The Noble History of the Rivlin Clan

Israel may not have a royal family, but don’t tell that to the family of President-elect Reuven Rivlin.

Reuters

The Rivlin clan, of which President-elect Reuven "Rubi" Rivlin is the best-known scion, is the closest thing to a Jewish aristocracy Israel has ever had.

The Rivlins proudly trace their history back more than 450 years, across at least 22 generations, to an early ancestor in Vienna in 1550 and to the revered Gaon of Vilna in the 18th century.

Adding to their aristocratic status, the Rivlins claim to be the first family to have settled in Ottoman Palestine. Hillel Rivlin moved from Shklov, Lithuania, to Jerusalem in 1809 (about the same time as the disciples of the Gaon of Vilna and more than 70 years before the first wave of Zionist immigration.)

Like all aristocracies, the Rivlins have had their share of jesters and philosopher-kings, ne’er-do-wells and distinguished public servants, a deep sense of noblesse oblige and a strong strain of creative genius that trickles through the generations.

On their website (www.rivlinfamily.com), the clan claims to number today more than 50,000, of whom more than 35,000 are thought to live in Israel. The website lists some 195 people of note, including Yosef Yoel Rivlin, the author of the first Hebrew edition of the Koran (and father of Rueven Rivlin); Eliezer Rivlin, the deputy president of the Supreme Court of Israel from 2006 to 2012; Ranan R. Lurie, an American-Israeli political cartoonist and journalist; Rivka Michaeli, the doyenne of Israeli comedy; Sefi Rivlin, a wild-cat comedian and admired satirist, who died last year; Lilly Rivlin, an American feminist filmmaker and left-wing peace activist; Leora Rivlin, an award-winning actress, and Muki Tzur, from Kibbutz Ein Gev, a well-regarded historian of the period of the Second Aliyah.

And, of course, there's Rubi.

In a telephone call from her home in New York, Lilly Rivlin, who made her first film, “The Tribe,” about the family, explains, “Being a Rivlin means being part of something larger than yourself. It means a sense of history. And that shapes you. We are taught to be community leaders. There’s a family mythology that we grow into, and then we add to and create. It’s about being public and dedicated. I doubt there’s a shy Rivlin anywhere.”

In terms of his politics, Reuven Rivlin is best-known as a right-wing (some might say, extreme right-wing) proponent of The Greater Land of Israel, and a fervent supporter of the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, many fans of which are well-known for their racist attitudes towards Arabs. But the Rivlin clan also includes former Knesset speaker and leftist political gadfly Avrum Burg, as well as activist Lilly Rivlin.

The family seems to possess an almost obsessive dedication to documenting and publicizing themselves. At an international family reunion in 2009, between 3,000 and 5,000 Rivlins took over Jerusalem’s largest convention center, organized a massive family walk around the Old City walls, put on a sound and light show and sponsored symposia about their family history.

They even held their own film festival at the Jerusalem Cinemateque, where they screened 10 movies dedicated to their family and its history.

There is no doubt that the name Rivlin carries cachet and a certain aura. In the early years of the country, socialist Israel had few rich families, and the Rivlins may have answered an almost-universal need for a royal family. Historian-kibbutznik Tzur, in a telephone interview with Ha’aretz, adds another thought, “Most families here have short histories, yet the Rivlins go back to the very beginnings of modern Jewish life. And in a country with so much loss and grief, a large family like this, with so many achievements, is a symbol of collective hope.”

And some Rivlins do take themselves very seriously. On their website, they write, “It is said that a people who are not acquainted with their past will not have a future. Our family’s past history is an impressive one, and it is hoped that its future will be just as great and will not constitute a disappointment to its past.” 

Other family members retain a quintessentially Jewish tone of self-deprecation. Like Reuven Rivlin, they like to remind interviewers that, at one time, Rivlins were so common in Jerusalem, if you threw a stone, you hit either a Rivlin or one of Jerusalem’s ubiquitous stray cats.