Joseph Levin (c.1865-1947) was born in Grodno, Russia. As a young man, he studied synagogue music under Jascha Alschuler in Slonem, near Vilna. He immigrated to the United States about 1884 and looked for work as a cantor. Although he had family living in Pittsburgh, he chose to settle in Ohio, working first at Machzikei Das Moshe Synagogue in Bellaire for two years and then at B’nai Israel Synagogue in Toledo for 15 more years. His duties at these congregations included being a shochet (ritual slaughterer) and a mohel (ritual circumciser), as well as chazzan (cantor).
In 1887, Joseph Levin married Sarah Frishman (1866-1930), and they had three daughters, Belle, Celia and Libbie. The family moved to the Hill District in 1902, and Levin became the cantor at Tree of Life Synagogue on Ross Street, downtown, during Passover that year. He stayed with the congregation until his retirement in December 1940. “He was very gentle, very sweet. But he had a streak in him. He could be very cynical,” his daughter Libbie Levin Rosenberg later recalled. “He could be iconoclastic sometimes, but he had such respect for anyone born in America. When someone did something gross or vulgar, he would say, ‘To think! That he was born in America, brought up in America! And that he should behave like that.’” Several years before his death, Levin wrote an informal will that claimed, “All my earthly life was simple. When I shall adjourn to my eternal life the departure shall also be conducted simply.”
As a young woman, Libbie Levin worked at the Carnegie Library and later for the Gulf Refining Corporation, but she harbored dreams of teaching kindergarten. “I was the kindergarten teacher of our street,’ she said. “All the little children, I would gather them up. I remember one time, my mother was away downtown, and I brought all these little children into the house.” She later married the painter Samuel Rosenberg. The couple lived with her parents in Oakland before moving into Squirrel Hill.
In 1921, Belle Levin married Max Levy. Their daughter Ruth Levy Westerman became a dancer and a dancing instructor with the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts and the Dance Alloy Theater. Their son Jules Levy married Elaine Holzman, proprietor of Klein’s Restaurant in Pittsburgh. Celia Levin married Abraham Seder, brother of the retailer Isaac Seder.