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Living in awe – Ruth Rabinowitz’s life legacy

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Ruth Rabinowitz is described as a testament to the power of dedication and hard work. As an academic, a doctor, and then a politician, and ultimately as a mother and grandmother, Rabinowitz pursued perfection not just as a goal, but as a way of life.

Rabinowitz passed away on 15 January surrounded by her three children at her home in Menlo Park, California.

Margot Eiran, Rabinowitz’s daughter, said at the funeral, “Though your physical presence is no longer with us, there’s so much of you in us and around us, deeply ingrained. You awakened in us a wonder about the world, an appreciation of music, poetry, art, cosmology, philosophy, ecology, spirituality – all the ‘mommologies’ – and generally in living with awe.”

Rabinowitz trained as a medical doctor and ran a successful practice from home. She then turned her attention to homoeopathic medicine. Zelda Isaacson, Rabinowitz’s long-time friend, told the SA Jewish Report, “She saw the harmful effect of ordinary medicine, so she did both [homoeopathy and traditional medicine].”

As well as running her own medical practice and taking care of three young children, Rabinowitz taught speech and drama lessons and held a creativity group from her house.

“There was no difference to her work versus home personality. She always prioritised mothering, and therefore never worked full time when we were growing up,” Eiran told the SA Jewish Report.

Rabinowitz left her medical practice after her children became adults, becoming a member of the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), where she was the party’s parliamentary spokesperson for health from 1997 to 2009.

In this role, Rabinowitz developed a close relationship with the late Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi. “There was something about her Jewish sense of community and her perception of a Zulu sense of community that overlapped. [Buthelezi] called her a “Jew-lu” – half Jewish, half Zulu,” said Peter Smith, a colleague of Rabinowitz. “She needed a home that would work with her principles, and she found that also in the IFP. Her relationship with Buthelezi was powerful, and was a key part of what drew her to the party. But the party itself also had positives for her that she could work with,” Smith said.

Rabinowitz served three terms in parliament and in that time, was one of the biggest critics of former President Thabo Mbeki’s policy surrounding the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Said Smith, “She was ferociously opposed to the nonsense that Mbeki and his health ministers were peddling. She took a consistently strong principled stand against the mumbo jumbo that they were sprouting and the lack of positive interventions.” Rabinowitz was part of the IFP’s preparation to take Mbeki’s government to court, insisting on the distribution of antiretroviral drugs.

Isaacson describes Rabinowitz as a woman who had a great curiosity for good, and did everything with integrity.

Rabinowitz started a nongovernmental organisation for women in Alexandra, where she would empower participants through beading and other activities and Isaacson would teach English.

Rabinowitz also published a book about education titled, Working with Wonder, a handbook for holistic education in natural sciences. In this book, there were lessons and projects on subjects from the ancient Greek myths of Apollo and Daphne to how the body works. “I remember many things about her, but one of the greatest is her curiosity in search of the truth,” said Isaacson.

Rabinowitz was a devoted mother to her children, Margot, Matthew, and Daniel. Through them, they say, the lessons she taught live on: to question the status quo; to stand by one’s convictions; and to be strong individuals in their own right.

The time they spent with her wasn’t just a period of familial bonding but also a time of learning and growth, shaped by Ruth’s indomitable spirit and wisdom. Said Eiran, “My mom overflowed with selfless love and support for us. She gave us a Renaissance childhood, surrounded by all imaginable inspiration through her vast library of books, every craft material under the sun, family adventures, and unconventionality. Our family meals around our round wooden dining table were characterised by open, honest, questioning, controversial discussion, and debate, and lots of great humour.

“My parents created around that dining table an unbreakable bond of love and loyalty between us all. That same dining room table now sits in our new house in Israel, and carries its ingrained values, memories, and energy into the next generation. It’s fundamental to who we are.

“There was something so special about Ruth. She had a whimsical quality about her because she was quite out of the box, but she also had great strength. She was so thin, sort of elfin and ethereal looking, but she had the strength of a lion.”

Rabinowitz’s parents were active in the Jewish community in Springs. “My grandfather was a founding member of the synagogue, and later bought a Torah scroll for the shul. She went to shul with her parents, but didn’t enjoy it. She became interested in Judaism only later in her life,” Eiran said.

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