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Ruby Dee

Lawrence Bush
January 1, 1970
Version:1.0 StartHTML:0000000149 EndHTML:0000003919 StartFragment:0000000199 EndFragment:0000003885 StartSelection:0000000199 EndSelection:0000003885 Remembering Ruby Dee in a Yiddish-based drama None of the justly laudatory obituaries of Ruby Dee refers to the first brilliant performance in which I saw her: as the Accusing Angel in a dramatized English version of Yitskhok Leybush Perets’ classic Yiddish story, Bontshe Shvayg (Bontshe the Silent). The date (mid-1940’s?) and venue are hazy in my memory, but I still vividly recall the sardonic laugh she delivered at the end which made clear Perets’ intent: not to glorify Bontshe’s self-effacing request in heaven for no more than a daily “hot roll with butter,” but to condemn the quietude of the downtrodden. (In the Jewish-Polish labor and revolutionary movements, a compliant worker was thereafter dubbed a “bontshe.”) Was it a one-time production as part of a concert sponsored by the leftwing Jewish Peoples Fraternal Order of the International Workers Order, or did it run for several performances? I’m not sure. Was it given, as my fading memory insists, at Hunter College Auditorium? Unclear. Is it true, as one of my friends recalled, that the stage manager of that production was Ruby’s then fiancé, Ossie Davis? Certainly, that now-gone friend’s insistence that it was there that Ruby and Ossie met is contradicted by the biographical notes in the obituaries. In any case, I mourn Ruby Dee as more than a brilliant actor and militant progressive activist: she was an unzerike — one of our own.

Hershl Hartman, June 13, 2014

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.