AT 63, after a lifetime of loved ones lost, of honors earned, of milking cows and greeting presidents and potentates, of finding handicraft treasures in tents and selling them at Neiman Marcus, Ruth Dayan is going strong.
For now, though her heart still beats in Israel, she no longer lives there. In Israel she is the greatly loved grandmother of the great Israeli craft movement and an officer in many organizations aimed at understanding between Jews and Arabs. In the United States she has lived quietly without fanfare. "After so many years, I was tired of being a public figure," she said.
Nine years ago she divorced the legendary Moshe Dayan, (former Israeli defense and foreign affairs minister and Army chief of staff), after a bitter-sweet 37 years of marriage, three children, seven grandchildren. Though is is obvious that she was deeply in love with the swashbuckling Dayan, Ruth Dayan is not a woman whose life or energies are limited by a man. The career in developing cottage industries she pursues with such enthusiasm today, she began at a time when some would have been overwhelmed by the demands of pouring tea or arranging flowers for their high-ranking husband.
For the past 2 1/2 years, she has lived in a small apartment in Chevy Chase, Md., where we talked the other day. She serves as a consultant to the Inter-American Development Bank's technical handicraft program. She spends most of her time commuting to Central and South American countries, setting up and expanding handicraft production.
Her latest project is with Scan, one of the country's largest contemporary furniture retailers. Israel Week at Scan begins tomorrow with an exhibition of Israeli crafts selected by Ruth Dayan -- on view at Scan's Van Ness store. All Scan stores will have room settings for furniture from Israeli manufacturers. She is also talking with Scan about selling objects including Haitian rugs from her Central and South American programs.
Ruth Dayan has strong bones and expressive eyes, a determined air and a quick way of moving. The day we talked her soft blue patterned dress came from Israel, as usual, as did her many silver bracelets and chains.
On the wall of the apartment are wall hangings of lace made in Israel, on the floor are Israeli rugs. The leather chairs come from a project she started in Ecuador -- "we're helping them build a solar kiln." The cushions on the sofa from the San Blas Islands off the coast of Central America. The coffee and cookies came on blue and white Israeli pottery.
"My collection of crafts is at home in Israel. I said I wouldn't collect any more while I was here, because I'm only camping out. I came for one year and it's stretched into two and a half," she said. "But I can't help picking up a thing here or there."
Though she obviously enjoys crafts and has an eye for design, she makes it plain that it is the craftsman, not the craft, who is first with her.
"If I could give Haiti a factory, where people could work and make much money, I would forget about handicrafts," she said. "It is sad but true that in the poorest countries you find the most beautiful handicrafts. India is still the greatest place for all sorts of handwork. When I go there, I have to shut my eyes to all else except the beauty of the crafts."
For the fortunate, a time comes when you reach a crossroad and you are set upon the right path. For Ruth Dayan, that landmark was reached in the late '40s, when Moshe Dayan was commander of Jerusaleum.
"Israel had immigrants from 70 countries flooding in," she said. "They were living in tents on the sites of their new villages. My mother-in-law, Devora, was in charge of Eshet Hayl [Women of Virture], volunteers who helped the immigrants settle in their new home.
"I had been a farm woman -- Moshe and I met when I went to agricultural college at 17. I milked cows and goats and made cheese and farmed off and on for years. We lived in a moshav, where the land was owned individually, but managed as a cooperative. Our son farms our land now.
"When the immigrants came, I thought I would work with them to help them farm. But there was no money and no water. Whatever was planted was eaten by the rats over night. At first, people couldn't even grow a tomato."
The moment of truth, the turning point, came for Ruth Dayan one day when she visited the tent of a Bulgarian family. "Even with all their hardships, they were making their daughter's trousseau. They were highly educated people, but still, unlike the Jews of my grandfathers' and father's generation, they had made all the curtains and bed covers. The 15-year-old daughter was embroidering her wedding dress. I saw then how they could survive."
She immediately began to set up small cottage industries in the villages, based on their traditional talents.
First, Ruth Dayan bought sackin material, cut them into bags and had the women embroider them. She sold them from her house. Then, "I found a shirt manufacturer who would sell us blouses already cut. And then I found a Swiss embroidery teacher who would work with the program. We brought in a girl from each village, trained her to do European embroidery and sent her back to the village to train others."
Lovers of handicraft might question the program, because it was not designed to preserve the ethnic designs and methods, but rather to set up ways the artisans could work quickly and produce a great deal to earn money. "We had to simplify the embroidery patterns first, because the intricate, time-consuming work they did for themselves was not commercial. After all, we first had to worry about earning enough for bread," Ruth Dayan said.
Cleverly, Dayan and her helpers translated the techniques used in traditional crafts to make contemorary objects. The method used for gossamer prayer shawls by the Garian cave dwellers in Syria was adapted to making rugs, preserving the red, white and black colors. Bulgarian embroidery was enlarged in scale, changing from delicate to bold, and used on handbags.
Many of the immigrants were silversmiths. Some time was wasted before Dayan realized the silversmiths weren't used to working sterling, but an alloy with less silver in it.
Much help came from the Bezalel school, now the Academy of Arts and Design.
During these years, Ruth Dayan was running an open house in Jerusalem, with world leaders and Israeli politicans constantly turning up to be fed and entertained. Friday night was a perpetual at-home party. Often, Moshe Dayan arrived much after the guests. Sometimes, Ruth Dayan would miss her own party. "People didn't always notice," she laughed.
At first, when she started her handicraft work, she had to travel by bus or hitchhike to the villages. She tells about one incident in her remarkably frank book, "And Perhaps . . ." (with Helga Dudman, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973).
"I was trying to get back to Jerusalem from a settlement in the south . . .
There we had found some women from Yugoslavia, superb knitters, who made beautiful girls' jumpers from wool scraps. That evening we were having a party for Gen. William E. Riley, chief of staff of the U.N. truce supervision organization, and his wife. Car after car passed me by and there were no buses. Meanwhile a policeman came along who wanted to hitch a ride to Rehavoth, and soon a green jeep pulled up. I was crying, of course, and explained to the driver that I desperately needed to get to Jerusalem, and that I had been waiting longer than the policeman and had a longer trip still ahead. The driver was nasty.
"'Who do you think you are, telling me whom to pick up?' he said, and took the policeman. Tears streamed down my face as he drove off, with one seat still empty. . . ."
That Ruth Dayan doesn't take insults lightly is evidenced by the rest of the story. She saw the jeep later. Ezer, a friend, offered to go beat up the driver, but came back in a few minutes with word that he was his cousin. "Why didn't you tell me you were Moshe Dayan's wife,"' asked the driver.
"'Why in the world should I? First of all, I'm sick and tired of always being somebody's relative -- either the daughter of Rahel and Zvi Shwarz, or else the wife of Moshe Dayan. But that's not the point. Why can't you behave like a human being and help a woman in tears? Why does it matter whose wife she is?' she said."
Ruth Dayan started the handicraft project on $100 grant from the government. In 1953, when Moshe Dayan was appointed chief of staff (she was scrubbing floors when she heard the news), she was asked by the Ministry of Labor to organize the handicraft project on a more business like scale. She had a "half of a secretary" and a warehouse. The company was named Maskit -- which she translates as meaning "pictures, image, figure, thought, imagination, ornament."
In 1954, in Tel Aviv, she put on a big exhibition of crafts and sold everything. She remembers today that a sheik who came to buy "a trousseau for my next wife, a German girl," brought Ruth Dayan a gift, a gazelle. Its hoofs tore her arms as well as her skirts the first time she held it. The gazelle was soon given to her son, Udi, the farmer.
After that exhibition, the government allowed her to open the first Maskit. Now there are seven, and a staff of 100. Ruth Dayan was president of Maskit from then until last year. She's still a consultant to the company, though it was sold to a private organization seven years ago, the government retaining a 26 percent interest. Through her world wide connections, such as Edward Fields, the American rug designer and manufacturer, she was able to bring important design talents to Israel.
After their children were grown, she no longer felt it necessary to accept Moshe Dayan's well-known appreciation for other women. In her book, she tells of the poignant yet comic divorce ceremony -- she had a terrible time getting her seven rings off, as required by the rabbi, and the get (divorce decree) wouldn't dry until the rabbi's wife produced a hot plate.
She went on to serve on the World Crafts Council and as consultant to many developing countries over the world. Her speeches at fundraisers have earned millions of dollars for Israel.
Her daughter Yael, has finished her sixth book. Son Assi is an actor and director in eight films. The other son raises cotton and turkeys on the family farm. She rarely sees Moshe Dayan -- "he has his own life and new wife."
Today, one village that made handicrafts now is so rich from oranges and avocados that they no longer need to do hand work. After 10 years, most of the peoples had forgotten their traditional crafts. The intricate Palestine embroidery, in which each stitch has a meaning, now costs a fortune. As in the United States, the craftsmen are now artists and their art is priced accordingly.
"For me, coming to work with the Inter-American Bank was like my life again 30 years ago," she said. "It was wonderful to begin again."
In "Crafts of Israel" (with Wilburt Feinberg, Macmillan, 1974), Ruth Dayan writes: "Immigrating craftsmen have brought with them skills and traditions that were acquired in the Balkans, Persia, Bukhara, Romania, and other lands. They have brought their native crafts of carpet weaving, gold and silver working, embroidery, wood carving, dressmaking, ceramics, glass making, and many other techniques and talents developed by generations of skill."
And she explains that no matter what the craftsman's origin, his art is transformed by his life in Israel. "Craftsmen have borrowed colors from the cobalt sky, the fields of citron, olive and date, the sands of the Negev, the sun-baked hills and the gold of Jerusalem; they have taken the shapes of the Bedouin tent, the roaring sea, and the shallow hills. They have mixed these colors and shapes into a new creation, which is a reflection of Israel itself." CAPTION: Pictures 1 and 2, The Israeli objects, selected by Ruth Dayan, are among those to be shown in the Israel Week exhibit at Scan's Van Ness store.; Picture 3, no caption, By Larry Morris -- The Washington Post Picture 4, no caption; Pictures 5 through 7, Israel is making a bid to capture some of the Scandinavian furniture market. Israeli designs are closely copied from the Northern originals, designed for small spaces. Scandinavian pine, Bangkok teak and American Walnut are used. Since 1977, for its 12 stores Scan has imported $1 million to $2 million a year from Israel. Beginning tomorrow, Israel Week at Scan will show room settings with Israeli storage walls, children's furniture and seating units. Shown here are a living room set and a child's bed and a wall system.