‘War bride’ reflects on a century of change
Joan Levinson of Red Bank has seen the world and her own life change over the last century.
The British native, who turned 100 on Jan. 17, can recall her family being bombed out of their London home during the blitz. She came to the United States as a war bride after meeting and marrying an American soldier.
“People are so dependent on all the mechanical things,” said Levinson during a phone interview with NJJN. Because she has a hearing problem, her oldest daughter, Louise, assisted.
Levinson still lives in the same house she and her husband, Leon, moved into about 1950 and where they raised their four children. They joined Congregation B’nai Israel in Rumson soon after, and long before it was common for women to hold synagogue leadership positions, she served as vice president in the late 1950s.
She remains a member, making it a point to attend the synagogue’s weekly bridge club.
After her family was forced out of their home in London’s Golders Green area, the former Joan Skeate spent the remainder of the war living with her older brother’s family in the town of Kew, sleeping at night in the bomb shelter dug below their backyard.
Levinson was employed by Lloyd’s of London, doing work considered crucial for the war effort. Her sister served several years in Italy with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
Leon Levinson was serving in the U.S. Army Air Forces’ airborne troop transport when the couple met. Joan had been asked by a friend to accompany her to a service club in Hampstead Heath Garden where, according to Louise, “my father took to her right away.” When Joan headed to “the Tube” to go home, she found the smitten American standing right next to her.
They were married in England on July 25, 1945, a couple of months after VE Day.
“He jumped on the train with her and followed her home and that was the end of that,” said Louise. Much like her mother, she married a man from another country, Canada, where she now lives; she comes down from Ontario every six weeks to visit her mother.
“My mother did not wear a bridal gown because there was no money during the war,” said Louise. “No one got married in a gown.”
Levinson recalled that when the ship carrying her and other war brides docked in New Orleans, it was met by former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.
Levinson became an American citizen in 1966. After settling in Red Bank, Leon, a Perth Amboy native, ran Levinson’s Hardware there until his retirement in 1982. He died in 1992.
In a new country, Joan Levinson also made the decision to adopt the religion of her husband. Although born Christian, she said, she had met Jews in London who fled there to escape the Holocaust and felt a kinship with them.
“Because of what Hitler had done, I wanted to support the Jews,” she said.
She took Ruth as her Hebrew name because, much like her biblical namesake, she chose to follow her husband’s family to their homeland and adopt their people as her own.
Louise said that for the conversion ceremony, she, her mother, and her sister, Meg, immersed themselves in the Navesink River, which former B’nai Israel Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal used as a mikva.
Joan then immersed herself and her children in synagogue life. Louise, Meg, and brothers David and Stewart went to Hebrew school three days a week. The family attended weekly Shabbat services.
The Levinsons were also part of the “Fourth Nighters Club,” a group of Jewish couples that got together every fourth night to hear speakers or participate in a social activity.
When Joan retired as office manager for the New Jersey State Board of Pharmacy in Newark, it made her an honorary pharmacist.
Although she describes herself as “a couch potato,” Levinson plays bridge weekly at the synagogue and at the local senior center. She also enjoys reading the newspaper and keeping up on current events, loves to watch Jeopardy on television, and is “very good” at crossword puzzles.
In addition to her four children, she has 11 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.