As I walked into the Tel Aviv high rise apartment of Ruth Dayan — who died February 5th, one month before her 104th birthday — I felt I was meandering through the strangest kind of museum.
I found myself wandering through a veritable shrine to the memory of General Moshe Dayan, figuratively drowning in the overwhelming number of forms in which he was represented on almost every surface. Framed photographs adorned every table, paintings hung on the walls, and even a bronze replica of the eye-patched general’s head was comfortably displayed almost in the center of the apartment. Certainly, Dayan’s legendary skilled soldiery — he has been counted among the greatest warriors in military history, along with Hannibal, Richard the Lionheart and Simón Bolivar — is worthy of tribute. But this was Ruth’s apartment, and by the time I visited her here she had been divorced from Moshe for more than four decades.
As she long ago revealed publicly, the marriage came to an end for good reason: she could no longer tolerate the philandering. So to find in her home such an all-encompassing memorial to her ex-husband was both surreal and surprising.
Like so many accomplished women of her generation, her own career was, at times, opaqued by the singular accomplishments of her famed husband. Her apartment’s décor implied a similar self-perception. For those who have never lived in the State of Israel, the name Ruth Dayan, unless coupled with Moshe’s name, means close to nothing. But Ruth was her own bright and shining light of activism and influence. She lived a storied and impactful life of her own.
Unlike Moshe, who wielded the sword of a Roman emperor like Julius Caesar, however, Ruth accomplished much by waving the perennial olive branch of the Roman goddess Pax.
Ruth was born less than eight months before one of the most unifying moments in modern Jewish history — the signing of the Balfour Declaration — and died amid one of the most fractured governments in Israel’s history. Her 103-year life spanned the story of the aspiration for the return of the Jewish people to their eternal homeland, and in her staunchly secular version of the narrative, the dream of a democratic and egalitarian society was meant to be available to all of Israel’s inhabitants, Jews and Arabs alike. For Zionists like Ruth, conquest of the land was a historical necessity and included a firm commitment to coexistence. Throughout her life, she was surrounded by the most important figures in Israeli political and cultural life — David Ben-Gurion, Chaim Weizman, and Golda Meir, to name just a few. As one close friend put it to me, “meeting Ruth must be like meeting Betsy Ross.”
More than just being on the sideline, however, Ruth was an active participant in making her vision of the dream a reality. Ruth’s story is one of service to a liberal ideal and her sense of duty brought about transformative change in Israeli society.
The following is a personal appreciation of Ruth Dayan, a human being I feel privileged to have known and to call family.
I came to meet Ruth because of our family connection. Her father, Zvi Schwartz, was my grandfather Aron Milgram’s first cousin. Their mothers, Mintze Bograd Schwartz and Mirl Bograd Milgram, were sisters. Both were daughters of the (at least in the shtetl of Novoselitz, Bessarabia) renowned Bubbe Ruchel Leah, herself allegedly a descendant of the great chasidic master R. Meir of Premishlan, a primary student of the Baal Shem Tov. I was in Israel and mustered up the courage to call — the families had not been in touch in decades. I had no less than four working phone numbers for her apartment, a vestige of the days before call waiting when important people needed to be reached. She answered the phone, I explained who I was, she acknowledged the family connection and invited me to meet her at her home the next day.
What I did not tell her on the phone and would reveal only in person later was that I was on a mission. I had been told years earlier that Zvi had written a book about the history of our family. I wanted the book; actually, I desperately wanted the book. Since childhood I had been obsessed with family history, locating the oldest individual at any family gathering and asking a million and one questions. I came to Ruth prepared.
I arrived on time, and although the family relationship was distant, Ruth treated me as if I were a close relative. The conversation flowed with great ease. She knew exactly who my great-grandparents were — Yaakov Shimon (always called Yankef Shimon) and Mirl Milgram — and vividly recalled meeting with them after their move to mandate Palestine with their youngest four children in 1932. My grandfather and the other five siblings had made their way to Venezuela in the 1920s. She remembered that too, and told me of her visit with “Los Hermanos Milgram” in Caracas in the 1960s, when she travelled there for business on behalf of the state of Israel.
Of course, within the first five minutes of meeting it became clear that Ruth had never heard of the book I thought her father authored and we concluded that it likely had never been written. At a certain point that afternoon, however, this mattered little. The conversations that ensued that day and the many others that continued on subsequent visits were simply breathtaking in their detail and delivery. On a visit with my children, she recounted in great detail the day Moshe lost his eye after being shot by a sniper, the glass from the binoculars he was wearing tearing into his skull. She told of accompanying the body of General “Mickey” Marcus — who lost his life to friendly fire just hours before the ceasefire for Israel’s War of Independence — on a flight from Israel to be buried at West Point.
The stories were endless, and often included anecdotes about Moshe. In truth, though, it was Ruth’s and her parents’ political connections that did much to propel Moshe’s early successes, a subject she also occasionally addressed.
Zvi Schwartz was an eminent lawyer and Zionist activist in mandate Palestine who had made aliyah from Novoselitz as a teenager. He and his wife, Rachel (whose own father was an associate of Bialik’s and who according to legend was the first woman to ever receive a driver’s license in Israel), had met while attending the Herzliyah Gymnasium with the men and women who would become the leadership of the Zionist movement. Zvi had trained in England during Ruth’s childhood — hence her slight British accent — receiving a master’s degree from the London School of Economics for writing a thesis on Maimonides’ economic theory and concurrently excelling in Talmud study at Jews’ College. Upon his return to Israel, Zvi attended the newly founded Hebrew University, studying with some of the greatest Judaica scholars of that generation, including J.N. Epstein and Simcha Assaf.
To say the Schwartzes were an integral part of the “aristocracy” of mandate Palestine and the later newly founded state of Israel is no exaggeration. When it seemed like no one else in Israel owned a private car, they paraded the streets in their Morris 8. Ruth and her younger sister Reuma (wife of Ezer Weizman) were society girls, raised on private dance classes and private tutors teaching them about Victorian plays. Ruth’s courtship with Moshe — the primitive moshav man without table manners who had never before worn a necktie — was by all accounts nothing less than shocking. But all it took was one summer at Nahalal for Ruth and Moshe to fall in love.
Once they saw the relationship was a done deal, the Schwartzes took it upon themselves to civilize Moshe, even shipping the newlyweds off to Cambridge, England, for the young Moshe to become more cultured. Marrying Ruth — actually, marrying into the Schwartz family — certainly helped integrate the yet-to-be renowned military man into the Hagana elite.
The rest, of course, is history.
As Moshe excelled at his political and military pursuits, Ruth had her own successes. She founded Maskit, a project assigned to her by then Minister of Labor Golda Meir that would provide work for new immigrant women. Maskit became an international success as a fashion house, specializing in eastern patterns of embroidery and weaving. Initially the new undertaking employed Jewish immigrant women from Yemen and Morocco; later it came to include Bedouin, Druze, and even Palestinian women. For Ruth, the dream of personal success, pride in your work and economic security for women in the land of Israel would not be limited to Jews.
In everything she did, Ruth promoted strong relationships with those less fortunate, and she worked tirelessly throughout her life for the ideal Arab-Israeli partnership. When she witnessed what she thought were injustices, she acted according to her conscience. She controversially worked hand in hand for decades with Raymonda Tawil, Yasser Arafat’s mother-in-law, on behalf of the rights of Palestinians. She was deeply involved in B’tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories. Even those who disagreed with her politics admired her convictions. She knew firsthand what the struggle for self-determination was and wanted to afford that right to others as well. She had endured the years leading up to the establishment of the state under constant threat of Arab attack and had seen comrades, family members and friends lose life and limb. Yet she remained true to her values and her ideals: helping the downtrodden and disadvantaged, all along refusing to judge the masses of Palestinians, or Jews for that matter, based on the fringes and the fanatics.
A few months ago, a relative I did not know previously found me online, and by chance shared with me the document I had been searching for during my initial visit with Ruth! Ruth’s father had never written a book about the family, but a book with his account of family lore did exist. In 1971, Zvi received the Yekirei Yerushalayim prize from the city of Jerusalem, established to honor the city’s most devoted and accomplished citizens. The book published the interviews of that year’s 18 honorees. In his interview, Zvi recounted Bubbe Ruchel Leah’s great acts of charity. What I knew about the legendary Bubbe Ruchel Leah was primarily from a great aunt and from participating in Caracas at La Union Israelita in an event called “La Noche de Novoselitz.” Many landsleit from this small town ended up in Venezuela. As a child I was placed on the stage to sing Yiddish songs for the crowd, followed by people telling their stories about the town. At least from the stories told that day, it seemed almost everyone in the room was somehow an einikel of Bubbe Ruchel Leah’s.
Zvi’s account in the interview added some important details: a businesswoman of significant means and devoted follower of the Boyaner Rebbe, Ruchel Leah Bograd gave out raw chickens and oil for lamps and heating every Thursday afternoon, so the poor would not go hungry or be cold on the Sabbath. As I read these lines, I was moved to know how Bubbe Ruchel Leah, in her own way, used her position to make her immediate world a better place. I never got to share with Ruth that I found her father’s interview.
After reflecting on Ruth’s life, though, I see that the willingness to support those in need can be genetic. Ruth Dayan’s legacy will forever remain that of a woman who did all in her power to help repair the broken world around her.
Jonathan S. Milgram of Teaneck is associate professor of Talmud and rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary. A family lore enthusiast, he has begun formally recording his family’s history as a keepsake for future generations of Milgrams.