Rabbi’s Corner

Rabbi’s corner: Protas story reveals power of human spirit

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

Those who knew Ruth Protas would not be surprised to learn how much laughter there was at the shiva minyan held last month several days after her death. Every story about Ruth revealed her love of life, her laughter, her sense of humor and her spunk. Several pictures at shiva showed these same qualities: Ruth in her Halloween costume as a pregnant bride. Ruth at age 96 in the Race for the Cure (she was one of the top fundraisers that year). Ruth laughing with joy at her 100th birthday party last fall. What makes the stories and pictures more amazing is that Ruth had been blind for decades.

Although we easily associate humor with Ruth, here are two things about her that are not funny, things that teach us about her and about the power of the human spirit.

Ruth was born in Poland. She was 5 when an anti-Semitic neighbor killed her father in front of her mother, siblings and herself. It’s hard to imagine the horror of that memory. Her impoverished mother fled with Ruth and the other children to this country. Ruth spoke only rarely of her childhood. Her one comment that comes down to us was: “There weren’t psychologists in those days, so I needed to cope with my feelings by myself.”

Ruth was 62 and living in New Jersey when her husband died. Her vision was already failing and her husband had been so domineering — she didn’t even know how to write a check — that the family felt she could not live alone. At that time she was very shy, very quiet, perhaps one would even say meek, so she came to Phoenix to live with her son Steve and his wife at the time, Marlyne Freedman. But Marlyne would have none of Ruth’s helplessness, and told her so. Somehow this motivated Ruth to become the person that many of us came to know after she moved to Tucson in 2003. Yes, she might have been blind and nearly deaf, but she became independent and resourceful. She devised systems for tagging her clothes so her outfit was always color-coordinated, for identifying and taking her medication without help, and for keeping track of appointments. She played Wii bowling and beat everyone else. She was a “poster-child” volunteer for Interfaith Community Services. She lived independently, with an active social, intellectual and spiritual life, until just months before she died.

The traumatized 5-year-old, the meek and dependent 62-year-old turned into the Ruth Protas whom we knew and loved, showing us that human possibilities are endless.

One of Ruth’s many friends, Deb Jacobson, wrote a tribute that was read at Ruth’s funeral. Here’s the final paragraph:

“Ruth taught me about praying. She told me that when she rested in the afternoon she prayed for all kinds of wonderful things and for the people in her life. An observer might have thought she was dozing when in fact she was praying for all of you.”

Truly her memory is an enduring blessing.