Title: Ruth Blau: A Life of Paradox and Purpose
By: Motti Inbari
Indiana University Press
“Though the mills of God grind slowly, yet they grind exceedingly small.” I was excited to read Professor Motti Inbari’s new biography of Ruth Blau, knowing only that she was a convert who’d married the Neturei Karta leader R’ Amram Blau. Having made the reverse trip by growing up chassidishe, leaving that community and then marrying a convert, I was curious about her journey and what compelled her.
I knew she must be a fascinating person, and reading the biography only opened my eyes to just how complex and varied a life she led. I’d never guessed, however, the personal family connection we would have.
Inbari traces the path of Ruth’s fascinating life, from her childhood in France, resistance activities during WWII, winding religious journey, outsized role in the Yossele affair, controversial marriage to Amram Blau, and subsequent charity and advocacy work.
Her biography is an encounter with the major historical events of the 20th century, with major Jewish figures lining the pages. One of those figures is my great-great-grandfather, R’ Yisroel Yitzchak Reisman.
To pick one story out of the many fascinating epochs of Ruth’s life, after Ruth’s activities hiding Yossele Schumacher for about two years, a shidduch was proposed between her and Neturei Karta leader Amram Blau. They were both eager to marry, something Inbari analyzes, but the Eidah Chareidis beis din, of which my great-grandfather was a member, issued a psak that they could not marry on various grounds. (To this day, my grandfather has a copy of the original psak.) This was the beginning of a long and bitter battle involving the Satmar Rebbe and Rebbetzin and Ruth’s other confidantes, a battle which damaged Amram and Ruth’s relationship. Despite widespread opposition and prejudice, the two did eventually marry, resulting in Amram Blau losing his position as leader of the Neturei Karta, and Ruth remaining an outsider in the ultra-Orthodox world. Reading that story vividly brought to the forefront the opposition my convert husband and I faced when we wanted to marry. I’d like to think that in some way, our marriage heals the rupture my great-grandfather was a part of so many decades ago.
Summarizing Ruth’s life would be doing a disservice. Inbari packs so much riveting detail into his 224-page book that I will only drop tantalizing hints of a Gestapo infiltration, spy missions in Morocco, religious identity crises, multiple failed relationships, questionable business activities, Mossad interrogations, Iranian rescue missions, and of course, kidnapping and hiding Yossele Schmacher for ideological purposes. (Cat lover will be pleased to know that the cats of Jerusalem were well cared for by Ruth and accompanied her shopping.)
It is difficult to either love or hate Ruth Blau. A strong personality with evolving ideological convictions, she fought for what she believed in, ignoring anyone who would stand in her way. Her personal relationships were fraught with questionable decisions and tension, and it is easy to question some of her decisions. Motti Inbari’s book does a thorough job of investigating Ruth’s life and separating fact from fiction while still maintaining a critical look at her words and actions.
There were many aspects about Professor Inbari’s writing that I appreciated.
He digs into archives from disparate places to uncover information behind rumors and either confirm or dispel them.
He conducted interviews with many people close to Ruth, including her son, granddaughter, and others who interacted with her in various stages of her life.
He analyzes both her published and unpublished biographies, using a critical lens to dig deeper into how Ruth presented herself; what she omitted and what she included.
He utilizes sociology and psychology to place Ruth in a larger context and analyze her personality and motivations.
He discusses personality and mental health, neither minimizing nor blowing out of proportion personality issues.
He is even-handed and tries to explain the motivations of all sides. He does not engage in hate-mongering and does not castigate or blame, but presents everyone’s reasoning.
He provides historical context for each section of Ruth’s life, ranging from France during WWII, conversion in post-war Europe, Old Jerusalem culture, and Middle Eastern politics.
For a book that packs so much, “Ruth Blau: A Life of Paradox and Purpose” is pleasant reading, and easy to finish over one Shabbos. I am grateful to Professor Inbari for capturing her life so comprehensively and impartially.