Two months later, Levine joined 250,000 people walking alongside Martin Luther King Jr. at the March on Washington to demand equal rights for African Americans. Although her husband, Seymour, feared that she might get hurt if violence broke out, Levine felt it was worth the risk.
“She felt that she needed to contribute to the world,” her daughter, Robin Levine, said last week. “She wanted to know that her life made a difference.”
An intellectual firebrand who left her mark everywhere she went, Levine saw her lifelong quest for a more egalitarian society end on April 22, when she died of covid-19 in a Long Island nursing home. She was 91.
She was her usual, politics-obsessed self almost to the end of her life; her daughters knew she was slowing down when she stopped discussing the Democratic presidential primary.
Levine is among tens of thousands of Americans who have died of covid-19 in nursing homes, where close quarters and an elderly population can make the illness particularly devastating. The Kaiser Family Foundation, a health-care nonprofit, estimates that 42 percent of covid-19 deaths in the United States have occurred at homes and other assisted-living facilities.
At least 21 residents of Levine’s nursing home, Highfield Gardens Care Center of Great Neck, have died with confirmed cases of covid-19 as of Wednesday, state data show. Federal records indicate the facility has 200 beds, but it is unclear how many are filled.
Highfield administrators did not return a request for comment on Levine’s death.
Social-distancing requirements meant that only four people could attend Levine’s funeral. Workers wore hazmat suits as they lowered Levine into the ground near her grandmother and namesake, Annie Frank, who died of the flu during another pandemic a century ago.
Levine spent much of her career as a bookkeeper, but her true passion was advocacy. Through the state of New York, she worked on family-court mediation, unemployment issues and senior citizens’ mental health. She also served on a task force of the Kupferberg Holocaust Center at Queensborough Community College and was active in the Queens County Democratic Party.
Her frequently updated Facebook page was a microcosm of her passions. Levine lamented the terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif., and Eric Garner’s death during an arrest in New York. She urged her friends to complain to their representatives about fantasy sports gambling and cheered on former secretary of state Hillary Clinton’s presidential aspirations as early as 2014.
Almost all of her sentences ended with at least three exclamation marks.
“This country is for ‘liberty and justice for all’!!!!!!” Levine wrote in March 2013. “Let us not forget that!!!!”
Faces of the dead
This is how they lived — and what was lost when they died.
After a childhood that culminated in an early graduation from high school, Levine wanted to go to college. Her parents, however, thought differently. Few young women at that time were encouraged to pursue higher education, and Levine’s parents considered it unnecessary.
Instead, she worked as a bookkeeper at a New York City jewelry store and exchanged letters with her then-boyfriend Seymour while he served in the Army during World War II. She married him in 1949 and raised their daughters, Robin and Sharon, to understand that the world was a big place and that they were not at the center of it.
As her girls grew up, Levine encouraged them to write to Helen Keller and Eleanor Roosevelt. She took them to historically black churches so they could learn how other people worshiped. She taught them, Robin said, “never to walk looking down at the ground — that I walk looking straight ahead, and if I happen to fall into a crack, I get myself out of what I walked into.”
Levine was the kind of mother who once marched into Sharon’s second-grade classroom with a New York Times article to correct the teacher after she contradicted Sharon in front of the whole class on the date that spring began. Levine informed the teacher that under no circumstances should she embarrass her daughter like that again.
She was, as Sharon later put it, a “force of nature.”
“She was a good cook, but she wasn’t the cookie-making mom,” Robin said. “She was the mom who encouraged you to do what you wanted.”
Levine was also determined to do what she wanted. After a divorce and 14 years of studying at Queen’s College, she got the bachelor’s degree that she yearned for. In her 50s, she decided that she still wasn’t fulfilled and needed to study public-interest law.
Her enrollment in the City University of New York’s law school surprised no one. Levine was known to carry around a pocket Constitution and whip it out to support her arguments. She would confront Post Office employees about the Christmas trees and menorahs they displayed in December: Didn’t they know, she argued, that religious decorations on public property violated the separation of church and state?
Levine didn’t mind a good fight, especially when it involved her core beliefs.
“If the Constitution was the bible,” Sharon said, “the Supreme Court was the church, and democracy was her religion.”
During a trip to D.C. to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, Sharon and her husband took Levine to the steps of the Supreme Court. The justices were deliberating the constitutionality of part of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which codified the federal government’s nonrecognition of same-sex marriages. Protesters were demonstrating against the law.
When Levine — then 84 and riding a mobility scooter — joined the rally, young activists crowded around her and chanted her name. The court eventually overturned Section 3 of DOMA and required the government to recognize legally married same-sex couples.
In between her advocacy and her eternal pursuit of knowledge, Levine thwarted breast cancer and colorectal cancer. Her daughters helped her move into a nursing home in her late 80s, when it seemed like the best of nonideal options.
Robin and Sharon will remember not only the flashy moments of their mother’s life, but also the little things: the way she did the New York Times crossword puzzle every day, the time she wrote a letter to former Canadian prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, her handwritten account of “Things that I love — Things that are me!”
She lived by the words of philosophers and poets she admired, sometimes carrying their books in her handbag. In her law school admissions essay, she quoted 19th-century poet Emily Dickinson to express what she wanted her career — and her life — to accomplish:
“If I can stop one heart from breaking,
I shall not live in vain;
If I can ease one life the aching,
Or help one fainting robin
I shall not live in vain.”
Around her 80th birthday, Levine was invited to Hofstra University to watch a presidential debate between veteran Republican Sen. John McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, a freshman Democrat whose campaign had elevated him from relative obscurity.
Obama accepted the nomination on Aug. 28, 2008 — the anniversary of the March on Washington.
The night he won the election, Levine thought back to advocating for the rights of African Americans all those years ago. While celebrating on the phone with her daughters, she cried.