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Jewish Journal

Ruth Dayan: A return to Nahalal

"My life was like James Bond. I never knew what the day would bring." Moshe Dayan's ex-wife visits her old circle on its 90th anniversary.

by Rhonda Spivak, Winnipeg Jewish Review

October 7, 2011 | 12:40 pm

Ruth Dayan. Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Ruth Dayan. Photo by Rhonda Spivak

Ninety-five-year-old icon Ruth Dayan, who lives in Tel Aviv, visited Moshav Nahalal for its 90th anniversary celebrations at the beginning of this month. “As I approach a century… I feel I have lived many lives,” she says.

Dayan, a social activist on behalf of underprivileged women and immigrants and founder of Israel’s fashion house Maskit, says that her time at Nahalal, where she met and married the late general Moshe Dayan and began a family, “was very significant.” In order to reflect on the centrality in her life in Nahalal, where she arrived in 1934 at age 17 to attend an agricultural college for girls, Dayan says, “I have to go back to my grandparents… I have to take you back because you have to know the history.”

It is a history that also explains her work as a peace activist devoted towards bringing about Arab-Jewish reconciliation.

Dayan came from a family of university graduates who placed a premium on the pursuit of education. Her mother’s father, Dov (Boris) Klimker was a chemical engineer from Russia who was educated at the Sorbonne and was “one of the founders of oil production” in mandatory Palestine. Both her mother and father, Rachel and Tzvi Schwarz, were in the third graduating class of Tel Aviv’s Gymnasia Herzliya school – a class made up of “eight students who learned how to speak Hebrew, Arabic, French, German, Turkish, and Russian (from home).” Dayan was born in a Templer house on Hagefen Street in Haifa – a house that was hit by a missile during the Gulf War in 1991.

After graduating from the Gymnasia, her parents, who began teaching Hebrew in Jerusalem’s Rehavia neighborhood, yearned for more education. Along with their six classmates, Dayan’s parents “were accepted to the London School of Economics even though they didn’t know English,” a language they learned in six months. During their eight years in London, Ruth’s father obtained his law degree and her mother studied chemistry and then education, while they “made money by teaching Hebrew to the Jewish community.” In London, Dayan recalls that she stood out as “the only child in England who spoke Hebrew,” having come from Palestine, a place “no one had heard of.” On returning to Palestine in 1926, the family moved to Jerusalem where their daily life involved significant interaction with Arabs.

“My mother taught in an Arab kindergarten near Damascus Gate as part of the British education system, and became involved in [setting up] the first Arab-Jewish playground on Mount Zion – it was like a community center,” she recalls. Dayan says her parents, whom she describes as “intellectuals” and “academics,” had “real Arab friends, not just for politics… My father was a walking encyclopedia on any subject, who read the Koran and wanted to know about the other cultures,” she says.

“When people think I am with the Arabs… I was born into it from my parents. I remember religious [Arab] schoolmasters coming over for tea. Moussa Husseini came to my house in Rehavia once a week to give me Arab[ic] lessons at home and he didn’t even take money.

I never thought this was unusual when I was 15. He was the son of a friend who was one of the headmasters of the schools. He [later] came to Nahalal to see me. This is not done in the Arab world.”

In Jerusalem, Ruth studied at the Gymnasia Rehavia school in a class made up of “three girls and six boys – each girl had two boys.” Her parents enrolled her in the Scouts and the leaders of the movement went on to found kibbutzim.

“In order to have a country, we were supposed to work the land and not go to university. I was accepted in the Nahalal [agricultural school] because I was one of the very few who was a sabra. It was the first college for women… with barns, sheep, chicken and cows. We learned about housekeeping, baking bread, making cheese…” During the year Dayan went to the agricultural school, the regular schoolmistress, Hana Meizal, who was “very strict and would go from room to room and see that everyone was in bed” was on sabbatical.

“When she was on sabbatical and one of the farmers was in charge, they would go home at night, and this is how we could go out. No one knew when we came back to the room,” Dayan recalls.

“I met Moshe [Dayan] because all the boys from the farm would come after work to the university to see the girls that came to school. Most of the farmers’ wives came from the school – the older ones would marry farmers.” Soon enough, as Moshe’s girlfriend, Ruth moved into the Dayan family dwelling in Nahalal..

“I didn’t finish school because why should I milk the cows of the school when I could milk the cows of the Dayan family?” she says.

“When I went to the Dayan family there was nothing – not even a lawn chair. A table and chairs and a room only a bed could fit into and a wooden shed. The farmers were very poor. They had no money for anything… It was a very hard life on the moshav. We grew so many different kinds of vegetables and fruit that had to be picked by hand – we had no machinery then – and the milk brought twice a day to the dairy. Everyone worked very hard. Moshe was 18 or 19.” According to Dayan, “it was against the rules of the organization of the Scouts to get married,” but she and Moshe did so anyway for practical reasons.

“Moshe wanted to study very much and my parents liked Moshe and wanted us to go to London like they did. But [we couldn’t] to go to London when I was 18 and he was 20 in those days when we weren’t married.

You couldn’t go as a couple like that and take a flat, so we got married,” she says.

“None of my class from the Gymnasia came except one… They were furious because we had a huppa… They were at the beginning cross because I was on a moshav, not a kibbutz. They all came from the Gymnasia, finished their education and remained and died on kibbutz. They built up a country.”

Two of the Dayans’ three children – Yael (author and politician, born in 1939) and Assi (filmmaker and actor, born 1945) – were born at Ha’emek hospital in Afula.

Middle child Udi (a sculptor) was born in Jerusalem.

“Yael [as a young infant] was put in a net with some toys on the farm. Moshe built it – two meters by two meters on stilts. Assi was put in a box and came with us – we couldn’t leave him at home. If we had a pram, it was shared between families. I sewed their clothes and did all the housework. It was a lot of work.”

Dayan recalls that “in those days, children worked on the moshav helping their parents. Yael would go pick apples and corn by hand. When I see [my] grandchildren they are so spoiled [in comparison].”

When Yael was only eight months old, Moshe Dayan was arrested by the British and imprisoned for two years for illegal military activity.

“My parents came and helped me. When Yael was a year old, every time she’d see prisoners working on a road, she’d yell ‘Abba!’ We had a picture of Moshe so she knew what he looked like.” When Moshe returned from prison, it was only a short time before “there was a knock on the door and a top officer [from the Hagana] came to tell him that he’d got to go.” It was World War II. He was to form a unit and cross into Lebanon “to seize the highway bridges” and guard them for Allied Forces to repel any German invasion.

“My life all the time was like James Bond. I never knew what the day would bring,” Ruth says.

In 1945, “after prison and after losing his eye,” Moshe and his wife wanted to settle on a farm of their own.

“My father helped us, he bought a farm for us [farmstead 53 on the Nahalal circle],” Ruth explains. “Moshe’s parents gave us a cow and some chickens to start with.

There was a small house but it isn’t there anymore.” The couple lived at the farm, which Ruth loved, for only three years until the 1948 War of Independence broke out.

“Those three years were fantastic because we worked together… I loved to experiment. We had a lot of fruit, grapes and whatnot. That’s when Assi was born. I wanted Assi to be born at home but the doctor had a fit. There were curfews in those days. At three o’clock in the morning at Afula hospital I had the baby. Moshe dropped me off at the hospital and went back to milk the cows.”

In 1948, when Moshe Dayan was transferred to Jerusalem, “we gave our farm to someone to run it.” Years later, when Udi finished his army service, he took over the farm, which was sold many years ago.

Dayan, who divorced her husband in 1971, says that there are still Dayan farms on Nahalal, including that of Moshe’s parents, which is still in the family.

“The descendants, fourth generation, are still on the farm. Every year [at Nahalal] they have a big festival on Shavuot – everybody pitches in. I love going to Nahalal. It’s a good place. All of the [original] 65 farmers have offspring that are there…” As part of Nahalal’s 90th anniversary, people went to visit its cemetery, and Ruth says it was “a moving affair” to “see each family along with their loved ones for five generations.”

As for Moshe, who is buried in Nahalal’s cemetery, Ruth says “He was only 66 when he died [in 1981] and he was an old man then. I only saw him on television. I felt I had to cut off the relationship. I only think of him now as a human being – with the good memories and the bad memories.”

The writer is the editor of the e-paper www.winnipegjewishreview.com

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