A centennial portrait

Ruth Dayan recently celebrated 100 fascinating years. She belongs to a generation dedicated to and profoundly involved with the creation of the State of Israel.

RUTH DAYAN at her 100th birthday party. (photo credit: EREZ HARODI - OSIM TSILUM)
RUTH DAYAN at her 100th birthday party.
(photo credit: EREZ HARODI - OSIM TSILUM)
In March, Ruth Dayan celebrated her 100th birthday.
The story of her life, which she herself describes as cinematic, is inextricably intertwined with that of the Jewish state.
She was born in 1917 in Haifa, the daughter of new immigrants from Russia, Rachel and Zvi Schwartz.
It was a turbulent world. A few days after her birth, the Russian tsar abdicated his throne. Lenin was about to ignite the Bolshevik Revolution. The First World War was in full swing. The British published the Balfour Declaration and a month later the celebrated General Allenby stepped down from his horse and strode through the gates of Jerusalem, the Ottomans having given up without a fight.
When she was almost two years old, the family decamped for London, determined to acquire new skills that would be beneficial to the Zionist dream.
When they returned, Ruth was eight, a scholarly girl who spoke and wrote English – an impressive and rare ability at that time for a native of the region.
The family built a comfortable – even luxurious by the standards of the time – home in Jerusalem. The neighbors called the place Schwartzland. With the family’s gloss of British culture, the house became a social center of the Jerusalem elite. But despite a bourgeois way of life, the Schwartzes were careful to maintain the expected socialist spirit. Ruth was sent to a youth movement. Her nine-year-old sister, Reuma, was to be educated in a kibbutz.
IN 1934, Ruth, now a beautiful 17-year-old, dreamt like many of her high school friends and suitors of settling in a kibbutz and working the Land of Israel. Always outspoken and determined, she decided to prepare herself by learning the basics, such as how to milk a cow. She informed her parents that she was going to study agriculture – to hell with all the theoretical studies at the gymnasium.
She arrived at Nahalal, the first moshav in British Palestine. If you wanted to be a pioneer, this was the place to go. Nahalal was excruciatingly hot in the summer, cold and muddy in the winter. Despite the harsh conditions, this tiny settlement in the Jezreel Valley attracted the best and most dedicated pioneers, and also swarms of Anopheles mosquitoes that spread malaria.
In no frame of mind for frivolities, Ruth wrote in her diary, “I came here feeling that I was entering a monastery. I’m going to stop messing with guys and wasting time on them… I will devote myself to work and studies in order to be a good farmer.”
Ruth’s resolution to refrain from inter-gender socializing did not last long. The locals made a bonfire to welcome newcomers. Moshe, a handsome young man, provided them with an orientation.
“I fell in love with him at first sight. I didn’t even know his name,” she recounted in an interview years later. “Before I arrived, I was warned by a friend, he said that the country boys over there were terrible.
Especially I was to stay away from the Dayan boys. It did not take me long to discover that he who I had fallen for was a member of the Dayan family, but I deleted the warning from my memory. I was in love.”
It was hard to resist falling in love with Moshe Dayan. In photos of that period he is seen always at the center of the action, always smiling. Born on the shores of Lake Kinneret, he was the new Jewish man.
Strong, sexy and beautiful, he was the epitome of the Zionist dream.
He had been drafted to the Hagana paramilitary organization at the age of 15 and was involved in clashes with the Beduin neighbors. When they met, he was 19. In the movie that was her life, he became the protagonist. She took him to meet her parents in Jerusalem – a visit, she said later, that left a deep impression on him.
“Coming from a leaky hut in Nahalal with an outside toilet to an English cottage – that was something,” she said in an interview in 1986. The parents were not asked to express their opinions about Moshe, only to nod in agreement to Ruth’s continual babble of adulation: “Isn’t he beautiful? Isn’t he smart?’” Ruth did not consult; she was a practical dreamer.
In 1935, a few months before Germany raised the swastika flag and enacted the Nuremberg Laws, Ruth and Moshe got married in Nahalal. Local Arab dignitaries were also invited. Ruth was only 18, yet the young couple was already involved in the complicated politics of the Middle East.
The wedding served another purpose: it was a sulha (traditional dispute resolution) between the Beduin tribes in the area and Moshe, who had fought with them regularly. The bride appeared barefoot, deliberately, but her parents provided an urbane touch.
They hired a special bus for guests, brought delicacies and invited the nation’s dignitaries. Ruth was married in a simple embroidered dress, but the presents the couple received were bourgeois and expensive.
“This made Moshe very uncomfortable,” Ruth recalled in the same 1986 interview. “We finally decided that we would use the money we received to study abroad.” They went to London, but the separation from the Land of Israel was difficult for both of them, and they soon returned to the Jezreel Valley.
THE FICTIONAL Wonder Woman had not yet been created, and Gal Gadot would not be born for decades, but on the wild empty roads of British Palestine, a true wonder woman could be seen racing her car. Rachel, Ruth’s mother, was one of the first women drivers in the area. She crossed the Sinai desert and reached Cairo.
She smuggled weapons to Jerusalem, and on a stormy night she hurried in her car, a Morris, to the hospital in the Jezreel Valley to see her first granddaughter, Yael – the daughter of proud parents Ruth and Moshe.
On the eve of Simhat Torah, 1939, shortly after the outbreak of World War II, Ruth dressed Yael in festive clothes. She went with the eight-month-old to the main road to welcome Moshe, who was supposed to return from military activity with his comrades in the Hagana. Increasingly agitated, the young mother paced the empty road, but Moshe didn’t show.
“Darkness descended. I returned to the hut,” she described the experience at a later stage. “I was bewildered and depressed, I wanted to kill him – Moshe – and the Hagana.”
The next day the couple’s dog entered the house – alone, without Moshe. A note on the dog’s neck read: “We were arrested... I kiss you and Yael, Moshe.”
He and 42 members of the underground group were arrested for illegal possession of weapons by the British who ruled Palestine at the time and jailed in the Acre Prison.
Ruth made desperate efforts to win their freedom.
She even tried to contact the queen of England to talk to her, woman to woman. Only in February 1941, after a year and a half of imprisonment, was Moshe released and able to return to his wife and daughter in Nahalal.
IT WAS barely three months after Moshe’s release when the commanders of the underground came to “talk” to him. When she saw them approaching, Ruth knew that the blissful family interlude had come to an end. The Nazis and their allies seemed to be moving inexorably toward Palestine from all directions. Vichy French forces, cooperating with the Nazis, controlled Syria and Lebanon.
Dayan joined a Jewish fighting force that assisted the British.
“I knew that Moshe had gone to Lebanon,” Ruth told an interviewer years ago. She was waiting for him at a kibbutz near the border.
“Everyone is coming back, only Moshe has not returned. I was going crazy ... I went wild ... I was shouting, ‘Where is Moshe?’ But they told me nothing.”
Finally, she was told to go to Haifa.
“I found him completely bandaged. A bullet had hit his binoculars. It was a miracle he was alive. His response to the injury was severe, and his mood somber. He thought it was the end of his life. ‘A person with one eye is worth nothing,’ he said.”
Not long afterward, Ruth gave birth to Udi (1942) and then Assi (1945). In 1947, Moshe was drafted again.
He became an officer in charge of Arab affairs. In April 1948, he participated in talks with Druse officers to forge a secret “blood alliance” between the Druse and the Jews. His participation in these negotiations took place even though only a few days earlier his brother Zorik had been killed in a battle against Druse fighters.
Moshe rose through the ranks and in the summer of 1948 was appointed military commander of Jewishcontrolled areas of Jerusalem. In this post, he launched two military offensives; both failed. In the autumn of that year, he was involved in negotiations with Abdullah el-Tell, the Jordanian military commander of east Jerusalem, over a lasting cease-fire for the Jerusalem area.
The family moved to a large villa in the city. Ruth would accompany Moshe to events and would sometimes get involved as well.
In the early 1950s, many immigrants came to Israel and Ruth considered it her job to support and assist them. The roads were deserted, cars were rare and there were frequent attacks by fedayeen (Arab militants/terrorists). But Ruth was unstoppable. Driving an old jeep barefoot, as was the fashion with some at the time, and armed with a gun, she traveled to the most remote and desolated ma’barot (immigrant absorption camps).
She found treasures of handicrafts there.
“They [the immigrants] were living in the tents, in the mud. I thought I would try to market their beautiful handicrafts,” she recalled in a television interview. Ruth recognized the uniqueness of crafts from different cultures, and realized it could become a source of income for many of the new immigrants.
Gradually, she began providing raw materials to the artisans, and when Moshe was appointed chief of staff in December 1953, Ruth founded the Maskit fashion house, creating over 2,000 jobs for new immigrants. Over the years, Maskit helped preserve ethnic crafts from cultural communities around the globe.
Israel’s victory in the 1956 war turned Moshe into a worldfamous figure, with his trademark eye patch. In 1967, he was appointed defense minister.
“On the morning of the June 6, 1967, I told Moshe I was going to Jerusalem,” Ruth said later in an interview. “When I arrived, I stopped at a gas station to fill my car with gasoline. As soon as I stopped, shells arriving from the direction of the Old City began falling around me.”
The shells fell for another hour or two.
“Finally, I managed to get Moshe on the phone and he said to me: ‘What are you doing in Jerusalem?’ I told him, ‘You did not tell me there was going to be a war there this morning.’” THERE WERE many things Moshe did not tell Ruth. The Six Day War made him a legend. Women loved him, and he did not ignore their attentions. “I accepted it,” Ruth said in an interview. “I knew who would fall at his feet, and I would answer the letters his mistresses had written to him. It was funny.” The whole country gossiped about Moshe’s affairs, and Ruth did not seem to care.
“One day I went to Nablus. There were five Palestinian women in prison and I was asked if I could find them a job in Maskit. When I got home, Moshe was already there, sitting in an armchair wearing his pajamas. I prepared his dinner. He turned to me and told me: ‘I heard in the office that you went to visit the Palestinian prisoners. I do not like the fact that I put them in prison and you go to visit them.’ “At that moment I understood that we no longer thought the same way. The times were different. Our generation lived for the state; everything we did was for the state. When I heard him speak I understood he no longer supported the idea of coexistence. I told him I wanted a divorce.”
In 1972, before the Yom Kippur War, Ruth and Moshe Dayan divorced. A short time later Dayan married Rachel, a woman with whom he had been having an affair for 18 years, and who remained by his side until he died, nine years later.
When Ruth’s famous ex-husband died in 1981, he left everything to Rachel. He left nothing to his children. They did not forgive him, but Ruth did. She forgave everyone. She forgave her youngest son Assi, an actor and director who savaged her in the newspapers.
Assi was brilliant yet tormented and fell into drugs from time to time. Ruth nursed him until he died in 2014.
Over the years, she found ways to help and support numerous artists. She continued to develop Maskit, the fashion house. She worked for decades on behalf of children welfare, the rights of Beduin and women’s causes. She cofounded the children’s charity organization Variety Israel, as well as a Jewish-Arab social group, Brit Bnei Shem (Ibnaa Sam). She is a council member of human rights NGO Yesh Din and is on the board of directors of the Center for Jewish-Arab Economic Development.
“I believe in nothing but destiny,” she said in an interview in 2001.
Ruth no longer travels around the world as she used to, but just the other day, the energetic centenarian put on one of her beautiful dresses and hopped into the car of one of her grandchildren. They traveled 120 kilometers to Kibbutz Ein Harod to see an exhibition called “Dayan – A Family Album.” Ruth traveled back to Tel Aviv the same day.
She is called “granny” by a tribe of nine grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren, who go in and out of her Tel Aviv home on a daily basis. At the age of 100, she is still capable of being excited by the design of a new Maskit dress.
She feels the material. She checks the seams and looks forward to next year’s designs.