Ruth Berman


Ruth Carol Harlow Berman died on October 21, 2011, of congestive heart failure at the home of her son, Steven, in Grants Pass, Oregon. She was just shy of her 96th birthday.

Ruth was born on December 24, 1915 in Newton, Massachusetts to Marion Stafford Harlow and S. Ralph Harlow, a minister, missionary and professor of religion at Smith College. Mr. and Mrs. Harlow were devoted summer residents of the Vineyard; Mr. Harlow frequently led services at the Congregational Church in West Tisbury and other Island churches. He and his wife were strong advocates of social justice who refused to join a Vineyard swimming club in the 1930s that excluded Blacks and Jews. Their daughter Ruth was a passionate heir to this heritage.

Ruth’s first memories were of the morning glories in Smyrna, Turkey, where her parents were missionaries when she was a small child; perhaps that is why the morning glories in her Vineyard garden gave her so much joy. For more than 90 summers, Ruth came to the Vineyard. Because she lived in many places, from Smyrna to Athens, Greece, to Newton, Massachusetts, to Geneva, Switzerland, and Moscow, USSR, Ruth felt that the Vineyard was her true home. She loved to watch the sun set over Lagoon Pond holding hands with her husband, to admire the garden tended by her granddaughter Sarah, to point out the birds to her grandchildren and to sing good old hymns and folk songs with family and friends on summer Sunday evenings.

Her life was celebrated at her family’s traditional Fourth of July picnic celebration on the Lagoon.

After her graduation from Smith College, Ruth spent a year teaching in Greece and then returned to the U.S. to teach English at the Northfield School for Girls. When she was 24, her favorite cousin introduced her to his roommate at Yale, Harold Berman, who, her cousin assured her, would have no interest in her. However, when Ruth and Hal discovered that they shared a love of three favorite books — the Bible, The Brothers Karamazov, and Moby Dick — their fate was sealed. They married on June 10, 1941, and built a life together for the next 66 years. Mr. Berman died in November 2007.

Ruth and Hal produced four children, Steven, Jean, Susanna, and John, and, together with their children, experienced adventures that were quite remarkable for the latter half of the 20th Century. Mr. Berman was a professor at the Harvard Law School specializing in Soviet law. He was determined to take his family to Moscow for a sabbatical year, and he succeeded, after appealing to Nikita Khrushchev at the United Nations in 1960. In 1961, Ruth packed up the whole family (minus their beloved dog Barnacle Jill, adopted on Martha’s Vineyard), after renting their Newton home to Harvard professor Timothy Leary, and shepherded them as they crossed the ocean, picked up a Volkswagen Bus in Cannes, France, and drove to Moscow, through France, Switzerland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland and into the Soviet Union.

This was the height of the cold war and the civil rights movement in the U.S. When her friends asked her whether she was afraid to go to Russia, Ruth said “I’d be much more afraid to go to Mississippi.” The Berman family lived in two and a half rooms in the Hotel National, overlooking the Kremlin. Ruth loved it. She took ballet lessons, took her children ice skating in Gorky Park and to the Bolshoi opera and ballet, and reveled in embassy parties.

“I really love Moscow and think it is beautiful,” she wrote in a letter home. “When you first come from the West, you feel as if all the lights are going out. You come from France with its smashing reds and yellows and blues and purples, and everything looks drab here. But for me, it has been the way it is when lights go out in a theatre, and softer lights come on after the dark. I see so much color now — but the colors are pistachio green, pale yellow, pink, sienna, orange.”

Ruth delighted in colors and sounds, flowers and birds, and people’s stories. She also cared deeply about large social and political issues. She was an ardent opponent of the Vietnam War and supporter of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s. She was a lifelong member of the NAACP, which was rare for white people in that era.

The Vineyard gave Ruth the chance to share all her joys and delights with the children and grandchildren she loved so much. In 1951, after spending several years staying with her parents on the Lagoon, Ruth and Hal, together with Ruth’s sister Betty and Betty’s husband Hal Harlow, purchased their own home on Barnes Road — the former house of ill repute/pleasure of Madam Goldberg. With its many bedrooms, it was the perfect choice for two families with four adults and seven children among them. They called it Harber, after Harlow and Berman. In her later years, Ruth’s pleasure with Harber only grew as her family expanded to welcome her children’s spouses and seven grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

Ruth is survived by her children and their spouses Carroll Albert, Aric Press, Ismail Omac, and Lilian Candalaft, and by grandchildren Jacob Pringle, Daniel Berman, Sarah, Rebecca and Joshua Press, and Eloisa and Deborah Berman, as well as her five great-grandchildren, Dylan, Kyla, Reed, Sarah Anne, and Noah. They remembered her life with joy in Brooklyn, where she spent most of the past four years with her daughter Jean’s family; in Oregon, where she died while staying with Steven; and on the Lagoon at the annual 4th of July celebration of a widely extended family and friends.