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Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, former Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s father, dead at 92; services Sunday in Skokie

The longtime Wilmette resident and his wife raised the former mayor there and his brothers — Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel and medical bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel ‘Zeke’ Emanuel — and a daughter, Shoshana Emanuel.

Dr. Benjamin Emanuel (left) with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his son.
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel (left) with former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, his son.
Brooke Collins / City of Chicago

Dr. Benjamin Emanuel, an Israeli immigrant who had only $13 when he came to the United States but managed to build a thriving pediatric practice and raise power-broker children including the first Jewish mayor of Chicago, has died at 92.

Dr. Emanuel and his wife Marsha were longtime residents of Wilmette, where they brought up their four children: former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Hollywood super agent Ari Emanuel, medical bioethicist Dr. Ezekiel “Zeke” Emanuel and Shoshana Emanuel.

Hospitalized, he died Wednesday night, according to his family, holding his wife’s hand.

Their household was boisterous, competitive and politically engaged. His wife was active in civil rights demonstrations. And dinner-table debates weren’t just encouraged. They were expected.

Zeke Emanuel described their home life in his book “Brothers Emanuel: A Memoir of an American Family” this way: “In our home, everyone shouted and argued about everything.”

But he said his father’s child-rearing philosophy boiled down to five affectionate words: “Hug, love, squeeze your baby.”

Rahm Emanuel said his father was an Israeli immigrant through and through.

“There was no sweetness,” the former mayor said. “No softness around the edges. It’s how Israelis are. This was a guy who said he loved you by calling you a schmuck and hitting you in the back of the head. A lot of people call you a schmuck, but not a lot of people say it with a hit, then say, ‘I love you.’ That’s who he was.

“And then, at the table, you were expected to fight. When I say fight, I mean argue your position. Say what you believed.

“This is a person who expected perfection from the children. You had to always honor the name of the family. And they always got love.”

Young Benjamin had roots in Ukraine. His relatives left Odessa around 1905 and settled in Jerusalem. His mother was named Penina, and his pharmacist-father also was named Ezekiel.

Their original surname was Auerbach. But in 1933, during conflicts among Israelis, Arabs and British authorities, his 18-year-old brother Emanuel was shot in the knee when a bullet ricocheted from a nearby fight between police and protesters, according to the book.

The wound festered. He died of an infection when Benjamin was 5.

To honor him, family members changed their name to Emanuel, according to a 2018 “Chicago Stories” podcast in which the then-mayor interviewed his father and called him “my idol.”

Later, a cousin convinced young Benjamin to join the Irgun, a pro-independence paramilitary group.

“Since I lost a brother, I was not allowed to be the front-line soldier,” Dr. Emanuel said in the podcast.

Rahm Emanuel interviewing his father Dr. Benjamin Emanuel for a 2018 “Chicago Stories” podcast in which the then-mayor called him “my idol.” 
Rahm Emanuel interviewing his father Dr. Benjamin Emanuel for a 2018 “Chicago Stories” podcast in which the then-mayor called him “my idol.”
Brooke Collins / City of Chicago

He said he distributed communication pamphlets among units instead.

He got his medical degree from the University of Lausanne.

While in Switzerland, “They [contacted] me because they wanted to do some sabotage, [to] the British empire, to send letters with bombs in them to England,’’ he said in the interview. “I refused to do it.

“I didn’t think that was the right way to do underground work, to kill people.”

Dr. Emanuel served in the 1948 Israeli War of Independence.

“We had one cannon that was moved all over Israel,” he told his son. “They used to move it around so they think that we have a lot of armament.”

He said he never fired — or even loaded — his gun because he was a pacifist.

But he said he helped save three Israeli soldiers as a medic. There was a soccer game during a ceasefire, and the soldiers slipped under barbed wire to retrieve the ball, venturing into Jordanian territory. Three were shot.

“My job was to get them out,” he said in the podcast. “I got them back one by one. Well, it was frightening, but I did it. They were shooting. But I did what I have to do. I could have been killed.”

In 1953, he arrived in the United States with little but a command of multiple languages. He had grown up speaking Hebrew, French and Italian. Later, he learned English and German.

Dr. Benjamin Emanuel shakes hands with congressional candidate Nancy Kaszak after she voted in 2002. Behind Kaszak, who unsuccessfully ran against Rahm Emanuel, are her husband Tom Heaney and Abner Mikva, the former congressman and judge.
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel (right) shakes the hand of congressional candidate Nancy Kaszak after she voted at Lake View High School in 2002. Behind Kaszak, who unsuccessfully ran against Rahm Emanuel for the U.S. House of Representatives, are her husband Tom Heaney (in cap) and Abner Mikva, the former congressman and appellate judge.
Jim Frost / Sun-Times

He met his future wife Marsha Smulevitz when she was a radiological technician at Mount Sinai Hospital, according to the podcast. After bringing an ill patient to her department, he went to sleep on a gurney so he could watch over the child.

Once it was clear the boy would recover, “She woke me up at 5 o’clock in the morning to tell me that everything is normal,” Dr. Emanuel said in the interview.

When she found him asleep, “She playfully released the lock on the wheels of the gurney and let it roll down a ramp through the emergency room doors and into the cold night air,” Zeke Emanuel wrote.

Dr. Emanuel said in the podcast that he woke up and “told her, ‘Let’s go and have breakfast.’”

Within a week, he’d asked her to marry him.

They lived in Israel for a time, traveling by Jeep from kibbutz to kibbutz to tend to patients.

In 1959, Dr. Emanuel joined Michael Reese Hospital in Chicago and opened a practice nearby. “The first month, I didn’t see one patient,” he told his son.

But, he said, “Over the years, I had a bigger practice than my four partners.”

Dr. Benjamin Emanuel examines a 6-year-old girl in a pre-camp physical in 1962.
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel examines a 6-year-old girl in a pre-camp physical in 1962.
Sun-Times files

“The only rich or famous people he saw in his office tended to be big-league ballplayers who played games at . . . Wrigley Field and lived in the neighborhood,” Zeke Emanuel wrote. “He knew so little about American sports that he had no idea that Billy Williams and Ron Santo played for the Cubs, and he called the football star Dick Butkus ‘Dick Bupkis’ ” — Yiddish for “absolutely nothing.”

His workweek routinely exceeded 70 hours, according to “Brothers Emanuel.” To have more time with his kids, he’d sometimes bring them on rounds. “I missed you, so I wanted to be with you,” he told the then-mayor.

To protect the developing brains of children in Chicago, Dr. Emanuel said in the interview, he sued City Hall over lead poisoning caused by housepaint. “I did what I thought is for the health of the kid,” he said. “You have to decide in life what’s right and what’s wrong.”

“The guy arrives in ’59,” Rahm Emanuel said. “He has three boys. Doesn’t have a practice. Doesn’t know the English language. And he resigns from the AMA in a public protest over national health care. Three years later, [with] maybe 300 words of English language, he sues the city of Chicago over lead paint.

“He always put all of his chips on the table when he believed in something. He taught us that. If you thought something was worth fighting for, you’re not allowed to hold any chips back.”

Dr. Emanuel and his wife adopted Shoshana — who’d experienced a brain hemorrhage and complications during birth — after he did a checkup on her as a baby, according to a 1997 story about the family in the New York Times magazine.

Dr. Emanuel wrote or coauthored dozens of papers on medical topics ranging from juvenile malaria in Chicago to children’s eyelid malformations.

Once, he correctly guessed the fungus causing a toddler’s meningitis. Zeke Emanuel wrote that “a search of the literature turned up just a few cases when patients were cured with a new drug . . . developed from bacteria found in the soil along the Orinoco River in Venezuela. The drug was not commercially available, but my father somehow managed to get it and [the child] was saved.”

In 2008, comments attributed to his father prompted Rahm Emanuel to apologize to Arab American community leaders, according to a New York Times blog. At the time, his son had served in Congress and agreed to become chief of staff to President-elect Barack Obama. The Israeli daily Ma’ariv quoted the father as saying: “Obviously he’ll influence the president to be pro-Israel. Why wouldn’t he? What is he, an Arab?”

Dr. Benjamin Emanuel and Marsha Emanuel, Rahm Emanuel’s parents, listen as he thanks them at his inauguration as mayor on May 16, 2011.
Dr. Benjamin Emanuel and Marsha Emanuel, Rahm Emanuel’s parents, listen as he thanks them at his inauguration as mayor on May 16, 2011.
Sun-Times file photo

Dr. Emanuel’s favorite Chicago sport was basketball. And he enjoyed skiing, which he learned in Lausanne.

Most of all, he said in his son’s podcast, “I’m proud that I raised four kids that are honest, that are successful, that are compassionate.”

Services for Dr. Emanuel will be at 2 p.m. Sunday at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 N. Skokie Blvd., Skokie.

He’s also survived by his grandchildren Rebekah Schafir, Gabriella Armstrong, Natalia Emanuel and Zachariah, Ilana, Leah, Ashlee, Noah, Ezra, Leo and Tuvia Emanuel and great-grandchildren Anina, Lincoln, Yonah, Tu’vazjhon and Tu’vaisa.

Rahm Emanuel remembers people coming up to him all the time as he ran for Congress and then for mayor with questions. Like: “ ‘Aren’t you Clinton’s guy? Aren’t you Daley’s man?’

“The thing that meant most to me,” he said, “is: ‘You’re Doc Emanuel’s kid, aren’t you?’

“When I was moving him from one hospital to another on Saturday night a week ago, the EMT guy said, ‘I want to talk to your dad.’ I said, ‘What about?’ And he said, ‘He was my doctor. I wanted to thank him.’ ”