REVIEW: Ruth Blau

Yoel Finkelman Tradition Online | June 3, 2024

Ruth and Amram Blau

Motti Inbari, Ruth Blau: A Life of Paradox and Purpose (Indiana University Press), 278 pp.

Historians try to contextualize events, explaining the origins of occurrences based on larger structural or historical trends. Such is the nature of a historian’s business. The particular is a reflection of the whole. As the whole changes, the particulars change; as the particulars change, the whole changes as well.

Sometimes, though, history hits us with something hard to categorize. It’s just too odd and idiosyncratic to fit neatly into existing paradigms. Take two female paradigms, perhaps caricatures. On one hand, there is a constellation of paradigms: spy, seducer, smuggler, criminal, firebrand, trailblazer, and iconoclast. On the other, usually diametrically opposed to the first, is our image of the typological frum Rebbetzin – pious, modest, and behind the scenes. The enigmatic Ruth Blau (1920-2000) managed to combine both.

In a groundbreaking work, Motti Inbari writes a readable, even entertaining, biography of this remarkable woman. He draws on archival sources, family documents, interviews, and published and unpublished autobiographies written by Blau herself. Inbari tells the story in a matter-of-fact, almost deadpan way, moving chronologically from stage to stage of Blau’s bizarre life. While the writing is sometimes clunky, the story is so full of twists and turns to keep at least readers riveted.

Born Lucette Ferraille to a Catholic family in northern France, she grew up in the Bohemian Latin quarter of Paris, where she studied in elite schools. But she always preferred the road less traveled. Her childhood was unhappy, caught between her pious, modest mother and her agnostic, impatient (if not abusive) father, with whom she later cut ties. Yet, she never saw in Catholicism anything especially compelling. Married and divorced at a young age, she found herself with a young son (Claude, later Uriel) in the midst of the Second World War.

That’s when she became a spy. First, she smuggled herself into Nice with forged papers to help a Jewish woman escape from the Gestapo. Afterward, she seduced a German general to gather information from him for the resistance. The next stop was Morocco, doing intelligence work for the French Secret Service. She was arrested there in 1946.

This life of intrigue and adventure left Lucette spiritually unsatisfied. A close friendship with a Seventh-Day Adventist family taught her about Shabbat and introduced her to some heartfelt prayers. Yet, Lucette felt drawn to the compassion of the Hebrew prophets, finding little mercy and love in the New Testament. By 1950, she was exploring Judaism more seriously with a man named Ephraim Harpaz (later a professor at the Hebrew University). She made plans to convert to Judaism through a Reform rabbi, and Harpaz proposed marriage to her. Ruth declined – or perhaps was rejected by Harpaz’s family as a convert. Eventually, finding Reform Judaism too thin for her taste, she became attracted to Orthodoxy, and, once again, nearly married an Orthodox man. Eventually, she underwent an Orthodox conversion, too.

This was also a period of business successes followed by business failures, including serving time in prison for tax evasion. Gradually, her commitment to Orthodox Judaism deepened, drawn as she was by the call of Haredi isolationism and purism. Her earlier Zionism started to fade, even after she moved to Israel in the 1950s. Time spent in a Hasidic Court in post-war Paris showed her a particularly warm side of Judaism.

Back in Israel, she was disappointed with the secular nature of public life, which pushed her even further toward Haredism. At this point in the story, her experience in espionage became relevant once again, as she took a key role in the infamous Schumacher affair. During a prolonged visit with his Haredi family, Yossele Schumacher’s grandparents refused to allow the boy to return to his non-Haredi home. They hid the seven-year-old within various Haredi communities around Israel until the police closed in on his location. Rabbinic figures encouraged Ruth to kidnap Yossele, and she disguised the boy as a girl, forged a passport, and brought him to Switzerland. She later smuggled him to New York.

The story became a cause célèbre and a major turning point in the souring of relations between the Haredi community and the State of Israel. Eventually, the head of the Mossad, Isser Harel, took personal responsibility for the case. After Ruth’s son offered the authorities information on her mother’s involvement, Harel lured Ruth into an attorney’s office in Paris, disguising himself as a potential real-estate buyer, before confronting her with evidence of her involvement. She was never punished for the kidnapping, and there is reason to think that her cooperation with the Mossad continued in later years. Schumacher never forgave her.

Ruth and Amram Blau

Ruth’s activities and activism caught the attention of one of the leaders of the most extreme groups of Jerusalem Haredim, R. Amram Blau, leader of anti-Zionist Neturei Karta. A marriage proposal ensued, an event which shook up the gossip columns and internal politics of the Haredi community. Not only was Ruth an attractive woman, much younger than Blau, but she was a convert. It is certainly beneath the dignity – naysayers and Blau’s political opponents announced – for Blau to marry such a woman. Ruth was never one to back down from a fight; neither was Amram. The marriage went through, much to the chagrin of Haredi editorialists and many laypeople. Ruth saw an opportunity to mother children in an ideology and life she favored, as well as to advance to an influential role within her chosen home of Haredi Jewry. The marriage was not a happy one – for among other reasons, Amram’s impotence. But Ruth certainly gained enormous influence.

Still, Ruth would not be satisfied only with the role of Rebbetzin. She was active in internal Haredi public affairs, whether defending herself and her husband from criticism, building schools for underrepresented populations, or using her worldly experience to advise more sheltered women about the practicalities of life. In the 1970s – with or without encouragement from the Mossad – she traveled to Muslim countries to advocate for suffering Jews. She even met twice with the Ayatollah Khomeini, once in Paris and once in Tehran. In 1985, as Israel maintained its presence in Southern Lebanon, she met with Hezbollah leaders, hoping to assist Lebanon’s remaining Jewish community.

The rough outline of Ruth Blau’s life was known before this book. Inbari’s contribution is in filling in the details, distinguishing truth from legend, and in tracing the wide range of available sources. The result of solid scholarship in this case is the opposite of what one might expect. Instead of debunking legends, Inbari demonstrates that the larger-than-life woman was in fact the stuff of legend.

What does one make of this story? At one level, it represents nothing other than itself. One idiosyncratic story of one idiosyncratic woman, who does not seem to fit into any of our conventional categories. At another level, the story of Ruth Blau suggests that perhaps our conventional categories or stereotypes are just not good enough to fully grasp the reality of Haredi Jewry—neither generally nor for individuals within it. We put people in boxes, but sometimes they simply don’t fit.

Dr. Yoel Finkelman is Manager of the Acquisitions Department in the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem.

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