It was April 1937 and Harry and Ruth had broken up.
“No, no, no,” says 92-year-old Harry Yaffee, interrupting the interview and placing his hands firmly on the dining room table. “Don’t say ‘broken up!’ Say we had decided we could ‘go around with other people.’ That sounds better.”
Satisfied with this revision, Harry leans back in his chair and winks at Ruth, 89, or “Ruthie,” as he endearingly calls her, who is sitting demurely to his left.
Whatever the terminology, the split was short-lived — their relationship of more than six decades, on the other hand, has been quite the opposite.
Soon after the couple decided to “go around with other people,” Harry’s labor union held a formal dance at the Washington Hotel on 15th and Pennsylvania Avenue in D.C. and Harry asked Ruth to be his date.
Ruth breaks her silence and begins to giggle like a schoolgirl. “How do you remember where it was?” she asks Harry. “That was 65 years ago!”
Harry continues undaunted, drawing a map with his finger on the table.
“Yes, it was on the corner of 15th and Pennsylvania, near the White House, just where the street makes a turn. Ruthie was dancing with someone else and she looked so beautiful in her long, formal gown.”
His wife giggles again, louder and freer than before.
“I was so jealous that on the very next dance I asked her if she would marry me,” says Harry, raising his eyebrows and wrinkling his white mustache. “She was so flabbergasted that I had to ask her again.”
Ruth said yes, of course, and the Yaffees are preparing to celebrate their landmark 65th wedding anniversary next month.
They will be honored at a celebration that will also mark the 40th anniversary of Congregation Kol Shofar, where the Yaffees are founding members, at the Sheraton Four Points Hotel in San Rafael on Oct. 20.
In the eyes of the Novato residents, however, 65 years is really not so long.
“It seems like only yesterday,” explains Harry, shrugging his shoulders. Ruth nods her head in agreement.
Ruth and Harry, a fixture at the Tiburon congregation, met as students at New York State College in Albany (now State University of New York). But the two, introduced through a mutual friend, barely knew one another, since Ruth commuted for an hour and a half every day from Troy, N.Y., and rarely stayed on campus after classes.
It was not until after they graduated in 1934 and both moved to Washington that the two would become much more than casual acquaintances.
Briskly hushing her hubby with a dainty arm gesture, so she can tell this story, Ruth explains that she did not know a soul when she moved to D.C. But the same mutual friend who introduced the couple told her Harry was also living there. “I decided to look him up.”
Although there weren’t any Harry Yaffees listed in the directory, she did find another Yaffee, so she went ahead and called the guy — “It happened to be his brother, who said Harry doesn’t have a phone number, but I know where he parks his car. I’ll leave him a message on his windshield and let him know you called.”
Ruth leans forward and whispers with a smile: “Harry always says that I chased after him. I guess it’s true.”
For their first date Harry took Ruth to the Jewish Community Center.
Sometimes Harry would come over on Sunday mornings “and take my two roommates and me horseback riding in Virginia,” says Ruth. “Then he’d come back and we’d give him breakfast.” Sometimes, he says, he’d stay for lunch.
“I guess we courted on horseback.”
They married on Oct. 10, 1937 in front of 400 guests at a congregation in Troy and then drove to Albany for a kosher dinner with 200 guests.
Before they left for their honeymoon they stopped off at a friend’s wholesale furniture store and spent $300, all of Ruth’s money (“my dowry,” she jokes), on furniture for their D.C. apartment. When they returned from the honeymoon, it had been delivered and put into place.
Ruth eventually left her job for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s economics department to care for her first daughter, Judith. She later gave birth to her second daughter, Susan. The couple also has four grandchildren: Sebastyan, Sarah, Noah and Jessica.
Harry’s job with the federal government as a budget and cost analyst for the forerunner of the Department of Housing and Urban Development brought the family to the Bay Area in 1955. He was transferred to the San Francisco regional office and the family settled in Marin.
When they first arrived, there was no congregation in the county “and very little being done Jewishly,” says Harry, “except a small group of people meeting at the old Marin Jewish Community Center.”
Ruth explains that “there was so little Judaism around we felt, for our kids’ sake, we had to be as involved as possible.”
Among other things, Harry served as president of the Marin County B’nai B’rith lodge, treasurer of the former Marin JCC, and both treasurer and secretary for Kol Shofar. Ruth was president of the Marin County chapter of B’nai B’rith Women. She has also run the gift shop at Kol Shofar and won awards for her work in the Israel Bonds Women’s Division.
“You also taught nursery school for the Marin Jewish Community Center,” says Harry. “She’s also very smart, you know!” he adds. “Maybe you should put it that way in your article: ‘Harry, why did you stay with Ruthie for 65 years?’ Because, she’s so smart!”
Harry retired in 1968 and the couple traveled extensively, including a three-month stay in Israel. While speaking of Israel, Harry remembers his favorite T-shirt acquired during an archaeological dig in the Holy Land, and runs into his bedroom to get it. Returning to the dining room, he pulls off his yellow polo shirt and changes into the T-shirt, featuring the logo “I dig Israel.”
While in Israel, Harry ordered a Volkswagen camper, which the couple picked up from the manufacturer in Germany, and drove through France into Spain, visiting prominent Jewish sites.
In 1972 Harry was hired to do some work for the Housing Authority in Guam. Because the Jewish community was so small there, mostly made up of military service people, he often led Shabbat services.
When the couple came home, they decided to travel again. They bought an RV and traveled throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico.
Their Novato home is filled with souvenirs from their travels. A large portrait from their wedding ceremony 65 years ago faces their bed.
Ruth is in awe of the way her husband continues to live with such vigor — even while tending his garden of dahlias, zucchinis, tomatoes and asparagus. She admits that, “living with my husband was an adventure. I think this was one of the things that attracted me to him. Nothing was ever too difficult for Harry.”
As for their recipe for a long-lasting marriage, Ruthie says, “People give up a little too easily these days. No marriage is all sugar.” The addendum, in the case of the Yaffees: “We’re both a little stubborn.”
Harry, meanwhile, says that over the years, “we’ve both felt a need for each other and have had an affinity for each other.”
Then, after a brief pause for reflection (and while Ruth is out of earshot), he adds: “And Ruthie is a reasonably good cook.”