ABBREVIATED FAMILY HISTORY OF JOSEPH AND ALTE RIVLIN
AND THEIR DESCENDENTS
(1907 TO THE END OF WORLD WAR II)
By: Fred Strober (December, 2007)
There’s probably no one alive who remembers exactly when Joseph and Alte Rivlin brought their family to America, but what we do know is that on December 21, 1909, the 31-year old Joseph filed a Declaration of Intention to become an American citizen. He had arrived in New York on November 16, 1907, on the vessel “St. Paul,” and the ship’s log shows that he was the only member of his family to sail. For reasons for which we can only guess, he swore to the government of the United States that he had been born in Russia (we know, of course, that he was born in Palestine). Interestingly, records establish that from the time he arrived in New York and the time his family came to America as a group, his seventh child, Betty (listed as Bessie on Joseph’s 1913 Petition for Naturalization), was born in Wales. Whether he came in 1907 to scout New York for his family is unclear, as is the actual number of trips he made between England and America, and these are probably only two of the mysteries about this gregarious and peripatetic man that perhaps no one will be able to answer.
By 1913, when Joseph formally applied for U.S. citizenship, there were nine children listed in his Petition for Naturalization, as follows: Solomon (born 1894 in Jerusalem), Sarah (Shirley, 1897 in Jerusalem), Woolf (Willie, 1899 in Jerusalem)), Rachel (1904, in London)), Leah (Lil, 1905 in London), Jacob (1906 in London), Bessie (Betty, 1908 in Cardiff, Wales), Rebecca (Gus, 1910 in Brooklyn), and Abraham (1912 in Brooklyn). (Not born yet were Benjamin, Hilda and Roslyn (Bubu), all born in Brooklyn.). Joseph swore in his petition that he had resided in the U.S. continuously since 1907 but we know that Betty was born in November, 1908, so we can only surmise, counting backwards nine months from December, that he returned to England immediately after he filed his first immigration papers in December, 1907.
What we lack in specifics about Joseph and Alte’s family life in the UK, we make up with a wealth of accounts about their experience in America. And what an experience it has been! Like the thousands of immigrants—Jewish and non-Jewish alike—who arrived during the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries, they adopted to and thrived in their new land, and today, as we approach the century mark of their arrival, their descendants, of whom there are many, make significant contributions every day in almost every facet of American life, in the arts, journalism, business and the law. And their grandchildren and great grandchildren are truly among the leadership in Israel, where, for example, a grandson recently served as Speaker of the Knesset and a great grandson has become one of the leading biblical archeologists of his generation.
The following is a brief account of their family’s journey over the past century, done in as chronological a manner as a story with so many characters will allow. It draws on some written materials but for the most part, is based on stories passed on over the years by eleven of Joseph and Alte’s children more than 30 of their grandchildren. To the extent any of it is not accurate, I apologize, and hope that the posting of this account on the Rivlin family website will result in corrections of any inaccuracies---and tons of more stories
Early Days/United Kingdom
Eliezer Joseph Rivlin (he never used his first name and referred to himself in America as “Joseph Elias”), himself a yeshiva graduate, was the son of Rev Scheor Zalman Rivlin and Minna, who lived into her second century and about whom legendary stories are told by the extended Rivlin family. Rev Zalman was a descendant of the Chabab Chassidim part of the family. Minna was the granddaughter of Reb Moshe Maggid, who, from the other the other side of the family—the mitnagdim—was a student of the Gaon of Vilna and emigrated to Eretz Yisrael in 1841. Alte was the daughter of Russian-born Reb Yehoushua Zeev Zisenwine. They were both born in 1878 and married young—it is said at sixteen—and started their family in Jerusalem with three children, Solomon (born 1894), Shirley (1897) and William (1899).
It is anyone’s guess why they went to London around the turn of the 20th century and their was never any agreement whatsoever among their children as to what vocation Joseph pursued. But the few family pictures that survive show him as a rather dapper man, with an unforgettable twinkle in his eye, and there has always been talk that he was involved in some form of “insurance,” and in 1907, he listed himself as a “salesman.” That’s as far as we can pinpoint it but there is reason to believe he provided at least relatively well for his family.
In London, they had three more children, Rachel, Lillian and Jacob, and we have a picture of Jakie as an infant in his mothers arms, surrounded by his father, five brothers and sister, as well as his grandmother Minnah (who had a ten year old son, Moishe, in Jerusalem, and whose visit is probably the reason for the family’s sitting for a portrait. Soon thereafter, they moved to Wales, where Betty was born in 1908, and the family came to America soon thereafter, for reasons that are as obscure as those related to their move to England only several years earlier.
Arrival in America/Living in Brooklyn
Having settled in their third country in less than a dozen years, the family made its initial American home in Harlem, but it soon moved to Brooklyn, first to 1973 Bergen Street, then to 2101 Dean Street and eventually, to a large house at 1126 56th Street in Borough Park. In Brooklyn, Gus was born. She was followed by Abraham, Benjamin and Hilda, who was born in 1914, the year all of the foreign born members of the family became American citizens, on June 9. At this time, Joseph listed his occupation as “store keeper,” but some of the boys remember other occupations, including selling esrog and lulav on street corners on Succot. In 1920, when each was 42 years old, 26 years after the birth of their first child and six years after Hilda was born, Joseph and Alte had their twelfth child, Roslyn, who was immediately given the nickname Bubu (“doll” in Hebrew). Not all of the children were enamored of her impending birth—the 26-year old Sol was furious with his parents for having yet another child at their age. Soon before Bubu was born, Joseph’s half-brother Moshe (Maishe), at age 16 came to stay with the family. He and Sol, a generation apart but about the same age, became very good friends.
The siblings got along extremely well—and with their mother encumbered with other chores, the older girls took very good care of Bubu--but Joseph and the four youngest boys did not always see eye to eye. Sol was a dutiful son, following in the family tradition of studying first, at CCNY and then, for the rabbinate, but none of the other boys was at all academically or professionally inclined, and there is some question about how many of them actually graduated from high school. For the most part, they knocked around in semi-unskilled jobs. All of the girls did reasonably well in school, though, and after graduating high school, they worked for the most part in secretarial and clerical jobs. As noted previously, accounts vary of what Joseph did for a living—during Prohibition, he was licensed to make wine, which he may have sold for profit—but no one can say he continued to do whatever he had started in London. There is a semblance of unanimity, however, that he lost whatever money he had in a “uranium mine investment.” There is no suggestion that he was involved in anything nefarious, but Gus did work in Brooklyn as a receptionist and quickly learned of some of the more questionable things in which her new boss was involved---and it was her father who got her the job.
The Great Aliyah
Most of the children had one main memory of their father—he was rarely at home—and indeed, from a photograph we know that he was in Hebron in 1924. The feeling is that he did not like being apart from his mother for long stretches, and we know that he made trips to Palestine from which he returned in 1925 and 1927. Like so many things about him, it is unclear how many trips he made back to Jerusalem, and for how long each lasted.
Minna always had been and continued to be a strong influence over the children, particularly the ones who had known her in London, and in 1928, Ray visited her in Jerusalem. She remained and married Yehoshua Benjamin, a relative of Alte (and the grandchild of Minnah’s sister). They had two children, Avner (Avie) and Ettie.
At the time of Ray’s aliyah, Sol was already establishing himself as a rabbi and businessman. His work took him to Iowa, where he attended Drake University Law School, and he then obtained a position as a junior rabbi in America’s third largest Conservative congregation in Columbus, Ohio. The synagogue could not afford three rabbis and the congregants encouraged Sol to go into the insurance business, so that they could support him by purchasing policies. As the oldest of the children, was the first to establish a family, with Rose. Their first three children, Miriam, Eleanor and Gerald, were born in the Midwest. In 1934, Sun Life Insurance Company posted Sol to Jerusalem to head its Middle Eastern office, until 1939. In Jerusalem, their fourth child, Orah, was born.
The second oldest son, Willie, served as a young private in the American army during World War 1. He also began a family, with Fay, and they had four children, Jean, Harriet, Martin and Ada. If Sol, the rabbi, was the yin of the family in professional terms, Willie, a strapping young man, was the yang. He held mostly laborer jobs and eventually, drove a cab, which he did until he retired. He liked to tell the story of the fare he picked up at (then) Idlewild Airport in New York. His passenger noted that he met a number of Rivlins in the academic and religious fields and was intrigued that a member of the family was not as professionally inclined.
Around he time Ray went to Jerusalem, Shirley visited the UK and soon met a distant cousin, David Rivlin, from Cardiff, who, like Shirley had been born in Palestine. They were married in 1929, and either for, or soon after, their wedding, Alte and Lil visited them. Shirley and David had two children, Kenneth and Vivian . In 1931, soon after Kenneth was born, Shirley brought him, probably without David, for a visit to the U.S.
Back in Brooklyn at approximately this time, Gus was dating Arthur (Mutzie) Lipps, who would bring his childhood friend, William Strober, to visit the family. Willie had wonderful memories about these visits and his interest began to focus on Betty. Both Gus and Betty were married about the same time, but in a well kept secret, Betty and Willie were married twice, first in 1931 when they eloped to Washington, D.C. and then, again in 1932, before the family. The two sisters remained extremely close in Brooklyn, and even lived in the same two-family house. Mutzie lost an eye in an automobile accident and with the proceeds of his damage award, bought a Bronx auto supplies business in which he and Willie worked until they retired. Gus and Mutzie had two children, Gerald and Marian, and Betty and Willie had two daughters, Helene and Toby. They remained extremely close and eventually became neighbors for many years in Woodmere, New York, to which they moved in 1947.
Soon after her trip to England, Lil traveled to Palestine and got a job as a secretary in Haifa with the Iraq Petroleum Company. There, she met Nissim Meshoulam, who had been born in Bulgaria and made his way to Haifa through Turkey, where he learned the customs and import business. They soon got married and had three children, Yitzhak (Iko), Rivka (Rika) and Daphne. Iko was born on Pevsner Street in the Hadar, and in 1936, just before Rika was born, Lil and Nissim built a villa in the Bauhaus style near the top of the Carmel, overlooking Haifa Bay, where Rika and Daphne live to this day. A plaque on Hanadiv Street marks the construction date for the house and the name of the architect.
According to Bubu, Lil’s marriage was the last straw for Alte. She’d had enough of seeing her family shrink in Brooklyn and her husband away for long stretches. After waiting for Hilda to finish high school in 1932, she, Hilda and Bubu joined the family in Jerusalem.
After their mother returned to Jerusalem, the three unmarried boys came to live in Palestine. In 1934, Ben and Abe traveled together on the Acquitania which docked in Jaffa. During the voyage, Ben met the Russian-born Bella Shlepak, and they were married several years later, having two children in Palestine, Lillian (Lilly) and Dorothy (Dot). Abe met a recent immigrant, Dvorah, whom he married, and Jack met and married Reggy. All recounted stories of working for their father and others, Jack at times in orange groves, and it is unclear whether they would have remained had it not been for the outset of World War II. Just before the war, Jack left Palestine and started a life with the merchant marine. On the beach of North Africa in late 1942, he met Sidney Strober, Betty’s brother in law, a meeting that would seem ironic three years later. Later, while training for the Normandy invasion, Sidney visited Shirley’s husband, David, in London, and remembers David’s wonderful hospitality. David took him to his club for meals and bought him a pipe and a Burberry coat. Sidney remembered the visit as the best time he had spent during the war.
Following what appears to be a Rivlin tradition, Hilda married Ze’ev Benjamin, a member of an old Jerusalem family and relative of Ray’s first husband, Yehosuha. They had one child, Shulamit (Shulie).
Both Gus and Betty visited Jerusalem several times during the 1930’s and they remember visiting Bubba Minna during the Arab riots of 1936. Betty’s strongest memory was of Minna keeping a hot pot of oil on her stove in the Old City. Although they never made aliyah, both were devoted to Israel and raised awareness of, and money for, Israel from their multitude of friends all of their lives.
World War II
As the world headed for war, both parents and eight of the 12 children had come to live in their ancestral homeland, but none could have predicted what the next five years would bring.
The first to leave Palestine were Sol and Jake, Sol to embark on a distinguished career in Chicago and Jake on sea travels around the world. Soon after the war broke out, Abe and Ben were drafted into the American army, and both joined Allied forces for training in North Africa.
As the Battle of Britain began, Shirley brought Kenneth and Vivian to Brooklyn. They arrived on June 21, 1940, and lived in the Lipps/Strober house, Shirley and Vivi with Betty and Kenneth with Gus.
It was during the war, in 1942, that the famous picture of Minna’s 90th birthday party in Jerusalem was taken. In the picture are Alte, Ray, Lil, Ben, Hilda and Bubu. Joseph was not there; the consensus is that he was stuck in America, and the general feeling is that it was voluntary. Many people, including Willie’s nephew, Myron Strober, remember the Strober/Lipps two-family house, with the children eating upstairs and adults downstairs, with the entire family getting together for Shabbat dinner, Joseph always bringing treats for the children.
Maishe, Joseph’s half brother, also hade remained in America. He become a prominent journalist for the Yiddish speaking Jewish Morning Journal, married Rose and settled in the nearby Brooklyn neighborhood of Seagate. They had two children, Orah and Ziev (Joe), and Orah remembers well visiting the Borough Park two-family house, in which, during the war, her “Uncle Yosel” (Joseph) shared a basement room with Kenneth.
Joseph finally returned to Jerusalem toward the end of the war, and Iko can remember greeting him at Haifa harbor, Joseph in his long black coat reaching into his pockets for presents for the children, including a copy of the “Book of Esther,” which he gave Iko.
Abie is not in the Minna birthday picture but Dvorah is, holding their first child Yehosua (Josh). Ben and Bella are in the picture, as is their daughter, Lilly.
Also in the picture is Yoseph Yoel Rivlin, the great Arabic scholar and professor of Oriental Studies at Hebrew University. Ray’s first husband, Yehoshu, died tragically during the 1930’s, and she and Professor Rivlin were married in the late 1930’s. He was a distant cousin, the descendent of a distinguished, civic minded family. Their first child, Rueven (Ruevy) is in the picture; he and his younger brother, Eliezer (Lazi), share the rare distinction, with their UK-born cousins Kenneth and Vivian, of having mothers who are sisters and whose married name stayed the same as their maiden name.
As the war approached its end, the 14 members of the family found themselves all over the world, with Sol in Chicago; Willie, Bette, Gus and Shirley in Brooklyn (although Shirley and her children would reunite with David at the war’s end); Ben and
Abe away at the front; Jack all over the world (records show him in North Africa and the Pacific) and the parents, Ray, Lil, Hilda and Bubu in Palestine. Soon, the end of the war would bring another great migration, this time back to America.
Reassembling in America
The return, in a way, started with Ben, who had been wounded in the war and eventually returned to the States. (Although we are uncertain exactly where he was discharged, one thing is certain: he committed the rest of his life to giving a record amount of blood in honor of those who had been wounded and had treated him.) His wife, Bella, and their daughters, Lilly and Dot, left Port Said for America and arrived in Baltimore in October, 1944. Bella had relatives in Washington, and the family decided to start a new life there. (Ben and Bella’s son, Don, was born in Washington, in 1947.)
Abe was also discharged in the States, and Dvorah and Josh left to join him in late 1945. They were accompanied by Bubu, and traveled from Alexandria, arriving in New York in December. Bubu, who had attended Jerusalem College for Women, was 25 and working for Barclay’s Bank. The bank offered her a chance to work in New York and she moved in with Betty and Willie. Mutzie offered Abie a job in the Bronx, and Abie’s family quickly settled in Brooklyn.
It did not take Bubu long to meet her mate. Willy’s brother Sidney, who had met her brother on the beach in North Africa and enjoyed David Rivlin’s hospitality in London, was now back from the war and often visited his brother and Betty. In March, 1947, they were married, by Sol. Everyone was thrilled that two brothers would be married to two sisters. Everyone except Helene, that is, who somberly noted that she risked the chance of no longer getting separate birthday gifts from her Uncle Sidney and Aunt Bubu now that they were going to get married.
Like thousands of other New Yorkers ready to leave the city, Gus and Betty’s families left Brooklyn for the near suburbs—Woodmere, on Long Island, where they lived around the corner from one another, Gus at 45 Neptune Avenue and Betty at 81 Brower Avenue. Gus had two children, Jerry and Marion, and Betty two as well, Helene and Toby. Gus’ house was a classic three-story colonial with white Doric columns in front; Betty’s was a more modest clapboard Cape Cod with a pleasant backyard and a productive pear tree. Both houses would welcome literally hundreds of guests over the next two decades and were where large family sedars were held.
After the war, Shirley, Kenneth and Vivi rejoined David in London but there stay was short lived, and the family and the family returned to New York. About to turn 18, when he would be eligible for the British draft, Kenneth took no chances and preceded his family by a month. They settled into a large Tudor house in Cedarhurst, just a mile or so from the two Woodmere sisters, and Vivi immediately enrolled as a freshman at Woodmere High School, joining her cousin, Helene Strober. The two remained like sisters for the rest of their lives.
Bubu and Sidney had two children in quick order, Freddie and Helene (known all her life as Lynn). When Freddie was born, they moved to Far Rockaway, just across the New York City line from Woodmere and Cedarhurst and just several blocks from the “Bungalows.”
Looking back at them from an era in which going to the beach means sunning in the Hamptons or Cancun, it’s hard to imagine what magic they contained in 1942, when Betty, Gus, Willie’s brother Phil and several of their friends bought 16 tiny cabins on a spit of land in Far Rockaway. Surrounded on three sides by mosquito infested marshes, these screen enclosed summer homes were hardly comfortable by today’s lofty standards. But they were a block from the beach—a private beach belonging to their owners!-- and there was always a refreshing afternoon breeze, even on the hottest of days. These small cabins—known forever as the Bungalows—served for more than 20 years as the summer haven of the New York branch of the family. Appropriately named “Coronado Court,” it was the place where the family spent golden summers, and there in not a family member who does not recall wonderful weekends on the beach, in picnics, playing softball or taking bets on whether Willie Rivlin—whose heated bungalow offered year round living—would make it back to the dock in his fishing skiff, or get stuck in the marshes because, as often was the case, he’d misjudged the turn of the tide.
In the 1940’s, the Rockaways had nearly 100,000 bungalows, havens for the multitudes from Brooklyn and Queens. But these little homes in Coronado Court were different, tucked away in a small corner of the peninsula, not stacked up like tenements against hundreds of other cabins, and they came with that private beach which essentially became the family’s playground. To this day, they are looked back on with the nostalgia reserved for an era, a simpler time, when family meant everything and the biggest bother seemed to be the mosquitoes that came in at dusk like dive bombers.
As with their house in Woodmere, Gus and Mutzie had the largest bungalow, at the end of the row, up against the marshes and the creek. Betty and Willie were down the row, surrounded by their childhood friends. Across the row was Willie’s brother, Phil, whose two children, Myron and Gerry, became honorary members of the Rivlin family when they saw their Uncle Sidney become the second Strober to marry into the family. And then there was Willie Rivlin, now divorced and married to Ann, living year round in a bungalow in a separate part of the complex. In many ways, he set the tone for the summer, taking the men and boys out on his small boat, around the marshes, into the wider Reynolds Channel and if he felt ambitious enough, into the choppy Atlantic Ocean itself.
And it was not just the Rivlins and Strobers who lived in and immediately around the Bungalows. There was Mutzie’s sister, her children and grandchildren and the Krumholtzes, the family of Naomi, Ken’s wife. Naomi was a great swimmer who showed off her prowess once every summer by swimming across the channel. And there were visitors galore: Jakie made an annual trip up from New Orleans and Benny’s clan at times would come from Washington as well. Once Dot got old enough, she came up with a band of friends, a group out of a James Dean movie who enlivened the place even more than usual during a weeklong visit. Abie’s family visited often—they even stayed one summer in Gus’ bungalow—and Willie Rivlin’s daughter Jean often brought her children from New Jersey. Even Miriam Eisenberg, Sol’s daughter, came from Chicago; there’s a picture of her son, David, in 1951, together with his first cousin once removed, Freddie, on the jetty at Beach 6th Street, the new Atlantic Beach Bridge in the background.
For the better part of 20 years, the Bungalows remained the social locus of the New York branch of the family, and as cousins the age of Marion Lipps and Toby Strober began to outgrow the life they offered, younger cousins such as Doris and Mark Rivlin (Abe and Dvorah’s second and third children—Joe, their last child and the last cousin to be born of his generation, was not born until after Abe and Dvorah moved near Ben and Bella in Silver Spring, Maryland) and Fred and Lynn Strober spent childhood summers there. Gradually, family members began to give up their bungalows—Willie Strober’s brother Phil was the first to leave and by the early 1960’s, Willie Rivlin moved a few blocks away. Then, Gus and finally Betty left, their children now grown. The beach clubs across the channel in Atlantic Beach with their Olympic-size pools and fancy cabanas, had too much of an allure for the family members who, a generation earlier, thought of their tiny, screen enclosed cabins as summer heaven on earth.