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Straight Shooter

Baila Rosenbaum

Israel Levitt dodged bullets during World War II, put himself through Columbia University, served gedolim at his pharmacy on the Lower East Side of New York, taught himself to read Hebrew, and supported the budding of an important yeshivah. The centenarian shares his life story and his advice for a younger generation

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

For a long time Israel Levitt was never quite sure how old he was. That wasn’t because of infirmity or memory loss — but because he was born before the Gregorian calendar was universally accepted. Born a little over a century ago, Mr. Levitt, now 102 years old, has lived through a large chunk of history. He evaded World War I, immigrated to America, endured the Great Depression, and fought in World War II in the Battle of the Bulge. After the world righted itself and settled into peacetime, Mr. Levitt resumed a hardworking life and raised a happy and successful family in suburban Queens, New York. For most of his days, Mr. Levitt did not enjoy the advantages of material wealth, a Jewish education, or the richness of the Torah world that we take for granted today. Yet his staunch emunah, his unshakable respect for Torah, and his unwavering commitment to honesty make him a man of real gevurah.  Hard Work Pays Off Israel Levitt was born in September 1913, but his real story starts in the early 1800s with his grandfather Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Levitt, the rav of the town of Siedlce (pronounced Shedlitz), Poland. The Rav’s son, Yechezkel Mendel, in a pattern that would repeat itself in the coming generation, was prevented from following in his father’s footsteps. He was drafted by the Czarist Army and sent to fight in the Russo-Japanese War. One day on the battlefield, he heard a cry for help. He discovered a wounded soldier, lifted him on his shoulders and carried him to safety. Sometime later he was called to headquarters and came face to face with an important general. “You saved my life,” the general claimed. “What can I do for you? How can I reward you?” At that time Jews were restricted to living in the “Pale of Settlement,” a western region of Imperial Russia. Yechezkel Mendel asked the general for permission to live outside the Pale and eventually settled in the town of Sevastopol, where he worked as a shoemaker. Though he bought a home and raised a family, his hope was to move on, not only from the Pale, but across the sea and out of Russia. Sadly, he never fulfilled that wish, dying at a young age and leaving his son Israel orphaned as a baby.

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