Noted lawyer, civil-rights activist and philanthropist Fred Levin is the subject of a new biography, “And Give Up Show Business? How Fred Levin Beat Big Tobacco, Avoided Two Murder Prosecutions, Became the Chief of Ghana, Earned Boxing Manager of the Year and Transformed American Law.”

The following is adapted from a recent interview about his life and values.

Q: There’s a new book out about your life with quite a list of accomplishments in the title. If you had to pick the most significant parts of your life, what would they be?

A: I’d have to start with tobacco. More than 20 years ago, I came up with the idea of taking a statute—a Florida statute—and changing it a little so the state of Florida could sue the tobacco companies for the damages the tobacco company caused to the taxpayers of Florida, and paying Medicaid damages for illnesses that were cigarette-related.

I went to Governor (Lawton) Chiles, and he thought it was a fabulous idea. Then we met with W. D. Childers, who was president of the state senate. I thought we needed to go ahead and issue a press release right then, but Governor Chiles said the last thing you want to do is open your mouth because “I can’t get a 5-cent tax passed against tobacco. We’ve got to secretly put this in,” which is what happened.

Once the statute passed and was sustained as being constitutional, the tobacco companies realized that all the states could do this. They ended up paying about $300 billion to all of the states; plus, they changed their advertising and promised they would not pitch smoking to children, and things of that nature. Today, it is estimated that 100,000 American lives each year are saved as a result of that statute.

The most significant thing personally was when I went off to the University of Florida in 1954. When I grew up in Pensacola, Fla., there wasn’t much anti-Semitism that was generally felt, even though apparently it was there. I could not join the country club, but I didn’t really want to join the country club.

Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, Fred Levin, Martin Levin, and Rabbi Berl Goldman, at the ribbon cutting ceremony in February at the dedication of The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the University of Florida at Gainesville.
Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, vice-chairman of Merkos L'Inyonei Chinuch, the educational arm of Chabad-Lubavitch, Fred Levin, Martin Levin, and Rabbi Berl Goldman, at the ribbon cutting ceremony in February at the dedication of The Tabacinic Campus and Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning at the University of Florida at Gainesville.

So I went off to the University of Florida. My friends in Pensacola were all non-Jews, and I thought we’d all join the same fraternity. The night before the bids came out, one of my friends said: “Fred, unfortunately you can’t be a member” of this one fraternity we wanted to get into. And I asked, “Why not?”

“Well, you are Jewish. But don’t worry; we have you set up with the fraternity for the ‘cool Jews.’ ” What could I say? The next day I head to that fraternity house. I go around introducing myself because they told me, “They can’t wait to meet you.” Nobody said a word to me, and after sitting around for hours, I left.

I was walking down University Avenue and passed by the fraternity that I couldn’t get into because I was Jewish. I felt my whole life was gone. When I went back to the apartment that me and my buddies had, one of the guys told me that the PalAm (Phi Lambda Phi) want to meet me.

Well, I go to the PalAm house. I mean, these guys were crazy, but they liked me, so I became a PalAm. I ended up meeting two students who eventually became a law partner and a business partner. As a result of being a Phi Lambda Phi member, the friend who became a business partner introduced me to my wife. I’ve had a wonderful, wonderful life, a lot of it resulting from the fact that the “cool Jews” didn’t like me, and that other fraternity wouldn’t have me because I was Jewish.

Q: What kind of message about rejection do you think that relays to people?

A: When I look back and realize that had there not been a rule against Jews becoming a member of that first fraternity, I clearly would not have met my wife. Had I become one of the “cool Jews,” there’s a good chance I would not have met her either, so I guess rejection and anti-Semitism gave me the only woman I ever loved.

Q: What else are you very proud of from your past and your history?

I would say that I was most proud of my wife, Marilyn. In building my career, I was working 'round the clock, and she had to raise our four children. The power that she had was incredible. She never wanted anything—never. The more successful that I became, the more money I made, the more I tried to buy her things—I mean fabulous jewels, things of that nature—she never wore them.

I’d be at an awards ceremony, and everybody would want to be around me, Fred Levin. “What did you do today?” or “what is your most recent case?” And there she would be. I would look over, and she’d be by herself. Nobody was really concerned about a woman who was interested in changing diapers or fixing meals. My parents were the same way; my father worked three jobs, and my mother took care of the kids.

Mailyn and Fred Levin in 1957.
Mailyn and Fred Levin in 1957.

Q: What was the Judaism like in your parents’ home?

A: My father was a pawnbroker, ran a concessions stand and did whatever it was he needed to do to make a living for the family. We were members of the synagogue, which was Orthodox. I grew up in a kosher home. My mother was a fabulous cook, and Judaism was a significant part of family life.

All of my parents’ friends were Jewish. The synagogue was where their social life took place, and it was a part of everything Jewish that was going on in Pensacola. We had two kosher butcher shops there. We kept kosher, and every time an Orthodox Jew would come to town, he was always a guest at our home because my mother would cook everything just fabulously.

Q: There’s a lot of focus throughout the Jewish world today on the crisis of Jewish identity and continuity, especially among the young. What can be done to create a healthy Jewish environment or healthy pride in Jews of the younger generation?

A: Up until yesterday, I would have basically said there’s very little you can do, and that it’s not just Judaism, it’s about religion in general. They are turning away from religion and G‑d and all religions.

But yesterday, I had the experience of being with Chabad and listening to the rabbis, particularly Rabbi (Yehuda) Krinsky, and I was so moved by the beauty and love that he was expressing, and so impressed by the work of the Chabad movement, and how they are accepting of everyone. And then I go back to what is happening with Jewish life today in Gainesville at the University of Florida, and gosh, it really is amazing. This is the future.

Fred Levin, bottom right, with his parents and brothers in 1950.
Fred Levin, bottom right, with his parents and brothers in 1950.

I can assure that if you were trying to reach out to Jews—young Jews—by asking them to wear the hat and have the beard, they are going to tell you where to go. It just isn’t going to happen. But when you tell them with open arms, “Come, come in. Enjoy yourself. Just be part of the Jewish community.” And this is what’s happening at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I mean, I see it with Rabbi (Berl) Goldman, and this is the future. Otherwise, I think you can write it off.

I don’t think that young Jews are willing to accept religion in the way I did. I did because my parents told me this is what I was supposed to do. That doesn’t work today. I think young people are just not going to do it. But when you are able to do as Chabad has done, it’s just fabulous. I know it sounds like I’m advertising for Chabad, but yesterday, when I saw all of the young Chabad rabbis in New York—and when I think of Gainesville today and what Chabad is doing there—that’s the future.

Q: On that note about Gainesville, you’ve committed a great deal of time, energy and wealth to philanthropy. What do you think makes a cause worthy?

A: I’ve given a lot to people who have been underprivileged, people who’ve been hurt. I’ve given money in my hometown to various Jewish causes, including the synagogue, because I want Judaism to survive.

But times have changed. I think Rabbi Goldman put it very well when he said that 97 percent of the students who come to the Chabad House at the University of Florida—which may have the largest group of Jewish students in this country at any one university—are not religious, but they enjoy being around Jewish people.

Q: Earlier this year you dedicated the Marilyn Kapner Levin Center for Jewish Life and Learning at your alma mater, the University of Florida at Gainesville, where the law school carries your name. And this week, you visited the Ohel, the resting place of the Rebbe—Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, and the Previous Rebbe—Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. How were you first introduced to Chabad?

A: I first met Rabbi (Schneur Zalman) Oirechman in Pensacola about a dozen years ago. Then, a few years ago I was visiting the Levin College of Law at the University of Florida, and Professor (Michael Allan) Wolff suggested I go visit Chabad, and they kept bugging me to “go there, go there,” so I went. And I met Rabbi Goldman, and he said, “We’ve got lunch for you.”

Food is so important to me, and I’m figuring, what am I going to eat? And the food was so great. I hadn’t eaten a good kosher meal in so long, it was unbelievable. Rabbi Goldman is like a star; I mean, everybody loved him. All these kids were around him, and I saw something.

And I thought to myself, I’d lost my wife and I’d met her at the University of Florida, and I thought I wanted to do something to tell her I’m sorry for not being there more for her. Maybe I can help build something for Jewish students, investing in the Jewish future in the place where we met.

Q: What are some of your thoughts about the Rebbe’s ongoing influence on the world around us, and perhaps on yourself personally or on your family?

A: I left a copy of the book, which was written by Josh Young, a five-time New York Times’ bestseller author. So much of it is about how, ironically, anti-Semitism made so many great things happen to me. I included some notes for the Rebbe—a lot of it about my wife and other matters.

But what impressed me most was on the drive back to Manhattan, the driver, who was African-American, asked: “What do you know about Chabad?” I said, “Well, not a lot.” He said, “Oh,” and he starts talking about the Rebbe, saying how he was one of the greatest people. He kept saying that he was so wonderful, and that “every time he would see me, he would recognize me and he would call me by name.”

He just went on and on about Chabad, and I’m thinking that while I had a wonderful time yesterday visiting Chabad, the most significant thing was to listen to a non-Jew, an African-American, telling me about the love. And I was thinking about Rabbi Krinsky and how wonderful he was. And I said to myself that they have made such an impact—not just within, but to the world outside as well.

Q: Do you feel that these experiences have changed or inspired you?

A: Yes. I’m 77 years old, and you start to think of your mortality, and I want so much for Judaism to continue. I’m concerned. I believe that the Chabad movement is the only way that this is going to continue for generations and generations. You know we’ve had so many thousands of years of having survived, and I think we are probably in as difficult a time as we’ve ever been.

Q: What are some life lessons you hope young Jewish people can take away from the book?

A: One thing is that you can do it even if you don’t have all the talent that a lot of other people have. Another thing I hope they get from the book is that there’s going to be more in life than just “me, me, me.” As I’ve said, I regret not having spent more time and paying more attention to my wife and family. You need to be more well-rounded than I was. And I think that’s pointed out in the book.

And yes, now I’m in a situation where I’ve got the money to put my wife Marilyn’s name on buildings—at the Gulf Coast Kids’ House in Pensacola, at a children’s cancer camp and at the Chabad House at the University of Florida, for example, but I’ll end with this:

On the day she passed away, the ambulance came, and they were putting her in. She was in a lot of pain. And she said, “Fred.” And I said, “Yes?” She said, “Tell me that you love me.” And I said, “I love you.” That’s the last thing that I ever said to her.

"And Give Up Show Biz?", a biography of Fred Levin by Josh Young.
"And Give Up Show Biz?", a biography of Fred Levin by Josh Young.