Eulogy | The improbable friendships of Ruth Dayan
hree days before Ruth Dayan died at her home in Tel Aviv last month, I rang her up from a park near my apartment in Tangier. Her assistant, Ethel, answered the phone and told me Ruth, just shy of 104, was too weak to talk; she put me on speaker. With Moroccan kids kicking soccer balls around me, I told Ruth some of my memories of our time together.
“Ruth,” I asked, “do you remember how the first time you rang me up?”
Ethel told me Ruth was nodding and smiling.
I had met Ruth in 2009, when I was living in East Jerusalem. Ruth had gotten my telephone number from her longtime friend — and my agent — Dorothy Harman. “Shalom, I’m Ruth Dayan and I need to see you,” she declared without prelude.
It seems she had read “Once Upon a Country,” the 2007 book I had written with Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian philosopher and human rights activist, and was convinced I was the right person to help her share a “secret story” she had been lugging around for decades. She invited me to her apartment so she could tell me more.
I had just finished teaching my morning seminar at Al Quds University in the West Bank. What could the widow of General Moshe Dayan — considered by some a military genius and by others, like my students, the eye-patched pirate who stole their country — possibly want with me?
Did she finally want to lash out at Dayan, a serial philanderer who died in 1981, for having betrayed her a hundred times? Or maybe it was some juicy gossip about her sister, Reuma Weizman, who had been married to Israel’s seventh president? I’d always thought of Ruth Dayan as the Israeli Rose Kennedy because of her famous children and grandchildren, so perhaps she had something to reveal about one of the celebrity singers or actors in the family.
Whatever it was, I was eager to find out.
The next morning, I made my way down from the Mount of Olives to meet Harman, who drove us to Tel Aviv. When we arrived at Ruth’s building, she buzzed us in and told us to come to the third floor, where I found her — then age 92 — standing in the doorway in a flowing blue dress she could have worn to a ballroom dance on the Titanic — but barefoot.
“Hi, I’m Ruth,” she said, then she shook my hand and ushered me into her living room
I was dazzled by the paintings, books, archeological artifacts, rugs, and — most of all — the photographs lining the walls. One was of two lovers reading poetry in a field.
“Oh, that’s Moshe and me,” Ruth said, looking over my shoulder. “And this one,” she added, pointing to a picture of three children, “is of our kids when we lived in Nahalal,” the moshav in northern Israel where the couple met. “Moshe and I were so happy in those days. It was just after the war in Europe. Work was hard and the kids drove us mad, but we were happy.”
I paid most attention to her youngest son, Assi, an actor I thought of as Israel’s Marlo Brando. I was a fan of his sitcom, “Be-Tipul,” the inspiration for the HBO hit “In Treatment.”
fter a few more minutes chatting about family photos, I asked about the “secret story.”
“Oh, yes, the secret,” she said. “Do you know Raymonda Tawil?”
I nodded. In the 1970s, Tawil was a prominent Palestinian journalist who built her career crusading against General Dayan and the Israeli occupation. The Israeli army had chased her out of the West Bank, but she returned after her daughter, Suha, married Yasser Arafat in 1990.
“Well, Raymonda and I have been best friends for 40 years,” Ruth told me, “and I want you to write a book about us. Maybe we can show people how to get over all this ridiculous hatred between Jews and Arabs.”
From that first encounter, I was sold, and for the next five years we must have driven a thousand miles together around Israel and the West Bank as I studied Ruth, Raymonda and their unusual relationship; we also flew together to the United States and to Malta, to meet Raymonda.
My book, “An Improbable Friendship,” was published in 2015, and I left Jerusalem that same year. But Ruth and I continued to Skype, email and talk by phone, and whenever I returned to Israel to do research for my next project, we’d catch up in person.
And so, on Feb. 2, I spent half an hour sitting in a park in Tangier and recounting memories of our time together over a speaker phone held by her aide, Ethel. Once, I had asked who most understood her.
“My friends, of course,” she had said
“Who’s your closest friend?”
“All dead,” she smacked her lips. “Every last one of them.” She was 92 at the time, sitting in her armchair as still as if in a Norman Rockwell painting, only her hands moving — knitting pink socks for a Palestinian baby.
Not Raymonda, I reminded her. And who else, I asked, among the living: who’s your best friend?
“Right now, at this very moment? Maybe you!” Ruth exclaimed. “When I don’t want to kill you.”
I must have looked at her with big, blank eyes of surprise. “I used to kill chickens and turkeys,” she said. “Why shouldn’t I kill you, too?”
‘Would you like to tag along?’
he minute I hung up the phone, more memories flooded back. Soon after Ruth and I met, I quickly realized she was much more than the widow of a military man who redrew the map of the Middle East. If she mentioned the general at all, it was because they had once worked the land together and started a family. Far more frequently, she talked about helping people.
In my mind, I saw Ruth in her armchair next to a table covered with ballpoint pens, scrap paper, and her tattered address book, a phone in each ear. One conversation would be with someone from the West Bank who needed a permit to cross into Israel for a medical emergency, and the other would be with former Israeli President Shimon Peres or some other heavyweight who could make it happen.
Once, while rifling through boxes of her papers, I dug up a 1953 photo of Ruth with Eleanor Roosevelt. When I asked her about it, she explained matter-of-factly how Golda Meir, then Israel’s minister of labor, had called her for advice on how to integrate recent immigrants from the deserts of Yemen. In the photo, Ruth was introducing Mrs. Roosevelt to one of those immigrants.
The next year, Ruth founded Maskit, a fashion house where she was able to both create jobs for poor immigrants and preserve Jewish handicrafts and cultural traditions; she ran it for 30 years.
From the same box, Ruth handed me a letter she received in 1960 from a woman she met at a jungle hospital in the Congo started by the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer. To get there, Ruth had taken a canoe up the Ogowe River like Katherine Hepburn’s character in the “African Queen.”
I read the letter aloud: “After seeing you off, even as I was standing on the dock with the black umbrella and the drizzle in the air, very warm tears came to my eyes and I had to blink them away all the time,” the woman had written.
“I don’t think I can explain it and maybe it can’t be explained, but you stirred a very human feeling inside of me when I first looked at you. I felt you were kind, had much gentleness of spirit, purity of heart, modesty of soul and that you were suffering within yourself some.”
I handed the letter back to Ruth and told her I understood exactly how the writer felt. Ruth blushed, then swatted my hand. “Oh, so I don’t forget, Assi sends his greetings,” she said of her most famous son, who had just been sentenced to house arrest for hitting his girlfriend. “He finally finished one of your books. With oodles of time on his hands in the desert, what else is he going to do?”
Ruth had accompanied Assi to court, and I had watched the scene outside on the evening news. The paparazzi swarmed like buzzards around Ruth, her head held high, holding her son’s hand as they left the building. Now she told me she was going to visit Assi the next day. “Would you like to tag along?” she asked.
‘We believed in free love and no property’
he next morning, as we made our way to where Assi was staying a few miles from the Dead Sea, Ruth filled me in on his history of drug abuse and previous run-ins with the law. He had bridled against rules and boundaries his whole life; as a 3-year-old in 1948, Ruth told me, Assi had wandered off into the mined no-man’s-land separating west and east Jerusalem. She said he had picked up a cocaine habit from his friend Jack Nicholson, who he met working on the 1969 film “A Walk With Love and Death.”
Talking about Assi’s problems got Ruth tearing up, so I handed her a tissue from the box on the backseat. She blew her nose, cleared her throat, and steadied her voice. “Sorry for being so silly,” she said.
We stopped at a Bedouin village near Beer Sheva called Segev Shalom. The director of an art cooperative introduced us to a local ceramist, a woman born in a tent who had managed to study at an art school but could not afford to buy clay or tools when she graduated. Ruth had helped raise money to buy her a kiln.
After another hour of driving, we pulled up to the “101 Rest Stop and Oasis,” where Assi spent his court-ordered confinement. The owner was Shimon Rimon, a legendary former Special Missions commando, and he was waiting for us in the torrid heat next to a broken neon sign with a bulge of chewing tobacco in his cheek.
Ruth disappeared into Assi’s bungalow, and Rimon led me to mine. I lay down on the lumpy bed and picked up a Hebrew translation of Philip Roth’s “Operation Shylock” from atop an empty beer keg acting as a nightstand.
I had just begun reading when I heard a knock on the metal door. It was Ruth. “Assi’s tired from all his work and wants to sleep,” she said. “Dinner’s in an hour. Can I come in?”
She sat on the edge of the bed and stared at me with her wide blue eyes like a mashup of Maude in “Harold and Maude” and Mrs. Which from “A Wrinkle in Time.” Grinning mischievously, she said: “If I were 72 and not 92, I’d fall in love with you.”
She was born the same year as my grandmother, 1917. “And I’d be a lucky man, too,” I replied.
s the sun set an hour later, we sat around the picnic table eating chicken. Ruth regaled me with memories of being a teenager at the agricultural school on Nahalal, sloshing through mud up to her ankles, planting crops, and braving malaria.
“We believed in free love and no property,” she recalled of those days before Israel became a state. “We were so idealistic, and now everyone in this country is racing around after money, just like you Americans.
“Maybe I was stupid,” Ruth continued. “Why was? I am stupid! My mother thought I read too much Tolstoy. But it wasn’t just me. All my girlfriends felt the same way! One could have been a world-class musician, another a great mathematician. But they all wanted to become kibbutzniks.”
She squinted as if thinking hard. “Maybe that’s been the problem with Assi all along. He has never been willing to live in a hut and milk cows at 4 in the morning.”
The next day, I finally met Assi when he emerged from his bungalow around 9 to join us for breakfast. He wore Winnie the Pooh swimming trunks and his eyes were bright and glassy. He nodded politely in my direction, then sat down at the picnic table next to Ruth, who lit a cigarette, took a puff, and handed it to her son.
For the rest of the morning, the three of us discussed Assi’s conflicted relationship with his father. In 1963, Moshe’s nephew Jonathan Geffen — who became one of Israel’s leading poets — moved in with the Dayans, and Jonathan and Assi became inseparable. They spent afternoons reading the poetry of Arthur Rimbaud and cranked up Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’” on the record player.
Moshe began to think that Assi was a good-for-nothing peacenik.
“And how did your mother respond to your conflict with Moshe?” I asked.
Assi glanced over at Ruth and, his eyes twinkling, declared her the “Jewish Mother Theresa.”
‘I married a farmer not a general’
knew the cemetery where Ruth was going to be buried because she had taken me there in the spring of 2016 to see Moshe’s grave.
In one of our many conversations about the general, I had asked Ruth about a story Raymonda had told me. It happened in the West Bank city of Nablus in 1969: Dayan’s soldiers, in a battle with guerrillas from the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization, had shot several children.
The first time Ruth and Raymonda met was at the hospital while visiting the victims — the Palestinian woman had torn into the Israeli because of what her husband had done.
“Yes, she was mad as hell,” Ruth recalled. “Did she say how I responded?”
I shook my head.
“I told her that I married a farmer, not a general.”
And that was why Ruth wanted me to experience the cemetery.
The drive there took us through the Galilee, the greenest part of Israel, and at one point Ruth gestured toward the King George Forest, which she, Moshe and their fellow socialist pioneers had planted in the 1930s. “Oh, you see those ruins up there,” she said, pointing to what looked like a Crusader fort. “Moshe and I used to make love up there.”
Half an hour later, we drove past Nahalal to the cemetery on Shimron Hill, a legendary place mentioned in the Book of Joshua: “Now these are the kings of the land, whom the children of Israel smote, and possessed their land.”
Ruth pointed out the graves of friends killed in Israel’s various wars. I noticed a fresh mound of earth, where the fighter pilot Asaf Ramon had just been buried next to his father, Ilan Ramon, Israel’s first astronaut.
Ruth sat down on Moshe’s gravestone, pulled out a banana from her bag, offered me half, and flung the peel down the hill toward the spot she had already picked out for her own future resting place. “Like I told you a hundred times, Moshe was a kibbutznik at heart and never set out to oppress anyone,” she said. “He fought because he wanted us to remain free in our own country.”
I said I understood.
“Do you think Moshe knows I am here now?” she then asked, tears welling up in eyes. “Do you think he can see us?”
Like so many socialists of her generation, Ruth had always assured me she didn’t believe in life after death, and yet here she was asking me if I thought the soul of Moshe was staring down at us from the clouds.
“I wouldn’t put it past him,” I said.
“I just want him to know that his boy Assi will be OK.”
e sat in silence for several minutes, until we were interrupted by a group of women whispering a few meters away. “It’s her!” one said softly, nodding in our direction. “I’m sure it is!” Seeing Ruth sitting on top of Moshe’s grave was more than they could have hoped for.
“We better go,” Ruth finally said, and gave me her hand, as if leading me off of a dance floor.
On the drive back up the coast, inspired by the sight of a woman born during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire sitting next to the grave of an astronaut, I asked Ruth about the meaning of life. “Living for something higher,” she said, “for your friends, your people — for humanity. This sounds naïve to some people, I know, but I hope you know what I mean.”
I nodded and started to respond, but she barreled on: “I can die any moment, and I’ll be gone forever,” she said. “After a few sniffles and speeches, my kids will move on, and you will, too.”
I told her to stop being macabre.
“I’m not! There are a lot more important things than my little life.”
Gripping the steering wheel, her face turned somber. “My country,” she said. “Someone like you can’t understand — you don’t know what it’s like to build a country and sacrifice everything for it. But loving my country doesn’t mean I have to step on someone else. Moshe felt the same way deep down, and so did the friends I grew up with.”
‘Against Your Unbelievable Light’
watched Ruth’s funeral via livestream. In the eulogies, mourners recounted all the reasons she was so loved — mainly, for her indomitable humanity. The most moving scene for me came after the speeches were over and family and friends walked past the marble headstones of Assi, who died in 2015, and his older brother Udi, who died in 2017, to set flowers on her grave.
I saw Dorothy, my old agent, give Ethel, the aide who had been by Ruth’s side when she died, a hug while Ruth’s favorite song,, “Veulai,” played in the background.
Watching the procession, another of her favorite songs came to mind. It was “Livkot Lache,” (To Cry for You) which Jonathan Geffen’s son Aviv, one of Israel’s finest pop stars, wrote after a friend of his died in a car accident. Aviv sang it at the peace rally in 1995 minutes before Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and he sang it again a week later at the memorial service.
I am going to cry for you, be strong up there
My longings are like doors opened at night.
Forever, I will always remember you
And at the end we will meet, you know,
I have other friends but they all fade away
Against your unbelievable light.
Anthony David is the author of eight books, including “An Improbable Friendship,” about Ruth Dayan’s relationship with Raymonda Tawil. He currently lives in Morocco. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.