Renate Rubinstein

Take It or Leave It

Memoir by the Netherlands’ most original and leading polemical journalist. Honest, intimate, full of self-mockery

The theme of this book is a classic and compelling one: it is the story of an individual who stands up against an all-powerful enemy. A cunning, unpredictable, and insidious enemy, in this case, and a very terrible one. When the author first discovered its identity she felt, as she records here, a reluctance even to name it. This is an enemy there is no winning against, but in Renate Rubinstein it has found a wily and watchful antagonist who fights back with whole heart and her whole intelligence.

Renate Rubinstein was a natural oppositionist. She went to China at a time when every other Western visitor was discovering with delight its revolutionary innocence and purity, and caused outrage by writing a book about the gross and evident anomalies to which all the other journalists had been happy to close their eyes. Living and working in Israel, at a time when Zionism was still a progressive shibboleth, compelled her to express even more awkward and unpopular views. She was in fact half Jewish (her father died in Auschwitz), and the title she gave her book on Israel – Jew in Arabia, Goy in Israel – says a lot about her attitude to the world.

In Take It or Leave It, her disconcerting eye for the contradictory is as unblinking as ever; she could have entitled it Sick Among the Well, Well Among the Sick. Because the enemy she faces here is of course an illness; progressive, crippling, and incurable.

She speaks out with all her characteristic sharpness against both a world that makes too little allowance for it and a world that makes too much. We are applauded these days if we struggle to ‘come to terms’ with such a problem. But no terms are available in this particular battle, and her struggle is rather to understand her enemy and herself, to devise stratagems and counter-stratagems, and to live, upright and unafraid, as long as life lasts.

There are no great revelations here, no recourse to mystery or discovery of faith. But there are surprises. In its quirky way this book is a classic of medical observation, dealing not with the cataloguing of symptoms but with what it’s like to be ill. We must all wonder, if we are well; and the better we are the more we must wonder. It turns out to be not quite as you might imagine – and not always worse. What Renate Rubinstein demonstrates, once again, is the dogged glory of human intelligence. We shall all come to sickness and death sooner or later. This book gives us a breath of hope.

Rubinstein countered preconceived notions with curiosity. She is a powerful example of the benefits of not just going along with the herd. For her, the only sustainable ethical principle is “Do whatever you want, as long as you avoid harming others in the process.”

NRC Handelsblad

Renate Rubinstein wasn’t the kind of writer who invents a story and rules over a fictional world. She was a seismograph, a commentator who constantly needed input from the outside world. Television, newspapers, books, meetings, sickness, divorce, love: everything that she experienced could inspire her to write a piece.

de Volkskrant

A winning individuality characterized her life and her work.


Chapter 2 – The Diagnosis

“The healthy animal is up and doing” but I’d been sad and tired for years. At first I thought it was depression, then that it was due to the smoking, finally the doctor sent me to a neurologist. He tapped out a bunch of reflexes while I lay there thinking: he must think I’m putting it on, how can I convince him that I really do get so tired, so often and so quickly? But to my relief he was polite enough to take me seriously and to announce that he’d like to have me checked out clinically, i.e. in a hospital. For all the world like the real thing, I thought, satisfied.
In hospital I was given a lumbar puncture and every day some- thing different was measured, scanned, drawn and analysed. Every day the neurologist came to sit at my bedside to say he still didn’t know what it was. They’d found an increase in the amount of protein in my spinal fluid, he said. There’s always something to find, I thought, looking forward to a speedy end to my symp- toms. (I’d had no other experience of illnesses than that they pass, except if it’s cancer. Once they finally got down to examining me, I thought, they’d find the cause and cure me.) After a while I was allowed to return home, but it was better, the neurologist said, if I could stay with someone for the first few weeks since I lived alone. I was to see him again in a month’s time, by then he’d have access to the information they didn’t have yet.
Reading back over my notes in my brother’s spare room, I felt a bit grim. (It was a grim little room and what’s more I was still wallowing in the fact that I no longer had a husband to bring me tea in bed. Forty-seven I was and alone in the world). One eve- ning, when my brother and his wife were out, I started to look around for a dictionary. The neurologist had said to the physio lady in the hospital, “A paresis, oh,” (glancing at me) “a very, very slight parethesis.” What could that be? They only had a Petit Robert (French-French) and I found: Parésie: un affaiblissment de la contractabilité musculaire provoquant une paralysie légère. A weakening of muscle contractibility causing mild paralysis. Very slight and probably not applicable to me at all – but still, when they returned late at night, my brother and his wife found me sitting at the top of the stairs crying.

(Excerpt translated by Michele Hutchison)


Renate Rubinstein

Renate Rubinstein (1929-1990) was born in Germany but moved to the Netherlands in the 1930s. She wrote columns for a Dutch weekly for almost thirty years; her first collection of these columns in book form appeared in 1964. She published numerous other books after this, and was awarded the…

lees meer


Nee heb je (1985). Non-fiction, 123 pages.

New English sample translation available (by Michele Hutchison) Full translations available (English & German)

Themes: illness


More Dutch Classics



Herengracht 48
NL - 1015 BN Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: +31 20 624 19 34

[email protected]

lees meer