Date of Birth: 1891
Date of Death: 1971
Place of Birth: Detroit
With a stylus, she made a raised dot or impression:the size of the head of a pin. Six dots in different, precise arrangements made a letter of the alphabet. Dot after dot, she patiently filled the page with the words of a book. At the end of the page, if there were two errors, a mere two dots out of place, she discarded the page for her grandchildren’s art projects. Lillian Keidan Levin repeated the challenge of transcribing braille until it was perfect, knowing it would bring the pleasure of reading to one who was blind, through the Shaarey Zedek braille group.
Lillian Keidan Levin was born in Detroit in 1891, the sixth of eight children of Abba and Hannah Fredl Keidan, and the first of the family born in the United States. The family had emigrated from Lithuania/Poland after an attack on their town by the Cossacks, a wild attack which destroyed their small business and caused them to look for a better, more secure future in America.
In her later years, Lillian handwrote a 65-page manuscript of her family’s happy history in Europe, of the Cossack attack, and the decision to immigrate and resettle in Detroit– gleaned from the stories told by her mother, Hannah Fredl. They help reveal the motivations of her daughter, Lillian.
According to the manuscript, Abba Keidan came first, put a pack on his back, and joined his brother, Wolf, in rural Petoskey, Michigan: lumber country. Successful as a peddler, Abba eventually accumulated the $36.40 needed for ocean passage for his wife and (at that time) their five children. As they were an observant Jewish family, Hannah recommended settling in Detroit, where there already was a practicing Jewish community. Since they spoke Polish, they opened the Keidan Store in the Polish neighborhood at 600 Gratiot at Dequindre–within walking distance of the early Congregation Shaarey Zedek at Congress and St. Antoine. Their high-quality dry goods store, which was closed weekly for the family’s observance of the Sabbath, was popular: Their non-Jewish customers would gather for the reopening on Saturday night, watching together for the first star which ended the Sabbath. Hannah Fredl herself was often sought out by friendly customers and neighbors to write letters for them to their families in Poland–a veritable ambassador.
As a young girl, Lillian attended public school in Detroit. She was a diligent student. Her older brothers, highly educated in Jewish studies in Europe, continued with private Jewish education in Detroit. Young Lillian was dissatisfied. An early feminist, she insisted that if the boys could have a Hebrew education, so could she! And so young Samuel Levin, the son of the esteemed local rabbi, Judah Levin, was hired as the private Hebrew teacher for Lillian and her older sister, Ida. Ida did not like being “roped into” these extra studies. Soon after, Sam became a student at the University of Michigan and was initiated as president of the charter chapter of the U-M Menorah Society. He invited Lillian to be his guest at the dance in Ann Arbor, and filled her dance card. They were married in August 1914.
Lillian’s husband, now a college graduate, taught English to foreign-born students at the old Central High School on Woodward Avenue (now part of Wayne State University). In 1917 Principal David Mackenzie established the Junior College of the City of Detroit. Among its seventeen faculty members, Mackenzie hired Samuel Levin. Through the years, this morphed into Wayne State University. Samuel Levin, the first Jewish professor in Detroit, eventually chaired the Department of Economics and spent more than forty distinguished years with the university.
Married to a distinguished professor, without a formal college education of her own, Lillian made significant contributions in rewarding volunteer activities. She was active in the Wayne University Faculty Wives Club–in the days before women were faculty themselves. I can remember frequently meeting in our home Mrs. Hilberry, wife of the president of the university. Lillian Levin helped establish the first Jewish sorority at Wayne, serving as founder, sponsor, and advisor, and welcoming the young women into our own home. During the 1930s and 1940s, Lillian was a dedicated volunteer English teacher to Detroit’s Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. In the Russell Woods neighborhood, she also served for several decades as a Hadassah study group leader, which attracted a large group of interested, educated women.
While Lillian revered education and Jewish studies, and was an avid reader, our home and garden were “the work of her hands.” It was clearly a Jewish home. But Lillian Levin made sure it was always a place of hospitality to all: friends, family, community leaders, and my father’s fellow faculty and their wives. She spent many hours preparing the cakes, puddings, and desserts which graced the table when she entertained so beautifully.
A traditionally observant Conservative Jewish woman, she made Friday night Sabbath dinners special occasions. The feast of Kosher home-cooking ended with her own special apple pie. As long as she was able, Mother walked several miles to Sabbath morning services at Shaarey Zedek on Chicago Boulevard, our family’s spiritual home. And her home-cooked Seders included extended family, friends, and community leaders– with long discussions led by my father (and robust off-tune singing). I remember Fred Butzel, known as the “Dean of Detroit Jewry” as a guest, bringing a hostess gift of a small bronze sculpture, which he presented to me. It seems he knew my mother would fuss and object, so I was the beneficiary. I still have it and love it.
My mother’s garden included forty rose bushes, all chosen, planted, and cared for by her. While gardening, cooking, sewing, entertaining, and raising an active family of four children, Lillian also valued contributing to her community in meaningful ways. As soon as she had finished her day’s work, she had a book in hand and read into the night. As I look back, I realize that much of what she read (the complete lives of Beethoven, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Franklin Roosevelt) was of men and women of accomplishment who had to overcome difficulties, challenges, and obstacles. This was indeed Lillian Keidan Levin’s own story.
When I was nine years old, and the only child still at home, my father was called to the telephone. His face went white. A few days later, he and my mother drove to Ann Arbor. My wonderful older sister, Miriam, was in tears. No one explained to me what was going on, but this is what I remember. In Ann Arbor, my mother had an urgent, pioneer, colostomy surgery that changed her life. She had intermittent colostomy surgery at the University of Michigan hospital for the next three decades with no explanations. I never heard the word “cancer” or a discussion of the “Big C.” It is different today.
With the gift of her life, my mother was determined to use it to make a difference: to raise her younger daughter and make a significant volunteer contribution. Advanced braille-writing to help the blind motivated her. As the technology advanced, she was given a sophisticated, typewriter-like braille machine. Now she could learn and produce the even more challenging Hebrew braille and mathematics braille. She was hard at work transcribing in her home until her death at age 80 in 1971. She “beat the odds” and lived to see fifteen grandchildren born. At the time, this was considered a medical miracle. After her passing, she was honored by the International Jewish Braille Institute in New York City for her accurate and demanding transcriptions. Her talent and dedication to the task brought her satisfaction and a will to live. And It made a difference to those whose lives she had enriched, opening doors for them that otherwise might have remained closed.
Written by Judith Levin Cantor (June 24, 2016)