Obituary: Ruth Jordan
Tuesday 12 April 1994
FOR SUCH a physically tiny woman it was extraordinary that Ruth Jordan should have had three distinct personalities. There was Ruth Cohen, daughter of a highly educated and celebrated couple in Haifa, where she was born, and a BBC journalist, who made her colleagues feel embarrassingly inferior, although she never proclaimed her exceptional erudition. There was Ruth Jordan, the author and biographer. Then there was Ruth Kivity, the wife and mother, her husband a well-known Israeli sports broadcaster, Nissim.
A fifth-generation sabra (one born in the land of Israel), Jordan had a profound love of the Hebrew language and spoke it with great beauty, as I had an opportunity to enjoy, both as a friend and as a pupil. It was from her parents that she gained many of her unusual qualities. Her mother had a degree in botany from Geneva University, while her father, Pinhas Cohen, a gifted teacher, founded the Haifa Institute of Biology. His fame spread and people from all over the country brought wild animals to him to examine and tend. Jordan recalled that she became particularly fond of the pet hyenas kept at the family home.
In her skilfully and lovingly written memoirs Daughter of the Waves: memories of growing up in pre-war Palestine (1983), Jordan recalled an occasion when 'daddy' helped to smuggle two 'illegal immigrants' from Europe across the Lebanese- Syrian border into Palestine, taken on a truck on which she was a passenger, stopped by British soldiers, interrogated and ending with the two men being taken away and sent back to Syria. Yet this searing experience never embittered her, nor diminished her admiration for the British people. She wrote with distinct pleasure of her motorcycle trip to London in May 1931 and the welcome of the Lord Mayor of London, Sir William P. Neal, speaking of goodwill when there was so little around.
With her background, it was inevitable that she would study at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but the subjects she chose - French and classical Arabic - were an indication of her wide-ranging mind, open to new ideas, respecting Arabic culture as much as her own Jewish culture.
Already praised for her beautifully clear pronunciation of Hebrew, as well as French and Arabic, Jordan decided to perfect her gift and in 1946 she left for London and enrolled as a student at University College, where she obtained a First in French and Phonetics.
It was not, however, as a teacher, for which she was supremely qualified, that Jordan made her early mark, but as a broadcaster. By joining the Hebrew Section of the BBC World Service as a broadcaster and programme organiser, she gave much more extensive pleasure to all lovers of this difficult language than she could ever had done in tuition. She had a special gift for interviewing, her sweet voice delving, always polite but always searching. Smilingly she gave the impression that what interested her most was getting at the pure truth of any problem, rather than scoring points. Those interviewed often responded to this quality by being more open than they would otherwise have been if tackled by more aggressive questioning.
When the Hebrew Section was closed down by the BBC, at the behest of the Foreign Office, which funded it, Jordan turned to journalism, research and authorship. She would turn up close to midnight six times a week to collect copies of the next morning's national newspapers from a secretive Fleet Street vendor, to pick out news stories to dispatch immediately, through Reuters, to her newspaper in Tel Aviv. Despite the lateness of the hour she enjoyed joining a group of fellow journalists - myself among them - in animated discussions as to what might and might not interest the Israeli public next morning.
However, gradually, research and authorship occupied most of Ruth Jordan's attention - she took this surname from her father's pen- name. Her interests were wide, as she showed in a succession of biographies. She wrote about Sophie Dorothea, divorced wife of George I; Berenice, Princess of Judea; George Sand, the French author; and a revealing work on Frederic Chopin, learning Polish the better to delve into his personality, and coming up with some unwelcome discoveries, such as his alleged anti- Semitism.
To the end of her days, Jordan was particularly intrigued by Jacques Fromental Halevy, the 19th- century French-Jewish composer, once highly popular and now almost forgotten, and his La Juive, the only grand opera to feature a Jewish heroine. She laboriously delved through his papers in Paris, emerging with a mass of facts and unknown compositions. For two years she worked on his biography - having first started work without the backing of a publisher - and was correcting the printer's proofs when she succumbed to cancer. The book, Fromental Halevy, His Life and Music (1799-1862), will be published in May.
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