Tikkun, the Hebrew word for repair, is often used in the expression tikkun olam, the value of repairing the world. But tikkun can be intensely personal, and become the framework of a meaningful life.
Rarely have I seen this displayed so clearly as in the story of Jerusalemite Ruth Zvi.
She’s the mother of 17 children. That’s right, 17.
She and three sisters were given away by parents who felt they had too many children.
They kept their sons.
I meet Ruth, now 60, at Hadassah University Medical Center, where she’s a volunteer for Ezer Mizion. Ruth is one of those pleasant religious women who pass out sandwiches to the families of hospital patients. What would you like, tuna or cheese? She’s never in a hurry.
Five – or, as she says, “only five” of her children are still living at home. And she does attend all the birthday parties and end-of-year celebrations for her 31 grandchildren thus far, but still has time to schmooze.
We meet at the kiosk where I buy my daily gelato in the hospital mall. Her son Israel (No. 7) co-owns the Aldo concession, and tops my frozen yogurt with a dollop of mint chocolate chip.
“I don’t remember myself before moving to Jerusalem,” reveals Ruth, who has brown embracing eyes and an easy smile.
She would learn later in life that she was born in Tel Aviv’s Hatikva quarter. She ate scraps that fell from the table, a toddler Cinderella. At age three, when she was adopted, she couldn’t yet walk or talk.
Adoption was less regulated back then. A woman, representing an NGO that wanted to rescue underprivileged children, had heard about Ruth’s family. She became the daughter of Rabbi and Rebbetzin C., an older childless couple from Poland who’d lost their large families in the Shoah. They longed for children, and were willing to take this neglected, backwards little girl.
They lived in the Geula neighborhood of Jerusalem. Ruth’s new mother washed, clothed and fed her, and took her to get the required inoculations she hadn’t received as a baby. A middle name was added. She would henceforth be Ruth Miriam, for her adoptive mother’s murdered mom.
“My mother was very strict, what you’d call a ‘Polish mother,’” recalls Ruth. “My father was warmer, although he never once kissed or hugged me. Somehow, he was able to express his parental affection without touching.”
It didn’t occur to Ruth that her father’s never touching her had to do with religious restrictions on adopted children.
She didn’t know she was adopted.
Looking back, there were hints about her being adopted, but she didn’t pursue them. “My upbringing was such that questioning my mother would have been unthinkable.”
Ruth learned to play the accordion, and was often the center of class parties.
Her mother was somber. Ruth was darkskinned, with a Sephardi complexion; her mother was fair-skinned and looked typically Ashkenazi. “When people mentioned it, my mother said I looked like one of her sisters murdered in Poland. That was a conversation-stopper. I suppose all my neighbors and classmates knew I was adopted, but no one said anything.”
Ruth was a teen when her best friend asked if she could tell her a secret. The friend made her promise she wouldn’t be angry. “And then she said it: ‘You’re adopted.’” Ruth informed her friend she had to leave. “She kept apologizing, but I explained that I wasn’t mad, I just needed to be alone.”
Ruth walked and walked, her heart beating fast, her mind unable to fathom her new reality. She found herself at the Western Wall.
“I talked to God; I said I didn’t know who my mother and father were, but that now the Holy One would have to be both my mother and my father. I went home and didn’t say a word to my parents.”
Her mother guessed. “She worried that I wouldn’t mind her anymore. I assured her that nothing had changed.”
When matchmaking began, among the men she met was a light-skinned, Sephardi yeshiva student named Elijah Zvi. “He was very short, but he seemed taller each time I met him. Like all the girls of my religious ilk, I was impressed that he wanted to study Torah. “ At the engagement, the groom’s father asked which ethnic group Ruth really belonged to. Rabbi C. shook his head: “We never speak of it,” he responded, and the subject was closed.
The wedding took place in the Bais Yaakov Teachers’ Seminary where Ruth studied. Their married life began on Malchei Yisrael Street, near Mea She’arim.
Elijah earned a small stipend as a yeshiva student and Ruth taught music in kindergartens.
They soon had four daughters.
One day, an item in a community newspaper mentioning the upcoming nuptials of a couple named Nachum and Tova caught her eye. “I can’t explain it,” she remembers.
“I had a feeling they had something to do with me.”
Elijah knew Nachum and spotted him at prayer services in a neighborhood synagogue.
“A girl was waiting for him outside and she looked a little like you,” he observed. He suggested inviting them to their home. Ruth recognized her strong resemblance to Tova, but didn’t say anything.
Eventually, the two women joyfully acknowledged their sisterhood. Tova’s parents had told her from the beginning that she was adopted. “She’d opened the file and was in touch with our biological parents. She kept urging me to meet them, too.”
Ruth and Elijah finally went to see the man and woman who had given Ruth and her sisters away. “I went for the first and last time,” recounts Ruth. “My biological mother hardly acknowledged me; she was like a fossil. My father tried to pretend he always wanted to get be back. I had four daughters by then and the thought of my parents giving away four daughters was more than I could cope with.”
She was clear on one subject: No matter how many children she and Elijah had, they would bring them up with love.
Ruth gave birth 18 times (one stillborn child) in 24 years.
Her widowed adoptive mother, the sole survivor of her family – who couldn’t have biological children and took a chance on this abandoned, backward child – was always by her side, helping her with the children.
Rebbetzin C. got to help bring up the first 11 children before she died.
“My adoptive parents had their own ideas of child-rearing – today they might not be recommended – but they gave me enormous strength, confidence and self-reliance,” she asserts. “There were plenty of difficult periods, never extra money or enough personal space for the children. But today I have eight sons and nine daughters, and they’re all terrific.
Twelve are married; they’re all educated and hold down good jobs.”
Her son Israel recalls how tough times sometimes were, but that they were never hungry – even if they slept on mattresses in the living room. They’re still close today, often camping out to be together in their parents’ home.
When her youngest child, “the best of all,” started first grade, Ruth went back to work as a house mother in a home for senior citizens. Today, at 60, she enthuses that she’s “at a great stage of life, fully enjoying myself.” She attends a variety of classes at the community center.
Advice for childrearing? “Respect every child. Look beyond what he or she is wearing.
Think of how my parents saved me.
Compliment everything good they do, but don’t let a lie go undetected. I never did homework; that’s the child’s responsibility, not yours.”
Life advice? “Don’t waste energy on over-thinking. Get on with what you want to do, and think of the positive.”
Regrets? “As you might imagine, I didn’t hug and kiss my children enough – but I’m learning to do that with my grandchildren.That’s my personal tikkun... a lot of hugs and kisses.” ■ The author is a Jerusalem writer who focuses on the wondrous stories of modern Israel. She serves as the Israel director of public relations for Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America. The views in her columns are her own.