An activist Jewish writer and film maker, Lilly Rivlin has, from her earliest adult years, been engaged in the various political and social struggles that have shaped and been shaped by the people of her generation. She is that rare figure, a passionate individualist with an activist social conscience.
Born in Jerusalem on October 23, 1936 to an American-born father and a Polish-born mother, Lilly received her primary school education in a school in Jerusalem’s Rehavia district. In 1943, her father was drafted from Mandate Palestine into the American army. Wounded at El Alamein, he was sent to an American hospital. At the war’s end he brought his wife, his daughter Lilly and her sister Dorothy to Washington D.C. where Lilly’s American education began.
In Washington’s Anacostia high school, Lilly became a Labor-Zionist who, at sixteen or seventeen, was the head of the city’s Habonim chapter. But Zionism was not her only focus. During the McCarthy era, she was suspended from her high school for circulating a petition protesting the refusal of the DAR to permit Marian Anderson to sing in Constitution Hall.
Her political activism continued throughout her years first as a student at George Washington University from which she graduated with a Foreign Affairs degree, and later at the University of California in Berkeley, where she went on to take leading roles in the loyalty oath battle. In San Francisco, on May 13, 1960, Black Friday, she was among the scores of students who protested the visit to the city of the House Unamerican Activities Committee. The students were first washed down the steps of City Hall by police wielding fire-hoses and were then arrested. As the water propelled her down the marble stairs, Lilly remembers thinking she was now an American, fulfilling in that moment Jefferson’s observation that “Every generation has to make its own revolution.”
Several other important things happened to her in her Berkeley years: she had a lysergic acid experience that expanded her psychological and spiritual horizons; then, as the research assistant to Dr. Joan Bondurant, the author of the classic Conquest of Violence, she was imprinted with the principles of conflict resolution embodied in the practice of Satyagraha; and from the work of Hannah Arendt she acquired a sense of the importance of combining action with thought..
Lilly returned to Israel, where she lived at intervals from 1963 to 1970. Like everyone else, she felt the euphoria that swept over the country just after the Six Day War. But within days she began to think, and to say aloud, “We have to make peace.” It was an abiding idea that has kept her involved in the on-going dialogues whose goal is the achievement of peace between Arabs and Israelis.
In Israel, from 1967 to 1969, in what she thinks of as the best years of her life, she worked as the research historian for Larry Collins and Dominic LaPierre gathering material for their book, “O Jerusalem”. It was in that period, too, that she began to follow the boy Myshkin around Jerusalem, gathering material for what would become When Will the Fighting Stop: A Child’s View of Jerusalem (finally published in 1990), in which the Arab-Israeli struggle is seen through the eyes of a child.
Because of the historical research skills she had honed working with Collins and La Pierre, she was hired in 1969 by David Putnam and Sandy Lieberson for whom she conceived, developed and wrote a thirteen part TV series called “The Jews: A Television History” After nearly three years of planning and writing, the project was scrapped for lack of funding, but the work itself had nurtured in Lilly an interest in journalism and documentary film making with which, from that point on, she would be involved.
In 1972 Lilly established herself in New York where she has lived ever since and where she has made a solid career for herself as a pioneering journalist and film maker with equally deep commitments to advancing the feminist agenda and the Arab-Israeli peace process. Her essays on both subjects have been published in a wide range of journals including Ms. Magazine, Lilith, The Washington Post, and Israel Horizons.
It is, however, in three independently made documentary films that Lilly’s individualistic and deeply intuitive talent have found their best expression.
In 1984, she released “The Tribe”, a film which, by focussing on a family reunion in Jerusalem of nearly twenty-five hundred members of the Rivlin clan, creates a microcosmic overview of Jewish history and experience as Lilly’s camera moves among the members of the Rivlin family whose roots go back to the 16th century and who, at the time the film was made, had representatives in every part of the globe. The film, even as it displays the heterogeneity of the assembled members of the clan, is a remarkable demonstration of the active power the concept mishpokhe (family) still has on Jewish life.
In “Miriam’s Daughters Now”(1986), she explored the ways in which the feminist movement has spurred the recreation of age-old Jewish rituals. Her filming of the feminist Seder in New York, with its emphasis on the ways in which women can reinvent their role in that most joyful of Jewish festivals, the annual Passover Feast, is a glowing film achievement even as it poses a continuing challenge to Jewish traditionalists.
“Gimme A Kiss”(2000) is a narrowly focused revisit to the implications of “The Tribe”. Here Lilly examines her relationship to her family, with particular emphasis on her own problematic journey to an understanding of her father’s life and of his relationship to her. The film is at once poignant and harrowing, candid to the point of anguish, but always objective enough to earn for itself a place as a work of film-art.
While she has done other short films, one in particular needs comment. In 1995, she made an eight minute pilot of a film called “Sarah and Hagar,” which gives promise of being an important and lyric contribution to the Arab-Israeli dialogue. Using the biblical story of Sarah and Hagar as her controlling metaphor, Lilly re-examines the story of these two ur-mothers as a way of emphasizing what the two peoples descended from them have in common. Brief as the pilot film was, it has, since it first appeared, served as the basis for scores of dialogue-provoking workshops around the U.S. The final version of the film, now entitled “Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace”, was completed 2006 and screened at the Jerusalem Cinematheque’s annual international Film Festival in the summer of that year.
Thinking about the future, Lilly says, “My head is swarming with ideas for films still to be made. For one thing, I want to complete my film on the Marranos which examines the meaning of Jewish identity; and then I want to do a film about Hannah Arendt.
To judge by the public responses that her work so for has elicited, one may expect that whatever she creates in the future will also be both thought-provoking and illuminating.
Collins, Larry and Dominque Lapierre. O Jerusalem. New York: 1972. Principal Researcher; When Will the Fighting Stop? A Child’s View of Jerusalem. New York: 1990. Concept and photographs by Lilly Rivlin; Dame, Enid, Lilly Rivlin and Henny Wenkart eds. Which Lilith?—Feminist Writers Recreate the World’s First Woman. North Vale, New Jersey: 1998. Essay, short story and Afterword by Lilly Rivlin; Rivlin, Lilly with Gila Gevirtz. Welcome to Israel. Springfield, New Jersey: 2000; “Meditation and Conflict: A Journey on Paper.” In Women of the Wall: Claiming Sacred Ground at Judaism’s Holy Site, edited by Phyllis Chesler and Rivka Haut. Woodstock, Vermont: 2002.
Writer, director and producer of independent documentaries: Gimme A Kiss (2000); Miriam’s Daughter’s Now (1986); The Tribe (1984); We’re Still Here! The Jews of Russia and the Ukraine (1999); Can You Hear Me? Israeli and Palestinian Women Fight for Peace (2006)
Associate Producer of Expulsion and Memory, Director, Simcha Jacobovici. A Canadian production about Secret Jews (1995); Associate Producer of Full Circle, a film by Paul Rothman about women in kibbutzim (1995); Associate Producer, writer, researcher for If Not Now When, Peace Now, Director, Elizabeth Benjamin. (1988); Producer, interviewer of several segments of Israel TV’s 18-part series on the history of Zionism, Pillars of Fire. (1983); Developed, researched and wrote The Jews, a 13-part TV series for David Puttnam and Sandy Lieberson, London (1970–1972); Consultant and researcher for Israel: A Nation is Born, a five-part series on Israel with Abba Eban (1990).
How to cite this page
Wolf, Leonard. "Lilly Rivlin." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on March 6, 2015) <http://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/rivlin-lilly>.