Sara Levi

Karen Wikander

Yesterday, on the Ides of March, my grandmother, Sara Levi, passed away. She would have been 100 years old in July. 

My grandmother was born on Rhodes, a small island off the coast of Greece with a tumultuous and storied history – if a country and its history can infuse the spirit of a human, then Rhodes and my grandmother share a soul. The romance of Rhodes, with its ties to Turkey, Greece, and Italy, sculpted the woman that my grandmother would become.  She was born into a world of beauty, warmth, culture, and peace. She would watch, luckily from afar, as her island was overrun with Germans and her family taken to concentration camps, where many of them were killed – her parents on the first night.

This is a woman who came to the United States without knowing any English (though she could speak Italian, French, Greek, Turkish, and Modern Hebrew), but figured out how to survive. Grandma Sara started in New York City with her sister, working in a factory, and was miserable following this path. Rather than remain discontent, she set out for California, with the goal of reaching her brother in L.A., which she did, but eventually ended up in northern California, settling in Berkeley. She met my grandfather, who worked for the railroad, was a published poet, and taught her English by reading her Shakespeare and Dickens.

Grandma Sara found some semblance of stability in Berkeley. I say some semblance because my Grandmother was always nomadic. She liked having a home base but would travel back to Europe as often as possible. Her heart was there. I’m sure that’s why she loved Berkeley and San Francisco. For Grandma Sara, this was the closest she could come to Europe in America, especially pre-technology boom.

Her life story is so incredible and so robust that I can’t even begin to share it here. Yet when she passed I knew I had to write something – had to memorialize her in some way – because without Grandma Sara’s blood in my veins, I wouldn’t have chosen a path in the humanities. 

Growing up in Incline Village was like being raised in the center of D.C. – nothing was more important than being American. At school we worshipped the holy trinity of Ronald Reagan, American currency, and the 4th of July. Our veins coursed with the ingredients for apple pie. As a child, I could not understand this woman who was my father’s mother. Always talking about literature, the opera, and Europe, she was this alien creature. She didn’t want cereal for breakfast – she was hoping for some thick European-style yogurt, fruit, nuts, and some cheese. (It’s funny how cutting edge her Mediterranean diet was.) She couldn’t figure out why my Dad barbequed so much red meat. Why did we watch so much television that wasn’t PBS? The only reason she cared about the 4th of July was because it’s my Dad’s birthday. She was the antithesis of everyone and everything I was surrounded by. Visiting her in California was no different.

Her garden in Berkeley was overrun with plants and flowers. She made thick, black coffee that filled the house with a gorgeous aroma I was too young to appreciate. We didn’t eat quickly so that we could run to the TV and watch cartoons, but were expected to eat a leisurely meal and hold conversations. There was art everywhere. Not the art that I was used to, but statues, Italian and Turkish vases, ornate dishes, and prints of works by Renaissance artists. Books celebrating France and Italy were scattered everywhere, as were biographies of significant politicians, artists, and Jewish women. She liked to tell me the story of how she saw Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir at a French café, and walked right over to introduce herself and have a conversation. She was bold and opinionated. She both loved me and challenged me. 

When I attended graduate school in England, I found out that Grandma Sara was spending a month in Italy. I flew over to visit. This trip was a revelation for me. 

Literature has always been my life. I used to hide in the bathroom, lock the door, and read books – it was always a place of peace. I’m fairly certain my family thought I suffered from extreme gastric problems. I was the kid who read under the covers and went through books so quickly that I broke my Dad’s wallet. When I was in the third grade I had my first epiphany. Maybe it wasn’t the first, but it’s the most significant one. I read The Lord of the Rings, the entire The Dark is Rising series, and the Trixie Belden adventure, The Mystery of the Queen’s Necklace. (Hey, I know that Trixie Belden is no Lord of the Rings, but I’ve always been an equal opportunity reader.) All three books take place in England. (yeah, yeah, I know. . .Middle-Earth. . .whatever, it’s England) And it was at this moment that I realized that I had to live there. My entire purpose shifted. Sure, I still wanted to be an ice-skating detective (detective by day, ice skater at night), but I would be that in England. Equestrian? England. Marine Biologist? England. I read those books and suddenly felt like everything in my life would make sense if I lived in England (whatever didn’t make sense to 3rd grade me). 

And it was true. When I landed in England I felt like the part of my soul that was written in some strange language had been decoded. When I met Grandma Sara at the Venice Marco Polo airport, I finally understood why her soul was always split between two worlds. I realized our common blood. Watching her in Italy, everything that I had never understood fell into place. She was incredible. We travelled, had long conversations, viewed iconic locations, and ate amazing food. But more than that, she introduced me to people – she tried to show the introverted me the importance of the human connection. While there, we had meals with many Italians that my Grandmother knew – conversations about art, music, literature, humanity. I watched her and realized that this is what it meant to live life – to experience life. What was amazing about that trip is that every town we went to we ran into people who knew her. Every town. Sometimes it was a person who had only met her once, but remembered her. And trust me when I say she spoke to everyone. She would ask someone for directions and then a block later ask someone else. It drove me crazy, because I knew I could navigate us there on my own. I finally realized that she just liked making the connection – she liked having a brief conversation and finding out a little something about each person’s life. I miss that. I remember thinking, after I left Italy, that I would take this with me – this desire and need for conversation – but it’s hard to have that in America. We’re all in such a rush – we’re all so tired. Grandma Sara knew how to take a moment – how to live life on her terms.

I read Grandma Sara and her life as I would a great piece of literature. At times it was difficult to believe that I shared a bloodline with this adventurous, rebellious, uninhibited Mediterranean woman. And I’ve often struggled to understand her choices and her temperament. But I know that my blood carries some of that romantic nature. And having left England I know what it’s like to feel as if part of your soul is missing from your body. As I grow older my understanding of what shaped this woman deepens, as does my respect for her incredible journey. There are not many people left in this world like Grandma Sara – the world lost an epic, legendary figure on Saturday. Rhodes had it's Colossus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and I had my grandmother, a wonder of the modern one. I can only hope to live every day with as much passion as she did. As Grandma Sara would always say, “the best is yet to come.”

If, after reading this lengthy blog post, you're still interested in my grandmother -- or want to hear about life in her own words -- a short movie was made about her life.  I'm embedding it here. When you watch and see her smile, you'll understand everything too.