The Levin brothers, Sandy, 9, and Carl, 6, by the family Pontiac in Detroit
The Levin brothers, Sandy, 9, and Carl, 6, by the family Pontiac in Detroit

In mourning his death at age 87, let us remember how special a leader and a fighter Carl Levin was.

Growing up in the 1930s and ’40s in Detroit, Carl Levin and his older brother and sister, Sander and Hannah, were close with their parents, Bess and Saul, who were part of an iconic political and Jewish family. But the inquisitive siblings awaited Sundays with relatives in the family’s westside home, first on LaSalle Boulevard and later on Boston Boulevard.

Robert Sklar
Robert Sklar
Former JN Editor

It was during Sunday dinner the siblings grasped the importance of current affairs and the role of thoughtful debate as the family typically gravitated into a lively discussion inspired by the national radio program Drew Pearson Comments. It was a time when parents encouraged their kids to try to make the world a better place via the then-noble calling of public service.

Bess, active in Hadassah, and Saul, a lawyer who served on the Michigan Corrections Commission, were Zionists who imbued in their children a love of Israel and Jewish life. 

Family values rooted in Jewish tradition motivated and guided Carl and Sandy as they went on to serve in government with resourceful dignity and a principled demeanor. In Congress, the brothers were drawn to the plight of Soviet Jews. And they supported a strong U.S.-Israel relationship but didn’t back away from questioning Israeli policy. 

Voice Of Reason

In mourning his death at age 87, let us remember how special a leader and a fighter Carl was in the cauldron of politics. En route to retiring from the U.S. Senate in 2015 after serving 36 years, Carl became an influential voice on national security and international diplomacy. He provided a moral and ethical compass for future generations of young Jews who held a yearning to serve with a similar style of honor and humility. 

Carl sought balance over bluster — and compromise, where possible, over partisanship. He was savvy, civil and articulate — and knew how to listen. He exuded leadership at every stage, from the Detroit City Council to the U.S. Senate. 

Never a flashy dresser or in awe of his standing, Carl, a proud Detroiter, connected with ordinary Americans. They appreciated his unswerving commitment to the well-being of the American people.

Carl cut his political spurs serving as unofficial campaign manager when Sandy won a state Senate seat in 1964. Carl won Detroit City Council terms in 1969 and 1973. 

The Harvard Law School graduates joined Congress within four years of one another. Carl was elected to the Senate in 1978. Sandy won his House seat in 1982; he did not seek reelection in 2018.

The Detroit Central High graduates — Sandy was president of his class and Carl served as treasurer of his — grew up sharing a room and came to share a passion for public service. 

Scaling The Hill

In a 2013 JN interview after Carl announced he wasn’t seeking Senate reelection, his wife of six decades, Barbara, kvelled over the “great integrity, energy and intelligence” he brought to Capitol Hill every day on Michigan’s behalf. Sandy described how Carl “has been able to get into the shoes of a lot of people and run on their behalf.”

And run Carl did.

Surely borne from those Sunday dinner-table debates while growing up in the heart of pre-1950s Jewish Detroit, Carl, a Democratic liberal, understood the art of respecting opposing opinions when it was clear they also mattered. 

Robert Sklar was Editor of the Detroit Jewish News from 1998 to 2011, thereafter serving as Contributing Editor until 2020.

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