Reviewed Book: Chava Willig Levy, A Life Not with Standing (North Charleston, SC: CreateSpace, 2013)[i]
In the spring of 1955, researchers announced that extensive clinical trials testing the effectiveness of Dr. Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine had been successful.[ii] Cases of paralytic poliomyelitis had begun to surge in the late 1940s and early 1950s, but now the medical community had a weapon to protect children from this feared disease which had been affecting an average of 35,000 people a year.[iii] However, the development of the Salk vaccine did not end the battle against polio immediately. Four months after Salk’s announcement, three-year-old Chava Willig was diagnosed with polio. In her new memoir, A Life Not with Standing, Chava Willig Levy reflects on the impact this virus had on her life, and tells her story of living a full life after polio.
Ms. Levy spends the first few chapters of her book discussing the acute stage of her illness, subsequent hospital stays and surgeries. While not mincing words or sugarcoating her hospital experiences (frequent blood draws, bouts of nausea and insensitive doctors all make their appearances), already in these beginning chapters, Levy develops a theme which underlies much of her memoir. Although being in a hospital brought real frustrations and challenges, Levy was not defined by those challenges. Levy’s feisty personality comes out in the stories she tells of sneaking out of her hospital room, trying to smoke a cigarette in the hospital lounge, and of speaking with hospital orderlies in spoonerisms (“Yow are hou? Fust jine….”).[iv] Enjoying a decidedly tumultuous childhood, Levy was “unaware that most people considered me a tragedy.”[v]
Levy spends the majority of her memoir discussing her adult, post-polio life. Polio left her with significant disabilities, making walking and using her hands difficult. However, Levy writes, her physical disabilities were not the greatest barrier to achieving her goals; the disabilities themselves “can’t hold a candle to the stigma the human race has attributed to them.”[vi] Levy writes how she worked hard to educate people who equated disability with helplessness. Recounting stories where she was singled out and brought a blanket at a cold outdoor rally, or when she was pushed, unasked, to the other side of the street, Levy shows her readers that having a disability does not mean she needs unsolicited help. Beyond individual stories, Levy’s overall accomplishments are a clear testament that having a disability should not translate to a life limited by disability. Majoring in French literature as an undergraduate at our own Stern College, Levy went on to pursue graduate work in the behavioral sciences, beginning studies at a career counseling program. A particularly poignant point in the book comes when Levy realizes that her work as a career counselor has left her feeling unfulfilled, and that she would flourish in a position where she would spend more time in the spotlight. Facing people uncomfortable with seeing disability in public, she nevertheless was able to transition into work writing and working in the field of corporate management training.
Achieving success and recognition in the workplace, Levy faced challenges living as an Orthodox Jew with a disability. While the Orthodox Jewish community places a high priority on family roles of marriage and parenthood, many friends, peers and matchmakers did not see Levy’s desire to get married as reasonable or likely. Set up with men much older than her or well below her educational level and being asked why she was on singles’ retreats, Levy’s dating process became arduous and frustrating. Speaking out strongly against the tendency to write off people with disabilities from the dating process, Levy brings in an interesting nuance. Set up on a date with a man with a speaking impairment, Levy realized that the way this man spoke truly bothered her. Advocating for greater openness towards dating people with disabilities, Levy points out that even having a disability did not make her interested or able to marry just anyone with another disability.
Memoirs are a great opportunity to get into the head of someone different than you, and Levy’s honesty and candor allow readers to feel as if they are truly participating in the author’s life. Instead of looking at a person with a disability, the reader is given the opportunity to look at the world through the eyes of someone with a disability. Reading Levy’s book, you can’t help but root for Levy as she pursues her goals for a fulfilling career, enjoyable hobbies and a growing family. By the end of the book, Levy’s accomplishments make the reader realize that these goals are certainly attainable. But not all these goals are achievable on one’s own. Especially in the Orthodox Jewish world, where communal life is highly valued, people with disabilities should not be closed out and left on the margins. It takes forethought to make sure that a staircase doesn’t stop a worshipper in a wheelchair from coming to shul, or that a lack of school nurses, psychologists or other professionals doesn’t prevent a student with disabilities from getting a Jewish education. Reading Chava Willig Levy’s account reminds the reader just how important that forethought is.
Atara Siegel is a Senior at SCW majoring in Psychology, and is the Editor in Chief for Kol Hamevaser
[i] A Life Not with Standing is available as a print book at http://tinyurl.com/k6qxwo8. The e-book version is available at http://tinyurl.com/mos5gqr.
[iv] Levy, p.43
[v] Levy, p. xv
[vi] Levy, p.5