BY her own definition, Ricky Rapoport Friesem is, in today’s parlance, an influencer, a journalist, a poet, a dreamer, a woman, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a great-grandmother... and the order varies daily.
She is also an accomplished homemaker and a terrific cook and hostess.
I first met Ricky more than 20 years ago, when I moved to Rehovot and knew no one.
I believed that by offering my bilingual writing and translating services to the Weizmann Institute, I would meet people and make friends.
However, there was no work for me at the Institute, so in typical Ricky fashion, she offered to introduce me to some of her friends by inviting me to tea. It was at her elegant home on campus that I met some of the most interesting women I have ever known in my life.
Ricky is Canadian and American, as well as Israeli; all three nationalities are integral to her identity.
Her parents settled in Canada in the early 1930s when her father was invited to teach in Winnipeg at the IL Peretz School, which boasted a secular programme stressing Yiddish language and Jewish history.
He went on in 1933 to teach in Calgary, where Ricky was born, and subsequently headed several Jewish schools in Toronto, where she grew up.
“I grew up in Canada in a Zionist home where we were always about to pack our bags and make aliya to the ‘Promised Land,’ the ‘Goldene Medina’,” she said.
“Ours was a secular family, but Zionism was our religion. My sister and I fulfilled our parents’ dream when we made aliya.”
Ricky’s father died when she was in her teens, and, in 1972, she and Asher and their three sons finally settled in Israel.
Her sister, Judy, and her husband joined them later, bringing with them the sisters’ ailing mother. Asher’s parents also moved to Israel at that time.
Ricky has been married for more than 60 years to Professor Emeritus Asher Friesem, a physicist at the Weizmann Institute.
The two met as teenagers when both were active in the Hehalutz Hatzair Zionist youth movement. They married young — both were 20 — and moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan, a college town where they completed their degrees and lived for over 15 years.
Asher was born in British Mandate Palestine. His father worked for Spinneys, a British firm, which provided imported British Empire goods to the Mandatory authorities in Palestine.
When the British left then-Palestine, Asher’s father was out of a job, with no money to pay for his young son’s education.
At 14, Asher and his family moved to America and settled in Detroit, where they have cousins, and where Asher joined a Zionist youth movement to make friends.
In 1972, the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot invited Asher for a year’s sabbatical, by which time their three sons were 15, 12 and eight.
During that year he accepted a position at the Institute, so in the summer of 1973, before settling in Rehovot, they returned to Ann Arbor to sell their house and arrange the shipment of their belongings to Israel.
Shortly afterward the Yom Kippur War broke out, and only when it was over did they discover that their house sale had fallen through; that the ship had never left the Detroit port; that the several containers which constituted their shipment had gone up in flames; and that their insurance had expired the day before the fire.
Moreover, their Detroit lawyer had committed suicide.
Not only were their household goods gone, but they also found themselves without birth and marriage certificates, college transcripts, photograph albums, books and other mementoes.
They had to start life anew, like refugees, recreating a home for themselves and their children in a new country with a perilous existence.
Nearly five decades later, not only have they been successful in rebuilding their lives, but they are now proud grandparents to 12 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Ricky’s original plan was to find work in Tel Aviv, in journalism and/or documentary filmmaking, commuting daily from Rehovot.
Although she wrote a few articles for the magazine Time Out, the ideal job in Tel Aviv was not immediately forthcoming, so she joined forces with a friend in establishing White Elephant, a successful high-end secondhand, vintage clothing store, the first of its kind in Rehovot.
It was later sold and transferred to a picturesque side street location, where it still exists.
This enterprise was followed by a secondhand bookstore, Paperback Gallery, which Ricky established with another friend.
A year later she was made an offer she couldn’t refuse: employment in a location as close to home as could be, the Stone Administration Building on campus, which made it very nearly a matter of rolling out of bed in the morning and walking over to the office.
For 25 years she worked as a journalist, editor, and award-winning documentary filmmaker, ultimately becoming assistant to the Institute’s president and heading the public relations department.
And always writing poetry. Wonderful, intuitive, inspiring poetry.
Ricky and Asher learned to sail on the lakes of Upper Michigan, and when Ricky’s mother died, leaving her a small legacy, they bought a half share in the 31-foot yawl owned by the late Prof Israel Dostrowsky, former president of the Weizmann Institute.
“My mother would have thoroughly disapproved of my use of her bequest,” Ricky said. “Especially if she had known that on our first sailing trip to Greece we encountered such a fierce storm in mid-sea that we were on the verge of sending out Mayday signals.
“We were sure we would drown and that our three sons, whom we’d left behind with a babysitter, would be orphaned. But we survived, and kept the boat for another 25 years until our boys all moved abroad and there was no one to help with the maintenance work all boats demand.”
Now in their 80s, Ricky and Asher continue to be very active socially and culturally and continue to make frequent trips abroad.
Their three sons and their families have all returned to Israel, and Ricky and Asher are active grandparents to their beautiful brood — which is quite an achievement.
Ricky has published five poetry collections in English: Parentheses, Laissez-Passer, Reality Check, Gimme Shelter and Mumbai Luck, which won the Dallas Poets Community 2015 Chapbook Competition.
Her poems have appeared in numerous publications, and her stories have been included in The Anthology of Israel Short Stories and on JewishFiction.net.
Her work has been awarded international prizes, including first place in the 2007, 2012 and 2016 Reuben Rose International Memorial Poetry Competition; first prize in the Women in Judaism 2010 Essay Contest; and first place in the 2018 Tiferet Journal’s Essay Contest.
In 2010, she was named International Senior Poet Laureate by the US Amy Kitchener Foundation. A collection of her poetry translated into Hebrew, Mekurka’at, was published by Eked in 2013.
She has also written two cookbooks: Fruits of the Earth (Adama Books, 1985) and Joy of Israel (Steimatzky, 1976).
Her latest book, Gimme Shelter, was set to be launched at a festive event in the Milta bookshop in Rehovot.
“The 37 poems were written over a period of several years, in the course of several wars and are a reflection of my own need to express and comprehend the insane reality of our lives in Israel, but not only in Israel,” Ricky said.
“I think these poems are relevant in every area of conflict.
“I have lived in Israel for 47 years — this is my home and I would never think of living elsewhere, but indeed this is not the Israel of my dreams.
“I feel like a mother who has raised her child to be something special and is disappointed, heartbroken even, when the child doesn’t fulfill her ambitions. But she never stops loving her child.
“I expected Israel to be exceptional — I was unrealistic and idealistic and although I am fully aware of all our accomplishments and all our challenges, I can’t help feeling disappointment in what we’ve become.
“This collection of poems has elicited more feedback than my previous collections. It has hit a responsive chord. Perhaps if we face the truth we can be more proactive in creating a more just and safe society.”
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