In the early 1940s, when Los Angeles attorney Burton Levinson was about 11 years old, he had an experience that he credits for helping to change the direction of his life.
After living in Pittsburgh for a number of years, Levinson's family had moved to Ironton, a small town in southeastern Ohio at the edge of the Appalachian Mountains. The Levinsons were the only Jews in the community of 10,000 people, and when Burton went to grammar school for his first day of classes, "the children, with their mouths open, circumnavigated me . . . absolutely staring at me, because they had learned, I don't know how, that there was going to be a Jew going to their school."
One day, as Levinson recalls it, he decided to brave what had become the consistent taunts of classmates and stand in line to buy an ice cream at a stand across the street from school. With kids yelling at him and pushing him, he finally made it to the front of the line. "I put my nickel on the counter," Levinson said, "and asked for a chocolate ice cream. And this woman said, 'Oh, you're the new Jewboy in town. We don't serve Jews.' "
Today, more than 40 years later, Levinson says that "if I could find that woman now, I'd like to thank her." He credits her with beginning a process that culminated June 5, when he took office as national chairman of the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith. The ADL, with 31 regional offices, is the leading organization in the United States fighting anti-Semitism.
However, many years were to pass before the seeds planted by Levinson's experiences in Ironton blossomed into what is today almost a full-time commitment. In 1944 the family moved to the Los Angeles area, eventually settling in the San Fernando Valley. After graduating from North Hollywood High School in 1949, Levinson attended Los Angeles City College for two years--"My academic background is not outstanding," he said with a laugh--before dropping out to work with his father in a small jobbing business, selling mostly hosiery.
While at City College, Levinson met his future wife, Anita Suddleson, and in 1952 the two were married. The following year the first of their three children, Ellyn, was born, and soon after the Levinsons bought a home in Van Nuys. But the jobbing business was "barely hanging on," Levinson said, and he felt "terribly frustrated intellectually."
In 1957 he began attending night classes at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles, while still working during the day, and finally graduated in 1962, magna cum laude , the top student in his class of 25.
After passing the bar exam, Levinson opened his own law office on Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. The practice soon flourished, and today the firm of Levinson & Lieberman, with 12 attorneys, occupies a suite just a few blocks from the original location.
Shortly after he went into law, Levinson and his wife purchased the home they live in today, a spacious ranch-style house with pool in the hills overlooking the San Fernando Valley. For a number of years the couple concentrated on raising their three children (Sherry was born in 1956 and Douglas in 1959) and nurturing Levinson's growing practice. But in 1972 an opportunity came along that Levinson calls "just one of those unique coincidences. I wonder sometimes if there wasn't an aspect of fate."
A friend of the Levinsons, active in the ADL, had asked them to contribute to the organization, and they had sent in a check. Evidently this had put them on a mailing list, because soon after they received a letter about an upcoming trip to meet with Jewish leaders in several South American countries. "I said to Anita, 'This might be fun. Would you like to go?' " Levinson recalled.
Traveling with a group of about 25 or 30 others, the Levinsons visited Brazil, Argentina, Chile and Peru. "This was all only a few months after the killing of the Israeli athletes at Munich," Levinson said, "and there was a lot of tension in the Jewish communities in those countries." There had been a recent wave of anti-Semitism, and Levinson was hit hard with the realization "that there were 900,000 Jews living in Latin America that could be on the brink of something catastrophic."
"I just exploded," Levinson said. "I became so energized. Here were people in Latin American Jewry who were really on the skirmish line, facing blatant anti-Semitism, who fought to preserve their Jewish identity. It made me look at my own identity."
The trip transformed Levinson into what he now calls "a born-again Jew." When he returned home, he immediately made plans to attend an upcoming meeting of the ADL's Latin American affairs committee in New York, and later became chairman of the committee, taking several more trips to the Southern Hemisphere over the following years.