- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007


Ruth Yorkin Drazen was 69 when her husband, Jerome, died of prostate cancer. She thought she would be terrified when he died, only to experience an entirely different emotion.

“It was his having a way out to peace,” said Mrs. Drazen, now 88. “And if you love someone, you don’t want them to suffer.”

His passing and the realization that so many people were consumed with fear at the thought of death led Mrs. Drazen to begin an entirely new career in her early 70s: documentary filmmaking.

Her first feature, “On the Edge of Being: When Doctors Confront Cancer,” described doctors’ personal journeys as patients. She didn’t stop there.

Tonight, the Public Broadcasting Service will air Mrs. Drazen’s fifth film in 13 years — a look at the life of composer Gustav Mahler. The film is a combination of subjects that interest Mrs. Drazen: psychology, philosophy, religion and music. It’s also a tribute to the beauty of life, something Mrs. Drazen thinks many fail to appreciate.

“Heal the world — that’s what my intention is,” she said. “And I feel so lucky that I’m here to do that.”

Mrs. Drazen was born in Washington, Pa., the eldest of three children in a middle-class family. (One of her siblings is Bud Yorkin, the Hollywood producer.) Her parents exposed her to music early on, taking her to concerts in Pittsburgh as a child and encouraging her piano studies.

She went on to study piano at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Her first marriage ended in divorce, partly because of stress over the death of the couple’s infant son. The baby, Anton, died of a rare genetic disorder, and Mrs. Drazen’s grief sparked her interest in curing genetic illnesses. She spent years working for the Muscular Dystrophy Association and the National Genetics Foundation.

Mrs. Drazen lives in a spacious apartment in Manhattan filled with eclectic art, Oriental rugs and, of course, a piano. Her coffee table is weighed down by stacks of art books, and she greets visitors with chocolates and water.

At her side is a walker that she has used ever since fracturing her neck in a fall three years ago. Her mental agility is boundless, however, and she talks with a confidence and verve that borders on saucy.

Her husband’s struggle with cancer and the elements of care he received at the hospital served as a catalyst for her foray into filmmaking, but the roots of her interest in dealing with life and death go back further.

As a toddler, she witnessed an ambulance whisk away the daughter-in-law of a neighbor. While she watched the grim scene unfold, Johann Strauss’ “Tales From the Vienna Woods” played in the background.

“I think that was the force of my filmmaking,” she says, “because in reality, I’ve been looking for her.”

“The Choice Is Yours,” a documentary she produced a few years ago, looked at the life and philosophy of Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor who promoted the belief that man’s primary motivational force is his search for meaning. The award-winning film includes footage of Dr. Frankl’s lectures as well as interviews with physicians and patients who have endured cancer and other diseases.

Her films have been shown in many medical establishments.

“It’s possible for people to have a medical problem and still have a good life,” she said. “It is possible to turn the most negative experiences into something positive, and that’s what we need to do more of and be less self-centered.”

Her upcoming film, titled “A Wayfarer’s Journey: Listening to Mahler,” explores the role of music in healing and how the composer turned to music to deal with often-difficult circumstances. Mrs. Drazen says she first became an ardent Mahler fan in her early 20s after hearing some of his music and being overwhelmed. In a way, Mrs. Drazen’s film is a love letter.

“I think he’s my soul mate,” she says of the Austrian composer, who died in 1911. “His life is so troubled, and he never gives up. That’s something I adore about him. Whenever I hurt, I go for him. He helps remind me that this, too, shall pass.”

One of the most prominent faces to appear in her films is actor Richard Dreyfuss, who was in the Frankl documentary and is in the Mahler film as well.

“She’s a remarkably energetic and optimistic and hopeful and intellectual woman,” Mr. Dreyfuss said. “I think she’s got a spiritual secret. Her doing these movies is an attempt to find a way to articulate that spiritual secret that she has already.”

Filmmaking runs in Mrs. Drazen’s family. Her brother Mr. Yorkin’s hits include “All in the Family” and “Sanford & Son.” Has Mr. Yorkin ever helped Mrs. Drazen in her film career? No, and she has never really asked him to.

“She didn’t need my help,” he said. “She’s pretty good at what she’s doing, and she learned it pretty quickly.”

Mrs. Drazen intends to continue. “I would like, before I leave, to make a film that is going to address fear at its highest level,” she said, adding that she also would like to write a book.

After all, she may not fear death, but she does fear something else: retiring.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide