Ruth Ebenstein is an American-Israeli writer, historian and health activist who loves to laugh a lot and heartily. She has published her writing on both sides of the Atlantic and won two first-place Simon Rockower awards, sponsored by the American Jewish Press Association. One was for an essay that ran in Tablet about her Israeli-Palestinian breast cancer support group’s trip to Sarajevo (Read Saravejo article here) to meet other survivors who support each other across religious and ethnic lines. Through the group, Ruth befriended Ibtisam Erekat, a devout Muslim Palestinian woman whom she now calls sister. She has written about this friendship for The Atlantic (read article here).
Ruth graduated from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and completed an M.A. in German history magna cum laude from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A native of Southfield, Michigan, Ruth lives with her husband, three sons and two stepdaughters in Jerusalem. She is writing a memoir about her experience, tentatively titled, Ibtisam and I: An unexpected friendship across the Israeli-Palestinian divide. Ruth’s story has been covered by the BBC(watch), NPR, The Atlantic, & . Her uplifting message: You can turn something bad into something good.
Survival, Friendship, Acceptance and Hope beyond barriers with Ruth Ebenstein #isharehope Episode 83
Summary: Ruth’s answer to the five questions! Listen to the full conversation on the player above; also available on iTunes, Stitcher and Soundcloud.
Question 1: How do you define hope or what is your favorite quote about hope?
“Let your hopes, not your hurts, shape your future.” –Robert H. Schuller
The mantra that I grew within my family is that things don’t have to be perfect to be really good. Perfection doesn’t exist. Look at the goodness around you and enlarge it.
Question 2: Who has shared the most hope with you?
I think my mom has survived a lot of adversity and is very optimistic and has definitely modeled a lot of hope for me. I didn’t know as a child the extent of things she’s been through. It’s informed her experience but she’s not a bitter or angry person at all. She’s a hopeful person and a happy person so I kind of feel like it’s a part of our DNA and a part of the climate that I grew up with in my household.
My husband’s love and acceptance for me inspires a lot of hope in me.
Question 3: How have you used hope to make it through a difficult time in your life?
I may say that a lot of aspects on my life went the way that I wanted them to, but I had trouble finding my special someone and I got married late in life. I was 34 the first time I got married and really like a week into the marriage it was kind of like, uh-oh, this isn’t going so well. We got divorced after a year and a half. At that time, I felt hopeless. For a while I was scared I wouldn’t get to have children. That’s what really frightens me. I really feared missing that chance. My mother was extremely helpful and just supporting me there. Having a mom psychologist was very, very helpful. I let myself feel sad and I went with that. Then I picked myself up and said “you know, I’m going to have a family”.
Letting myself feel bad and reminding myself how resilient we are as human beings that as hard as today may feel, things are going to end and you’re going to wake up tomorrow and it’s going to be a new day. We really have the power to do something new every day.
Looking at my breast cancer experience – you got a mom with three tiny little kids who gets breast cancer and they tell you it can always recur. Gosh, that’s pretty scary. However, that illness met an incredible woman which has given me hope about the universe – not just about my life and my friendship. It makes me believe that that’s possible for all of us. You know what? In both cases it’s worked out. I met my husband and he proposed after a day and a half. We went out Sunday night, Tuesday morning he proposed. He said “I was going to ask last night, but I know you liked the hard to get guy”. But you know, we are very happily married. I adore his girls, we were blessed with fertility and had three kids in three years. Life has thrown us a couple of curveballs – we didn’t expect cancer certainly, but here we are. We’re together, we’re madly in love and things are going well for us and for our family.
So again, I just say resilience and taking your magnifying glass and shining your light on the things that are good and hugging them with your hurt. I think we need to go with the feelings when we feel bad. There’s a certain healing that happens when you cry and when you let yourself feel bad. I don’t think that’s letting go of the hope. I think that’s letting ourselves feel the sadness. I also found sustenance in hope in approaching others who had stories that gave me strength.
Question 4: How are you sharing hope today?
Let me read my little Jewish Christmas story. This is an example of how I share hope. I do public speaking, I go to different churches and interfaith groups, hospitals, universities, high schools and I share the story of my friendship with Ibtisam. I’ve also shared some of the health activism and peace activism that has emerged as a result. I also am a writer. That’s my way of reaching out to people and it’s also a way of making sense of the world to myself. I’m going to share a short story that I wrote for USA Today and ran on Christmas Eve 2015 and this is really a great hope story, I believe.
On Christmas Eve 1944, my grandmother urged my uncle, then 12 years old, to sneak out of the concentration camp where they were imprisoned at Strasshof, nearly 15 miles east of Vienna, to go begging.
People are charitable around Christmastime, Grandma Lili said to her son, Gyuri (George in Hungarian). Ask for scraps. Anything they can spare. Tell them that we’re on the verge of starvation.
Tell them that your 3-year-old sister cannot get off the bed because she’s outgrown her shoes.
I don’t want to beg, retorted the boy. I’d rather steal.
That’s wrong, scolded his mother. We are not thieves!
They argued back and forth. After a time, her son acquiesced.
In the dark of night, Gyuri snuck out of the camp between two wooden slats and walked the nearly four miles to Deutsch-Wagram, the closest town, shivering in his tattered clothing. On the outskirts he happened upon a house, secluded from the others. He walked up the path and knocked on the front door.
A woman opened that door. She was probably alone, her man far away, fighting in the war, her children asleep in their beds. And it is likely that she suspected that the young boy was Jewish.
The 12-year-old pieced together in German exactly what his mother had told him to say.
Did he hide his ambivalence about begging? Did he charm her even then with his gift of gab?
Come back tomorrow, whispered the woman.
The next day, my uncle returned. The woman opened the door with a smile. She piled his hands with bread, clothing, a pair of shoes that her child had outgrown.
And… a pair of socks.
The woman had knitted warm woolen socks for my mother.
Nestled in socks and shoes that fit, my mother scooted off the bed in delight. Her ragged shoes were passed on to a younger child who was also living in the camp. My mother joined her mother and older brother in feasting on the provisions they were given. They shared their unexpected bounty with the entire barracks. It was a quiet celebration of human kindness around Christmastime.
In April 1945, my mother, uncle and grandmother were liberated by the Russians. And it was those very socks and shoes that my mother wore as she trekked some 28 miles over two days to Bratislava on her walk to a new life.
She was three months shy of 4 years old.
Grandma Lili had a gorgeous laugh and a mischievous sense of humor. Even during the Holocaust. She used to tease my mom, you can tell folks that you spent your childhood in the Vienna Woods.
To the anonymous Righteous Gentile, I thank you.
Thank you for knitting with your hands the pair of socks that warmed my mom’s little feet and skinny legs. Thank you for finding those shoes and clothing and giving them to a stranger. Thank you for sharing your bread during wartime. In the despair of a battered land, cold and snowy, when many hearts were closed and evil reigned and death was more likely than life, especially for Jews, you gave them light. You gave them kindheartedness.
You gave them a measure of sustenance that I can only imagine.
If you had not looked past the years of poisonous hatred and anti-Semitism that had enveloped your country in order to rally to help my family, would they have survived to tell this story?
Question 5: How should I (the listener) begin to grow in hope or share hope today?
(1) To every person, close your eyes and find a moment where you felt joy. Find a moment for yourself and visit it.
(2) Take that moment that feels good for you and call that your hope moment that you carry around that makes you feel good.