Ninety-eight years young, Ruth was both of and beyond her time, bridging generations and worlds, the world of a vanished Europe and a reconstituted Jewish community in America and Eretz Yisrael.
When God created Ruth, the Holy One had to have retired the mold—for no one was or will be like her—no one can compare to her. Ruth was sui generis, unique, wondrous and beautiful in form, heart, mind, soul, and spirit. So very intelligent, astute, gracious, kind and refined, Ruth mixed easily with people of every age and station, from the most simple to world class leaders and intellects.
How does one capture the essence of a woman whose life spanned a century and who herself witnessed and participated in the most important events in modern Jewish history? How do we measure the love and admiration felt by so many for Ruth over so many years? How do any of us count the ways in which Ruth touched our lives personally? And speaking personally for a moment, how do I express my gratitude for having known and loved her, and being loved by her in return.
Each of us has our story with Ruth, and her story deserves to be told today for it is emblematic of an age even as it is a uniquely individual tale.
Born in Berlin on September 9, 1911 to Margaret and Max Offenstadt, Ruth and her beloved older sister Lily grew up at the cultural heart of Berlin society. She studied French literature, art and philosophy at universities in Berlin and Geneva, and she knew several languages. She married Fritz Toby in 1932, gave birth to their daughter Hannah two years later, and in 1936 they immigrated to Amsterdam to escape the rising danger of Nazism. Their marriage didn’t last, and when they divorced a year later—Fritz immigrated to Palestine though they maintained a cordial friendship until his death.
For one year, therefore, Ruth and Hannah lived together in an apartment in Amsterdam. Anne Frank and her family lived around the corner, and the young Anne often came over to play with Hannah and the other children in the neighborhood. Ruth took a photograph, now historic, of Anne and Hannah playing together in a sandbox in Ruth’s back yard. Life magazine later profiled Hannah and the other surviving children from that photograph.
It was during this time that Ruth met the young and dynamic Rabbi Max Nussbaum who served in Berlin under Rabbi Leo Baeck. Max fell for the young, cultured and beautiful Ruth, and pursued her. Ruth, in turn fell passionately in love with him. They were married by a judge in Amsterdam on July 7, 1938 and a week later, they returned to Berlin to be married under a chupah by Rabbi Baeck.
A photo of Ruth and Max descending the steps from the Berlin synagogue on that July 14, 1938 shows a beautiful young bride wearing pearls, a headband, holding a flowing floral bouquet smiling sweetly alongside her handsome young groom, Max, looking dapper with kerchief in suit pocket and donning a derby. The man in the white coat with his back to us was a member of the Gestapo assigned to watch Max.
Ruth told me years ago about that day—that Max had been taken into custody by the Gestapo days before his wedding because the Nazis regarded the young firebrand Zionist Rabbi Nussbaum as "subversive." But, learning that his wedding was imminent decided to release him as a "wedding present."
In the two years that followed, the Nussbaum’s greeted increasing numbers of Jews into their apartment each Shabbat afternoon who, in desperation, had turned to them for comfort and help in gaining signatures necessary to leave Nazi Germany.
Then that fateful night in Jewish history arrived. On November 10, 1938 on what came to be known as Kristallnacht, the shammes of the Berlin Free Synagogue informed the Nussbaums that their synagogue building was on fire. Fearful for his young wife, Max insisted that Ruth wait for them on a street corner two blocks away while he and the shammes proceeded on. The two men entered the burning building and Max rescued the smallest Torah from the ark, this scroll that they would smuggle out of the country and bring here to rest in our Aron Hakodesh.
Towards the end of their time in Berlin, as the Nazis were sending Jews to concentration camps and destroying every Jewish institution in Germany, the only buildings left alone were some of the larger synagogues because it was there that the Nazis knew they could keep track of and round up the Jews for deportation.
One day the Gestapo came for him and knocked on the door of their apartment. Ruth told Max to hide in the bathroom and not to come out under any circumstances. She then greeted them with all the grace and warmth that the young Ruth could muster, and welcomed these brutes into their home. Ruth explained that her husband had left for a meeting some time before and that she did not know when he would return, but they were welcome to wait for him in the living room. Ruth prepared snacks and served them drinks—one after another. As they got drunk, they decided that it wasn’t worth their time to wait any longer – and left. In their drunken state they didn’t think to search the apartment.
All the while, in New York Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, the great leader of American Jewry, was attempting to find positions for German liberal rabbis in the United States so that they could leave Germany and enter this country. American immigration authorities, however, didn’t make it easy and wouldn’t allow Jews into the United States without a secured job and a substantial security payment of $1200, equivalent to a year’s salary in Germany.
Rabbi Wise secured a position for Max at a small synagogue in Muskogee, Oklahoma. However, it would take more than fifteen months to work the system and get the Nussbaums proper visas.
Because Hannah was not Max’s biological daughter, this five year old couldn’t get a US visa, and so she remained with Ruth’s parents in Berlin.
When Ruth and Max finally arrived in New York, they took a train to Washington, D.C., and with the help of the publisher of the New York Times, met with Secretary of State Henry Morgenthau to give him an account of the condition of Germany’s Jews and to acquire visas for both Hannah and Ruth’s family. Ruth kept a detailed diary of this meeting and later donated the papers to the Franklin Roosevelt Presidential Library.
After five months with Hannah traveling with her grandparents from country to country, they finally arrived in America and were happily reunited.
In Muskogee, Oklahoma, Max set about first to learn English. Ruth spoke fairly well and translated for him in the initial period. Max eventually taught at the University of Oklahoma and was soon sought after as a rising figure in the American Zionist movement. He traveled and lectured widely about the plight of German Jewry and Zionism while Ruth raised little Hannah and gave birth to Jeremy.
Max’s rising star caught the attention of the leadership of Temple Israel of Hollywood in 1942. He was brought to Hollywood for an interview and subsequently wrote to Ruth what he had seen and experienced; "The weather is warm, the palm trees everywhere and the women beautiful—a Garden of Eden."
Max moved to Hollywood to assume his duties in advance of Ruth, and she and their children followed. She filled the typical rebbitzin role for that era as a gracious partner to her husband. She nurtured, enabled, advised, and counseled Max, critiquing and editing his sermons, transporting him everywhere because he didn’t drive a car, and reminding him when necessary who everyone was as they approached him. All the while, Ruth devotedly raised their children, and oversaw and juggled family affairs with her public duties.
Ruth took on leadership roles in the wider Jewish community as well, working with State of Israel Bonds from its inception in 1951, Hadassah, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, the Women’s Division of the United Jewish Appeal and the Jewish Federation Council of Greater Los Angeles.
When they first arrived in Hollywood, the Temple was located on Ivar Street, and they have the distinction of both living and working on this site on Hollywood Boulevard because they lived in a little house that existed here before this facility was built. Once the Temple was built in 1948, they moved to their home on Franklin and Gardener, a place that became a social center for congregants and visitors, scholars, fellow refugees, and leaders in our city, country and amongst our people.
Ruth and Max felt strongly that the civil rights movement of the 50s and 60s was the American parallel to our own people’s Zionist aspirations, and so both fought tirelessly for racial equality in the United States.
On February 25, 1965, the Nussbaums welcomed the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to this pulpit. Ruth had very much wanted to host Dr. King for Shabbat dinner before he spoke at services as she did for every visitor, but security was exceptionally tight due to death threats against Dr. King that had increased in the weeks following the assassination of Malcolm X, and the security detail around him wouldn’t permit it.
By the late 1950s Max’s national and international celebrity had risen. In 1959, after months of secret planning, Ruth brought her husband onto the set of a television studio at NBC to talk about Passover in an interview, or so he thought. In truth, Rabbi Nussbaum was set up by his own wife and welcomed in a back stage corridor by the show’s famous host Ralph Edwards with the iconic phrase, "Rabbi Max Nussbaum—This is your life!"
Ruth and Max were among the most passionate Zionist leaders in the western United States in the 1940s, 50s and 60s, and they traveled frequently to Israel in the early years of statehood as leaders in the American Zionist movement. They were participants of the first UJA mission to Israel, and they shared the Brandeis Award of the Zionist Organization of America where Max served as President.
They knew everyone—Prime Ministers David Ben Gurion, Levi Eshkol, Golda Meir, and Yitzhak Rabin; Foreign Minister and United Nations Ambassador Abba Eban; Jerusalem Mayor Teddy Kollek; and future Israeli President and Air Force Chief of Staff Ezer Weizman.
In 1964, Max and Ruth were invited to the White House when Israel’s Prime Minister Levi Eshkol was honored at a State dinner. President Johnson, with his eye always keenly attuned to the presence of a pretty lady, spotted Ruth. This 6 foot 4 inch lug of a Texan rambled over to Ruth’s table to invite the diminutive five foot Ruth to dance. Charmed, Ruth accepted. When she told me the story, she put the experience this way; "President Johnson held me very close, and he was a very good dancer!"
I asked, "Did Max mind?"
She giggled, "No—not at all!" But there was a glimmer in her eye and she wore a devilish grin!
Needless to say, Ruth and Max enjoyed a lifelong love affair. They did everything together, and felt fortunate to be able to spend his sabbatical in the mid-1960s living in Jerusalem.
When Max planned his retirement, they looked forward to a life together free from the pressures of congregational and Jewish organizational duties. Sadly, that was not to be. One Shabbat morning in the summer of 1974, a year before his retirement, Max succumbed to a heart attack in his home. In an instant, Ruth’s world changed.
Her loss was tremendous, but ever strong, she grieved deeply and then picked herself up and remade her life.
Among other things Ruth took on the mantle of Zionist leadership and most especially she played a pivotal role in helping to reshape the Reform movement’s view of Zionism, once anti-Zionist. She understood the need for promoting religious pluralism, human rights, and democracy in Israel as fundamental Reform Jewish values. To Ruth, Jewish nationalism expressed in Zionism is a seamless and natural aspect of Reform Jewish identity.
Consequently, she became actively involved in the formation of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA), the Reform movement’s Zionist organization, and was the singular voice at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations biennial convention in 1976 that turned the tide and for the first time in its history established American Reform Judaism as a Zionist movement.
Ruth had spent the night before that fateful assembly drafting with others the resolution that passed the convention. She was for the rest of her life at the heart of ARZA. She served as a national vice president and as spokesperson extraordinaire for our Zionist Movement.
When ARZA was admitted into the Zionist Congress at Binyanei HaUma in Jerusalem, Ruth was accosted by one of her former friends from the ZOA who called her a "traitor." She looked him in the eye and said, "Far from being a traitor, I’m following the dictates of my heart and the footsteps of Max in representing Zionism as a Reform Jew." Discussion closed! She didn’t speak to this man again.
Ruth was a distinguished public figure since the moment she married Max in 1938. Nevertheless, the most important people in Ruth’s life were always her family. She adored her parents Margaret and Max, and her sister Lily, who had made aliyah in 1932 and established a substantial clan in Eretz Yisrael.
Ruth once remarked as she aged that the best way to stay young was to have many young friends. Indeed, her friends were many and crossed the generations. She was a member of two book groups, one of which has been meeting for more than half a century, and another that includes women from 30 to 98.
Speaking personally, I want to say how much [my wife] Barbara and I loved Ruth. She is without a doubt the most remarkable person I have ever known.
Eighteen years ago we dedicated and named this sanctuary as the Rabbi Max and Ruth Nussbaum Sanctuary of Temple Israel of Hollywood, the first synagogue in Jewish history, I believe, to name its main sanctuary not only in memory of its distinguished rabbi, but also in honor of its rebbitzin. We have lost one of our great ones this week. Words ultimately pale to express how significant was Ruth’s life. Yet, I’m reminded of what Antony said in his closing remarks of Shakespeare’s "Julius Caesar":
Zichronah livrachah—May the memory of this righteous woman be a blessing. Amen!
More on Ruth Nussbaum, 1911 - 2010
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Jewish Women's Archive. "Ruth Nussbaum, 1911 - 2010." (Viewed on October 16, 2019) <https://jwa.org/weremember/nussbaum-ruth>.