The warrior’s wife

Ruth Dayan is still trying to change the world at 95.

Ruth and Moshe Dayan at tribal meeting_390 (photo credit: FRITZ COHEN / GPO)
Ruth and Moshe Dayan at tribal meeting_390
(photo credit: FRITZ COHEN / GPO)
The elegant silverhaired lady has just concluded her eighth phone call of the day in efforts to arrange a trip for a group of Palestinian children to the Safari Park in Ramat Gan.
“I just can’t bear to say no,” sighs Ruth Dayan, sitting in her north Tel Aviv apartment, fielding yet another phone call, this one requesting help from a young clothing designer in Holon needing marketing advice. “There are a lot of people that can't take care of themselves, Jews and Arabs. They have been part of my life from day one. They know they can call me day and night.”
Ruth Dayan is a one-woman welfare organization, constantly helping other people – often total strangers. “I can’t get involved in public politics, but I do a lot privately. I do what I can,” she says, admitting she has no reservations about using her own prodigious connections to get help for people. She seems to have known every mover and shaker in the country since the 1930s.
Some of her supporters think it’s wrong that this woman who’s still trying to change the world at 95 and still driving herself to the West Bank to help struggling artisans hasn’t been awarded the Israel Prize, though she’s been nominated annually in the last decade.
Dayan was the wife of Moshe Dayan, the legendary and charismatic former defense and foreign affairs minister and IDF chief of staff. One of the young state’s most famous faces, his iconic status was cemented when a portrait of him, wearing his famous eye patch, graced the cover of the June 16, 1967 issue of “Time” magazine with the banner headline “How Israel Won The War.”
He was also an unrepentant womanizer, and after a bittersweet 37 years of marriage, Ruth divorced Moshe in 1971. But by the time of their divorce Ruth Dayan was a legend herself, already famous as the mother of Israel’s ethnic craft-based industries and as the founder and moving force behind “Maskit.” The fashion house, later a chain that marketed high-quality arts, fashions and handicrafts, provided a showcase for the talents of immigrant artists and artisans, while helping them earn a living. Dayan's strategy and skills of marshaling the talents of underprivileged women and returning the earnings directly to them has become a model in Israel and worldwide.
Today, 45 years after the Six Day War, the ex-wife of the man who conquered the West Bank, putting the Palestinians under Israeli occupation, is doing what she can to try to alleviate some of the pressures of that occupation. (By the time of his death in 1981, Moshe had long since entered the political scene and had advocated a unilateral Israeli disengagement from the territories occupied in the 1967 war).
She continues her peace activities with undiminished vigor. A scheduled meeting in December between her and other prominent Israeli peace activists, former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami and Uri Avnery, with moderate Palestinian academic Sari Nusseibeh, was torpedoed by Palestinians opposed to “normalization.”
Passed over for the prize
Yael Huldai, wife of Tel Aviv mayor Ron Huldai, is one of many of Dayan’s friends and admirers who, every year, submit her candidacy for the Israel Prize for “Lifetime Achievement and Special Contribution to Society and the State,” but to no avail. “Ruth's contribution to the state to this day is so great, I don’t understand why she's never received the prize,” complains Huldai.
“There are few people in this country who have been as involved in volunteer work as Ruth has throughout her entire life,” insists Huldai.
Dayan herself is visibly irritated but also amused when the subject of the Israel Prize comes up. “I wish they'd stop putting my name in,” she says. “It doesn't mean anything; it’s just a bunch of old academics. Anyway, I'd have no room to put it.”
True. She has scores of awards and certificates of appreciation, which would indeed cover an entire
wall. Among them are several honorary doctorates, including from Haifa and Ben-Gurion Universities, the honorary citizenship of Herzliya, and Neve Shalom’s “Partner in Peace” award.
In addition to her numerous humanitarian activities for Palestinians, she continues to champion multiple causes, including Jewish- Arab dialogue, Bedouin welfare and rights and, in particular, women’s empowerment. She was one of the founders of Variety Israel and Friends of Sheba Medical Center.
“Everything I have done and do is on a voluntary basis. I'm not working for anyone,” says Dayan, who lives off a modest pension.
Dayan greets the visitor to her modest Ramat Aviv apartment wearing a smart pale olive-green outfit: a long light-weight jacket over a long skirt, which has the look of crisp linen. Though it looks as if it could have been purchased yesterday, Dayan reveals to an admirer that the dress is 50 years old, one of the collection of vintage Maskit dresses and coats she keeps in her closet. “Look at the finish on this,” she exclaims, showing off the collar, cuff and hem on the dress. The label reads “Riki Ben-Ari,” the name of the late, world-famous fashion illustrator who was one of many of Israel’s leading fashion designers who produced designs for Maskit.
Both the style and quality of Maskit is unmistakable. “No one makes clothes like this anymore; it's pure cotton and never fades. These days, even the good designers make such shmatterai,” she comments, using a Yiddish phrase roughly translatable to “rags.”
“Maskit was created as an ideology, not as a fashion house,” explains Dayan. “When I started working with this in 1949, we had no idea of going into this kind of a business.” Indeed, Maskit’s distinctive style was its mission: to use immigrant and Arab artistry as raw materials to create something new and marketable.
The Dayan House In 1949, then Major-General Moshe Dayan was appointed commander of the Southern Command, and the couple and their three young children moved from their rural home in Nahalal to take up residence in Jerusalem, in the famous Beit Abkarius Bey mansion in central Jerusalem. The Dayan house would become the center of social gatherings for politicians, military types and diplomats. “Our entertaining was a kind of public relations,” she recalls.
Arnie Simon, a former colonel in the Military Intelligence Corps and a longtime assistant to Ben-Gurion University presidents, met Ruth and Moshe Dayan in Jerusalem in 1949, when he was a 19-year-old new immigrant. He became the first of many student boarders who stayed in Dayan’s house, eventually forming a mini-commune. “I was like part of the family, and helped with the entertaining.”
It was during this period that Dayan began her work with immigrant communities. Initially working as part of the moshav movement of the Jewish Agency, Dayan’s original task was to teach new immigrants agricultural skills. This proved impossible in the largely barren, rat-infested and waterless settlements. But she saw that what these immigrants did have were the traditions of craft and handiwork from their native countries: lace from Bulgaria, silver jewelry from Yemen, robes from Tripoli, rugs from Azerbaijan. Dayan was certain that these native handicrafts could be marketed.
Simon often joined Dayan on her trips to visit the immigrant communities where she was organizing income-producing cottage industries. “One of these Jewish tribes was from an isolated area in Yemen,” Simon recalls. “They were housed in tents in very primitive conditions in an immigrant camp near Rehovot.
Conditions were dreadful, muddy, cold and wet. The women wove unique blankets on looms made from tying strings to sticks stuck in the ground. Somehow, Ruth managed to establish an entire industry of these products.”
The government company that was formed in 1954 was named “Maskit,” with Dayan as director, who understood that to be really successful, the products would need to meet modern-day design standards and fashions. She attracted top designers, who could turn the homespun items into fashionable, well-designed and salable products. “Maskit gave the good designers a home, they came to us,” she notes.
She expanded the handiwork and crafts project to Arab women in Nazareth and the surrounding Arab villages. After the 1967 war, Dayan traveled into the West Bank and Gaza Strip to look for handicrafts. She collected rugs and pottery from Gaza, and embroidery and motherof- pearl decorations from Bethlehem, both of which would be sold in Maskit.
Maskit reached the pinnacle of its success in the late 1960s and early 1970s; its signature jalabiyahs and caftans were exported to New York’s fanciest shops, the crafts sold at the largest department stores in the US. The Maskit stores closed down for good in 1994, but the Maskit magic still attracts young designers and entrepreneurs who contact Dayan for her advice.
Since the early 1990s she’s been involved in various projects assisting Bedouin and Palestinian women to earn money through their traditional embroidery and jewelry designs.
To the distress of her close friends, she still drives her own car every week or so to the West Bank Palestinian village of Kharbata, where she founded an arts and crafts workshop for women, and to the Negev Bedouin town of Segev Shalom.
One of Dayan's more glittering matchmaking feats was between the Bedouin craftswomen and famous New York designer Nili Lotan. Lotan, who just married veteran Israeli singer David Broza, has incorporated some of the women’s embroidery in her work. One particularly flashy example is a recent Paris Hilton ad, in which the glamorous fashionista is wearing a Nili Lotan dress made out of Bedouin- made fabric.
Dayan was the daughter of Rahel and Zvi Schwartz, considered part of the “Jerusalem aristocracy,” who were friends with top echelons of both the British military government and Arab leaders. Her sister, Reuma, married Ezer Weizman, who became the seventh president of the state.
During our Tel Aviv interview, Dayan’s son Udi, a noted sculptor, comes into the apartment. His resemblance to Moshe Dayan is startling. Ruth’s other two children are Yael, a novelist, former Knesset member and today Deputy Mayor of Tel Aviv, and Assi, a celebrated actor and filmmaker, who recently starred in the successful “Betipul” (In Therapy) television series. The latter Dayan’s constant battle with drugs and alcohol has hounded his career and made him the subject of constant gossip. In 2009 he lived with his mother for a year, when he was under house arrest for assaulting his then-girlfriend.
But Ruth Dayan dislikes discussing her famous offspring. “They all provide me with a lot of work; they can each talk for themselves,” she told an inquiring “Yedioth Ahronoth” interviewer this past summer. “ Why do I have to tell everyone what I think? I don't have to provide more gossip."