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Tough love, high energy, hard work, and respect for family were among the touchstones that defined the life of longtime Wilmette resident and renowned pediatrician Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, who died Oct. 2 at age 92.
In turn, those attributes also helped define his high-profile children, former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Hollywood agent Ari Emanuel, medical bio-ethicist Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, and Shoshana Emanuel.
“In our case, the exuberant energy remarked on by almost everyone who knows us probably comes directly from our father’s DNA,’” wrote Ezekiel in his book “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family.” “Ben Emanuel’s workdays often ran to fourteen hours or more, and then he would be on call every other weekend, and yet he never seemed to tire…Our dad’s genes have predisposed us to be high energy.”
Asked of what he was most proud in his life, during a 2018 podcast interview with his son Rahm, Dr. Emanuel said: “I am proud that I raised four kids that are honest, that are successful, that are compassionate for what they do.”
Those were among the many memories recalled and sentiments recounted Oct. 6 during services for Emanuel before a full house at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts. Services began with four dozen uniformed Chicago police officers walking in procession to the stage to pay their last resects to the family.
In articles written over the years about Dr. Benjamin’s famous sons, variations of the phrase “controlled mayhem” were often used to describe the scene at their family dinner table in Wilmette, where there were plenty of raised voices and strong opinions all around, with Dr. Emanuel at the center of it all.
Rahm further clarified the scene during his eulogy.
“You argued with the people you agreed with and fought with the people you disagreed with. That is how we discussed things. And when you fought, you brought everything to that discussion,” he said.
That philosophy extended to the family chess board. “My father did not believe in falsely building up his sons’ self-esteem by purposely letting us win or larding on excessive praise. He played to win and teach us by real competition,” wrote Ezekiel.
Ezekiel explained in his eulogy that his father’s famously pugnaciousness personality, which left no room for softness around the edges, was partly a function of being an Israeli immigrant. “He said and he did what he thought was right. In that, he was total Israeli.”
His parents left Odessa in 1905 and settled in Jerusalem. They changed their name from Auerbach to Emanuel to honor his 18-year-old brother Emanuel, who died in 1933 from an injury sustained during a skirmish between British police, Arab and Jewish protestors.
In the 1940s, he took part in an unsuccessful scheme to smuggle guns from Czechoslovakia to the Israeli underground. In 1948, after getting his medical degree from the University of Lausanne, he returned to Israel as a medic to join the forces fighting to create the new state of Israel.
"Perhaps because my mother was a pacifist, the war stories he told us downplayed the fighting, but we heard enough to understand that he had received very little training before he was assigned to what passed for Israeli artillery,” Ezekiel wrote. On one mission, an assault on Gaza, “my father’s group won a series of skirmishes as the Israeli forces encircled the Egyptians and cut their supply routes.”
In 1953, with $24 and a Parker pen in his pocket, he emigrated to the United States, speaking Hebrew, French, and Italian, and soon English and German. While working as a doctor at Mt. Sinai Hospital, he met his future wife Marsha Smulevitz, who was an x-ray technician at the hospital. After a brief return to Israel, where he tended to the sick, they returned to Chicago, where he joined Michael Reese Hospital and opened a practice nearby.
Dr. Benjamin was ahead of his time in terms of an appreciation for basic civil rights. For a short time he worked at Elgin State Hospital, which was a mental institution, and was able to get a number of the patients released who were not suffering from serious mental illness and were simply being overmedicated.
Similarly, in 1962, at great risk to his practice, Dr.Benjamin sued the city of Chicago over lead poisoning in children’s brains caused by house paint. “I did what I thought is for the health of the kid,” he said in the podcast. “You don’t think about the future or anything else. You do what’s right. You have to decide in life what’s right and what’s wrong.”
“He taught us ‘you fight for what you believe in,’’” said Rahm.
Dr. Emanuel’s reputation as a loving, caring pediatrician quickly grew, and his practice thrived as he advised his new parents to “hug, love, squeeze your baby.” “He loved people, he charmed people, and people were drawn to him and loved him back,” said Ezekiel.
In 1968, the Emanuels moved from the city to Wilmette. “To him, a house in the suburbs was part of the good life, and an essential element of his plan to make our family financially secure,” wrote Ezekiel. He was also aware that many other Jews had moved into west Wilmette, and that New Trier West was a welcoming school.
All the while, Dr. Emanuel was also modeling valuable life lessons for his children.
“I saw that a man’s work was important, that he must pursue it tirelessly, and that it might require certain sacrifices, like being away from the warmth and comfort of home,” Ezekiel, wrote.
Other of those life lessons: “Family is very important,” Dr. Benjamin said in the podcast. “You have to know you belong to a tribe.”
Ben and Marsha, his wife of 64 years, were founding members of Am Yisrael Conservative Congregation, and the services were officiated by Rabbi Debra Newman Kamin. “Together they built a family filled with love and laughter,” she said.
Their marriage was equally loving. “They held hands every day and often at night,” she said. “Marsha was holding Ben’s hand as he passed, and she continued to hold his hand until the funeral home came, and the people who came to get him said Ben’s hand was still want from Marsha holding it.”
Dr. Emanuel was the husband of Marsha nee Smulevitz; father of Dr. Ezekiel Emanuel, Honorable Rahm (Amy Rule) Emanuel, Ariel Emanuel and Shoshana Emanuel; grandfather of Rebekah (Michael) Schafir, Gabriella (Benjamin) Armstrong, Natalia (William Herlands) Emanuel, Zachariah, Ilana, Leah, Ashlee, Noah, Ezra, Leo and Tuvia Emanuel; and great grandfather of Anina, Lincoln, Yonah, Tu’vazjhon and Tu’vaisa.