In Memoriam: Daniel D. Levenson
I haven’t been blogging at all for the last couple of days because I got word just before the weekend that my uncle and godfather, Dan Levenson had reached a crisis in what has been a long and cruel illness. Emergency surgery didn’t help and in the early hours of Saturday morning, he died.
Some of those who read this blog are friends and family; many of them met Dan over the years and know the truth of the following: he was a mensch. His picture is in the dictionary next to the phrase “a good man.”
I spoke to him a little over a week ago, and he sounded great. We had plans to see each other for dinner on Tuesday, to celebrate my birthday. I cannot say how cheated I feel that my fiftieth will come and go unblessed by my uncle.
Dan led what I think of as an exemplary American life. His grandparents were immigrants — from Lithuania, I believe. His dad, my grandfather, became a businessman, and early on got into the movie theater business. (One of grandpa Max’s employees was the very young Louis B. Mayer, before Louis headed west.) Grandpa Max had an up and down career — but he did well enough to send all three kids to college, my own dad and Dan to Harvard, at atime in my father’s case when there was still an unspoken Jewish quota in 02138. Dan graduated in 1954, and was drafted, just like most men of his generation; he served as an enlisted man in the US Army in Germany in the mid 1950s.
He finished his service, came back stateside, and went to law school in California where he met my aunt Helen. They courted, in part, by babysitting the infant yours truly, an experience that, astonishingly, neither deterred Helen from marrying Dan, nor convinced them to forgo child-rearing of their own. They made ’em out of strong stuff back then
After law school he came back to the Boston area to help look after his parents, turning down good opportunities in California. As he started his practice as a tax and estate lawyer, he began what became a life-long commitment to the kind of service we’ve heard some in national life praise in recent days, and others mock.
He volunteered as a civil rights litigator for the ACLU, and earned the distinction, according the legendary Judge Charles Wyzanski, of having become the lawyer who appeared before him most often to defend the use of the word “fuck” in open court. Later in his life, he devoted great energy and care to an organization called Mazon, a Jewish charity committed to ending hunger in the US and worldwide.
That was Dan: throughout a long career — he was still going to work within days of his death, two years into a battle with an awful combination of health problems. He worked as hard as anyone I knew; earned a good living, and made sure that the lure of more money never distracted him from doing the things he thought would make his town, his religious community, his country and his world better places.
These sound like cliches, I know, but they are not. Dan was extraordinary if you knew him, but in a crucial way his life was an extraordinary expression of the ordinary American sense of who we are, or who we could be. He was successful, but not a celebrity. Hard working — but so are lots of folks. He made damn sure that whatever it was that he did, his job title and so on — that the claims and rewards of his work did not exhaust the definition of who he was. And that was a good man.
He was enormously generous, with time and care as much as money. He was funny as hell. He was a great father and the uncle you want your own kids to have. I cannot write how much I admire Dan Levenson; I cannot say how much I miss him.
One last note: As I wrote above, Dan and his family became passionate supporters of the charity, Mazon. It was started in 1985 in the aftermath of a terrible famine in Ethiopia. Its founder noted the disparity between that suffering and the wealth on display at the celebrations of traditional Jewish festivals and life cycle events.
Drawing on the tradition that at such celebrations, the joyful party could not begin their feast until the community’s poor and hungry were seated and fed, Mazon proposed that in current practice, celebrants donate three percent of the cost of their Bar Mitzvah party or wedding or what have you to care for the hungry. The organization has grown from an initial annual grant budget of $20,000 in 1986 to last year’s total of over three million. My uncle Dan was an early believer in the logic and the cause of Mazon, supported it, spread the word, served on its board.
This blog is a complete freebie. I haven’t even bothered to put up the Amazon Associates link that would get me my thirteen cents should anyone follow one of my book recommendations. I’m not asking for money now. But if anyone were so minded to remember Dan (if you met him) or to honor the memory of a stranger’s good life, a donation to Mazon would be a good way to go.
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