Three months after 15-year-old Aliza Sevillia arrived in Minneapolis from Greece in 1958, she found herself at Natalie Atkin’s kitchen table sipping tea and trying to converse in her broken English.
Aliza was the guest of Atkin’s oldest son, Stanley Gerstein, who would later marry her. But Atkin didn’t see the young woman as her son’s romantic interest — she saw her as someone with a fascinating story and a limitless future in her new country.
“She never treated me like I was a teenager,” Aliza Gerstein recalled recently. “She treated me like a young woman ready to take on the world.”
Family members said that interest in others was typical of Atkin, a St. Louis Park resident who died March 12 at the age of 105.
Born on January 10, 1911, to Russian immigrants who ran a grocery store on St. Paul’s East Side, Atkin pushed herself, going on to become the first in her family to attend college during an inhospitable time for women and Jews. She graduated from Humboldt High School in 1928, and from the University of Minnesota in 1932 with a degree in medical technology.
“She was a person who was before her time,” said her grandson, Dylan Gerstein. “She was ready to make her own contribution, but society expected her to be a wife and mother, and she accepted that with all of her heart and soul, but she never gave up on living to her potential.”
In her early 20s she set out for New York City, where she sold hats at Macy’s department store. At some point before she married her first husband, Rabbi Joseph Gerstein, in 1937, she worked as a lab technician in St. Paul.
For about a decade, Atkin traveled with her husband across the country starting new congregations. The two returned to Minneapolis in the 1950s, where they raised three sons a few blocks from Lake Calhoun.
Atkin returned to school, earning a teaching degree from the University of Minnesota, and briefly worked as a fourth-grade teacher.
When Joseph Gerstein changed careers and began investing in real estate, it was Atkin who ran the operation behind the scenes, advising her husband on what to purchase in south Minneapolis, Aliza Gerstein said.
“She was … an amazing businesswoman,” she said.
Her husband died in 1973, and Atkin married Louis Atkin in 1977.
Throughout her life, she consistently wrote, penning book reviews for the Star Tribune in the 1990s in addition to her personal writing (she self-published two volumes of her autobiography for her family, and a third volume is due out soon), led and participated in book clubs and played violin with the St. Paul Civic Orchestra for several years until arthritis set in.
She tried to impart her passion for language to her sons, creating a morning ritual that lasted throughout their lives at home.
From the age of 5 until he left for college in his late teens, Stanley Gerstein and his brothers were required to share a new word with the family at the breakfast table each morning, discussing its meaning and use.
It was, Stanley said, his mother’s way of ensuring that her sons would continue her legacy of higher education.
Atkin hoped to spare her own children from the struggles she experienced. The Great Depression left a lasting mark on her, and throughout her life she reused tea bags as often as three times, and gravitated toward day-old bread and cheaper, bruised fruit at the grocery store.
“Her life and her thinking was an attempt to dig out from under self-pity, of complaining about the misery and challenges of life, and to become nonjudgmental,” said her middle son, Dr. Arnold Gerstein.
In a review of “Lifespan: What Really Affects Human Longevity,” published in the Star Tribune in 1993, Atkin reflected on the quest for longevity: “We would all like to live longer and healthier lives. Read the book. It can improve your perspective and help you make better choices for yourself.”
What was her secret? Good genetics, she once told Stanley.
“She didn’t even watch her diet,” Stanley said. “Aside from walking, she never engaged in exercise.”
But she observed moderation, and there was one other thing. “She was always looking on the sunny side of the street,” Stanley said.
Atkin was preceded in death by her parents, sister and two husbands. She is survived by her sons, Stanley Gerstein of New York; Arnold Gerstein of Michigan; and Doran Gerstein of Minneapolis; six grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. Services have been held.