Ruth Dayan, Who Built an Israeli Fashion Brand, Dies at 103

Ruth Dayan, the ex-wife of the Israeli soldier-statesman Moshe Dayan and the founder of Maskit, a fashion house that expressed her social justice ideals by employing the artisanal traditions of Jewish immigrants and Arabs, died on Feb. 5 at her home in Tel Aviv. She was 103.

The cause was cardiac arrest, her granddaughter Racheli Sion-Sarid said.

In 1948, Ms. Dayan was part of an organization of Israeli women teaching farm skills to new Jewish immigrants. She met a group of Bulgarians, miserable in their harsh new home, and struggling to grow tomatoes with no water, an infestation of rats and no background in farming. (Many of the men had been dentists.)

In their ramshackle huts, she noticed the delicate lacework they had brought with them, a traditional craft young Bulgarian women used to make their trousseaus. It gave her the idea that their handiwork might be a better source of revenue than farming.

Textiles, like so many things in those days, were rationed, so on her next visit, as Ms. Dayan wrote in her autobiography, “And Perhaps … The Story of Ruth Dayan,” written with Helga Dudman, she brought scraps of sacking, out of which the Bulgarian women made bags she sold on their behalf. Within weeks she had visited 20 other settlements, meeting Yugoslavian knitters, Syrian weavers, Arab silversmiths and other skilled artisans.

By the mid-50s, Ms. Dayan’s government-sponsored craft program had become a government-sponsored fashion brand. Ms. Dayan called it Maskit (pronounced mos-KEET), a Hebrew word for, among other things, jewel.

Maskit had stores in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and sold jewelry, housewares and textiles, and modish clothing designed by Fini Leitersdorf, a Hungarian-born designer. You could find Maskit at Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. There were collaborations with Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior. Audrey Hepburn evvel wore a Maskit desert coat.

“Maskit was an aesthetic melting pot,” said Tal Amit, director and curator of the Rose Archive at the Shenkar College of Engineering, Design and Arka in Ramat Gan, Israel. “It incorporated what Israel stood for, this mix of traditions and societies, and it all came together in one çağdaş aesthetic. It was the mother of Israeli high fashion.”

Maskit’s Toga dress was a signature piece, and came in all colors, including white for a wedding.Credit…Shankar Archive
The desert coat was another iconic piece. Even Audrey Hepburn had one.Credit…Shankar Archive

In the late ’60s, Maskit’s vibrant, handmade ethos was of a piece with the counterculture movements of the times, and with the heady environment of the young country, particularly after the Arab-Israeli War, which also made its defense minister, Mr. Dayan, a national hero.

Ms. Dayan was Israel’s first “activist designer,” said Neri Oxman, the provocative architect, inventor and M.I.T. professor. Ms. Oxman, who is in her 40s, grew up in Haifa surrounded by Maskit objects, like so many in her generation.

“It was through design that she practiced social entrepreneurship,” Ms. Oxman said of Ms. Dayan. “Her taste for fusing tradition with high modernism was embodied not only in Maskit’s objects, but in the company’s culture.”

“I am not a ‘do-gooder,’” Ms. Dayan wrote in her book. “It is true that I try to help individuals, whether Arabs or Jews. But this is because I like to help people; perhaps it is a way of helping myself. When it comes to politics, I know perfectly well that problems can’t be solved through good deeds — and it is clear each of us must help himself.”

Ruth Schwarz was born on March 6, 1917, in Haifa. Her Russian-born parents, Rachel Klimker and Zwi Schwarz, were socialist activists and intellectuals who had signed a pact in high school to devote themselves to their new country’s service.

Ruth grew up in London, where her parents had moved to study at a university — her father political science and rabbinical studies, though he was an atheist; her mother chemistry and education — returning to Palestine when she was 9. Her father worked as a lecturer and her mother taught kindergarten.

Fired up by the socialist ideals of the scout organization she had joined, Ruth dropped out of high school to learn farm skills at an agricultural school in Nahalal. There, she met Mr. Dayan. She was just 17 and Moshe was 19 when they fell in love.

She thought marriage was bourgeois; he thought it “led to complications.” But they married anyway, after first securing Moshe a divorce from a German refugee named Wilhelmina, a marriage that Ruth had forced him into. (Palestinian Jewish boys of the time often married Europeans to obtain a Palestinian passport.)

In Ms. Dayan’s telling, the young couple lived a romantic life of farming fueled by socialist idealism. Mr. Dayan was part of the Haganah, an underground military organization sometimes battling alongside the colonizing British against the Arabs. Still, the British often arrested the young men in the Haganah for carrying weapons, and that led to the sentencing of Mr. Dayan andothers to 10 years in prison, though they were released in less than two, as World War II began in earnest.

While Mr. Dayan was in prison, Ms. Dayan sent him books — Shakespeare, John O’Hara and short stories by O’Henry. He made her jewelry, carved from peach pits.

Ruth and Moshe Dayan in 1958. The couple met when she was 17 and he was 19. Credit…Associated Press

Mr. Dayan was home for just three months when he was called up to be part of a military mission on the Lebanese border. There, a French sniper’s bullet hit his binoculars, destroying his left eye, leaving shrapnel in the frontal lobe of his brain and causing lifelong pain. It also added to his allure.

Despite many operations, surgeons were unable to fit him with a glass eye, and the eye patch he sported for the rest of his life turned him into a sex symbol, a part he seemed happy to play, engaging in numerous affairs.

As Ms. Dayan and others noted, living with a myth can be hard on a family. The Dayans were known as the Kennedys of Israel, and their glittering, dramatic lives were tabloid fodder for decades.

The Dayans’ three children became celebrities in their own right. Yael Dayan is a novelist, activist and politician; Ehud, known as Udi, was a sculptor; and Assi, an actor and director, who struggled with drug addiction (and played the troubled psychiatrist in the TV series “BeTipul,” which was adapted by HBO as “In Treatment,” starring Gabriel Byrne). Assi Dayan died in 2014, and Udi Dayan in 2017.

Ms. Dayan is survived by her daughter, nine grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren.

Ms. Dayan left her husband in 1971. (He died in 1981.) As her co-writer, Ms. Dudman wrote, “A long love affair with a force of history may be easier to maintain than a marriage. Perhaps even charisma evaporates at the breakfast table.”

In the late ’70s, after the Israeli government sold Maskit (the company closed in 1994), Ms. Dayan worked as a consultant for the Inter-American Development Bank’s handicraft program, advising Latin American countries on their craft production, and lived for a few years in Chevy Chase, Md.

In 2014, Sharon Tal, a designer who had worked for Alexander McQueen, revived Maskit with Ms. Dayan’s encouragement. In a tribute to Ms. Dayan after her death, Ms. Tal described Ms. Dayan as “the beating heart of Israeli fashion.”

Ms. Dayan at a Maskit showroom.Credit…Baruch Rafik

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