. His stories of heroism inspired the residents to reach big and wide for their own recovery. My dad’s words were healing and therapeutic and the residents drew close to him. My dad was insightful – and having realized the powerful impact he had on the residents, he says to me one day while we’re having coffee at Coffee Bean – So the patients like me – and I don’t have any fancy degrees and I’m no bigshot university professor. I said -- What do you mean by that Dad? Dad says – I’m a big shot too. Yeah – you’re a bigshot dad. He liked to poke us – claiming he had his own website, wrote books and again – was a bigshot. He could laugh big – and at moments he’d laugh hysterically.
All of us took care of dad the last few years. However -- Ezra invested an incredible amount of time managing dad and mom’s health. Ezra lives with mom and dad – and you know we’re eternally grateful for you. Dad relied on Ezra to mend him and be his loving caregiver. Joey and Lysa cooked meals for my folks – and Joey spent a considerable amount of time ministering to dad’s needs – from taking him to Trader Joe’s to the Saturday morning Coffee Bean runs and lunch. Joey – dad saw ultimate love emanating from your soul to his – and it brought him enduring happiness just hanging with you. Lysa and Nora are the reservoirs of endless love and care for dad and mom. Both of you showed our father what ultimate love, care and responsiveness truly means. Betty showered dad with the nurturance only a daughter can and this warmed dad’s heart and soul. The grandchildren were deeply loved by my dad – and in turn, all of them appreciated the mighty impact this man had on their parents and the death defying legacy he leaves us. My dad spent his life in a way that will outlast it. The grandchildren were affectionate with dad – and he adored all of them.
In the end -- dad appreciated the days he was given by Elohim. He wished for lots – and many of his dreams were fulfilled – especially coming to mighty America. The four kids exceeded mom and dad’s expectations – and we settled on careers that glorify the enduring virtues you inculcated in us. We all believe that early on he was given glimpses of this fascinating place called America – and what one could become given one invests and commits to self-discovery. Faith in Elohim – and living with elements of uncertainty drove him to ask the right questions in life – the ones that mattered the most to him, family and Hashem -- and in the end – he persevered and achieved everything that Elohim set him up for. Hashem created a genome that loaded him up on raw strength, brains – temperance – compassion – generosity – and he supplied him with the language gene. My dad never claimed to be better than anyone – but only taking pride in measuring how far he came from where he began. His soul traits of humility, generosity, sincerity and compassion endeared others to him. He enjoyed having friends from every corner of the earth – he laughed big and hearty – and never crowded anyone out of space. He took up his rightful space in the world – which we’ll call his humility. In Orchot Tzaddikim – The Ways of the Righteous – we claim that a small deed done in humility is a thousand times more acceptable to Hashem than a great deed done in pride. Dad lived as a holy soul, never sacrificed the ways of the heart for selfish reasons and he gave abundantly. He practiced Tzedakah – honored justice, fairness and was righteous. Dad was grateful for the good in his holy life – and it was a sign of a heart made whole and pure by Hashem. His heart only knew selflessness, compassion, generosity and treating everyone with respect