She Per­sists

Al­ice Shalvi, Queen Mother o¡ Is­raeli Fem­i­nism

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Jane Eis­ner

Imet Al­ice Shalvi in , on my first trip to Is­rael as ed­i­tor of the For­ward. Hon­estly, I was ap­pre­hen­sive, un­sure of the pur­pose of my visit other than to con­nect with a leg­endary fem­i­nist whose back­story seemed brave but vague in my mind.

I re­mem­ber im­pres­sions more than de­tails of that first visit. It was late spring, and the white jas­mine and gi­ant fruit trees in the gar­den of the Shalvis’ home in the Beit HaKerem neigh­bor­hood of Jerusalem were heavy with in­tox­i­cat­ing fra­grances. Var­i­ous fam­ily mem­bers and guests came and went. A grand­son showed up in mil­i­tary uni­form, non­cha­lantly obliv­i­ous to the con­ver­sa­tion in English and He­brew that e…or­t­lessly jumped from one topic to an­other, like bees suck­ing on flow­ers.

I took no notes at that first meet­ing. It would not have been ap­pro­pri­ate. But I knew that I wanted to re­turn, to learn more about Shalvi and un­der­stand how this diminu­tive, el­e­gant, highly in­tel­li­gent woman had shaped Is­raeli fem­i­nism and drawn so many fas­ci­nat­ing peo­ple into her cir­cle.

I vis­ited again in ‡ˆ and in ‡‰, this time writ­ing down her thoughts, lean­ing into her nar­ra­tive. Still, with all my scrib­bles, I didn’t yet have a story.

Then, in Oc­to­ber of this year, she pub­lished the mem­oir that had been her loom­ing pre­oc­cu­pa­tion since first we met, and I read it ea­gerly, rel­ish­ing the care­ful prose, the sly hu­mor, the mo­ments of rev­e­la­tion. Fi­nally I had a rea­son to write about this re­mark­able woman.

Shalvi’s mem­oir is called “Never a Na­tive,” and after I fin­ished read­ing it, I won­dered why she chose the ti­tle. So I asked. Her re­ply was both ob­vi­ous and re­veal­ing.

“Re­gard­ing the ti­tle,” she wrote in an email — and I could al­most hear her English teacher voice — “it came to my mind when I con­sid­ered the over­ar­ch­ing metaphor of my life, which has been lived in three di…er­ent coun­tries, in all of which I was in fact an ‘alien.’”

Born in Ger­many in ‡ ‰, raised in Eng­land, and now hav­ing lived for many years in Is­rael, Shalvi has in­deed never been a na­tive any­where, but at first her de­scrip­tion of her­self as an alien sur­prised me. I have known her only in this, the last chap­ter of her life, when her legacy as a fem­i­nist, so­cial jus­tice ac­tivist, ad­vo­cate for peace and in­no­va­tive leader in girls’ ed­u­ca­tion has been firmly es­tab­lished, and when she presents as some­one supremely com­fort­able with her­self, se­cure in her be­liefs, gra­cious to a fault.

I had come to un­der­stand that her lovely home has for decades been alive with fam­ily drama, in­tel­lec­tual fer­ment and con­tin­ual hospi­tal­ity. Her de­voted band of Amer­i­can fem­i­nists — Friends of Al­ice, they are called — serve as stead­fast sup­port­ers.

She has been cel­e­brated as, in the words of Ms. co-founder and author Letty Cot­tin Po­gre­bin, “the Queen Mother of Is­raeli sec­ond wave fem­i­nism.” Among many other on­ers, she won the Is­rael Prize for life­time achieve­ment in


The New York fem­i­nist donor and ac­tivist Sally Gottes­man even named her first daugh­ter Al­ice, after her friend and men­tor.

But be­yond the ac­co­lades and ap­plause, what dis­tin­guishes Shalvi is her will­ing­ness to chart her own path, de­fy­ing stereo­types and con­ven­tion, some­times at great pro­fes­sional cost. She’s the Or­tho­dox mother of six who was will­ing to chal­lenge the rab­binate and burn re­stric­tive re­li­gious mar­riage con­tracts in a fiery demon­stra­tion; the de­voted ed­u­ca­tor will­ing to jeop­ar­dize her ca­reer by

‘My prob­lem is that I’m too much of a rebel, a re­former. I want to change things.’

speak­ing pub­licly to Pales­tini­ans. The costs were per­sonal, too. In the open­ing ac­knowl­edge­ments of her mem­oir, she ac­tu­ally apol­o­gizes to her chil­dren for the su er­ing caused by her “overindul­gence in pub­lic a airs.”

“My prob­lem is that I’m too much of a rebel, a re­former,” Shalvi told me over lunch at her home two years ago, the last time we met. She was even more stooped than I had re­mem­bered — thin­ner and slower, too. But her com­mand of cur­rent events and of her own ar­tic­u­lated thoughts was still sharp. “I want to change things,” she said.

Has she ever.

“Never a Na­tive” was years in the mak­ing, writ­ten in long hand, a pour­ing forth and a de­tailed self-ex­am­i­na­tion. The chap­ter de­scrib­ing her child­hood is ti­tled “Out­sider,” and it’s clear that the sense of be­ing an alien was part of her self-def­i­ni­tion from an early age.

Al­ice Mar­gulies was born to Jew­ish par­ents in Essen, Ger­many, and grew up as a soli­tary child, with a brother who was five years older and a sis­ter who died of ill­ness when Al­ice was ‰. The Nazis forced the fam­ily to flee, first to rel­a­tives in Mannheim and then fi­nally to Eng­land and rel­a­tive safety in ‹ŒŽ‘.

A vo­ra­cious reader, Al­ice de­vel­oped a love for English lit­er­a­ture and ex­celled at school, but she al­ways felt like a for­eigner, even when she was ac­cepted to Newn­ham, one of two women’s col­leges at Cam­bridge Univer­sity. There she found sal­va­tion in her stud­ies and in her in­volve­ment with Jew­ish life on cam­pus, where she al­ready dis­played an ac­tivist’s in­cli­na­tion by one day propos­ing that women, too, should lead the singing at Shab­bat meals. To her sur­prise, the men eas­ily agreed.

“And so, the fol­low­ing Fri­day evening, I made his­tory by be­ing the first woman to lead,” she writes, charm­ingly. “Un­for­tu­nately, the vic­tory was marred. In my ner­vous­ness, I pitched my voice too high and, to my shame, had to read­just the key after the first two lines. But the prece­dent had been set.”

Zion­ism was baked into her char­ac­ter. “I knew from a very early age that I would come to Eretz Yis­rael,” she told me dur­ing one of our con­ver­sa­tions on the shaded pa­tio in her gar­den. “No ques­tion.”

Hers was not a gauzy, ide­al­is­tic dream. She knew it would be di™cult. She had at­tended the ‰‰nd Zion­ist Congress in ‹Œ‘š, in Basel, Switzer­land, where the re­cent su er­ing of Eu­ro­pean Jews had done noth­ing to lessen the in­ternecine dis­putes among the del­e­gates. “I was ap­palled by the fact that Jews were fight­ing Jews, de­spite their com­mon goal of estab­lish­ing a Jew­ish state,” she writes.

Mov­ing to Is­rael at the end of ‹Œ‘Œ, she con­fronted the per­sis­tent trauma and de­pri­va­tion that tem­pered the ex­cite­ment of life in the brand-new state. Even though she had a mas­ter’s de­gree in so­cial work from the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics and Po­lit­i­cal Sci­ence, she was un­able to find work in her cho­sen field. Food was scarce. So was de­cent hous­ing for a sin­gle woman.

One morn­ing, in April ‹Œœž, the Jew­ish land­lord of the Jerusalem apart­ment where she rented a room waited un­til his preg­nant wife had left for the day, and then pulled Al­ice into the bed­room and raped her, an episode she re­lates in chill­ing, dis­pas­sion­ate de­tail. She had no choice but to con­tinue to live there, keep­ing her dis­tance from him as best as pos­si­ble.

For­tu­nately, that year also brought two mo­men­tous changes in her life. Quite by chance, she was o ered a job teach­ing at He­brew Univer­sity and dis­cov­ered her life’s pro­fes­sional call­ing. And through mu­tual friends she met Moshe Shalvi, an im­mi­grant from New York whose open­ness, vi­brancy and sense of hu­mor at­tracted her im­me­di­ately. Her fam­ily dis­ap­proved of the match, since he was younger, more re­li­giously Or­tho­dox, not as well ed­u­cated, not as pro­fes­sion­ally ad­vanced, and cer­tainly not as pol­ished as the kind of man the Mar­gulieses en­vi­sioned for their only daugh­ter.

They mar­ried none­the­less, cre­at­ing a lov­ing, sup­port­ive part­ner­ship that lasted šŽ years, un­til Moshe Shalvi’s death in ‰ž‹Ž. To­gether they had three sons and three daugh­ters (one son died in ‰ž‹š), ‰‹ grand­chil­dren and, now, ‹£ great-grand­chil­dren. Al­ice Shalvi re­mains enor­mously proud of their chil­dren — “de­cent hu­man be­ings with the right val­ues,” she told me once — but bur­dened by the guilt that she was a dis­tracted, inat­ten­tive, of­ten ab­sent mother.

“In ret­ro­spect,” she heart­break­ingly con­fesses in her mem­oir, “I’m painfully aware that, while I at­tained renown for my pro­fes­sional and pub­lic ac­tiv­i­ties, I was a fail­ure as a mother.”

As an ed­u­ca­tor, Shalvi was in­no­va­tive, tire­less and em­pa­thetic, in­tro­duc­ing a fem­i­nist ap­proach to lit­er­ary anal­y­sis in the Bi­ble and Shake­speare, de­mand­ing equal school­ing for girls and boys, and qui­etly smash­ing the un­writ­ten rules that pre­vented women from at­tain­ing lead­er­ship roles in Is­raeli ed­u­ca­tional in­sti­tu­tions.

In hall­ways and class­rooms around Is­rael to­day you can find ev­i­dence of her last­ing im­pact on gen­er­a­tions of stu­dents. Per-

haps none so much as dur­ing her -year ten­ure at Pelech, a high school for Or­tho­dox girls in Jerusalem, where she be­gan as a vol­un­teer and ended up as head­mistress. Shalvi is widely cred­ited with trans­form­ing the ex­per­i­men­tal school into a model of en­light­ened re­li­gious ed­u­ca­tion.

One of her for­mer stu­dents is now Shalvi’s rabbi. “I was  when I met my spir­i­tual mother, Al­ice,” Rabbi Ta­mar EladAp­pel­baum, founder of Zion, a uniquely Is­raeli pro­gres­sive con­gre­ga­tion in Jerusalem, told me.

“I re­mem­ber the very first mo­ments: Al­ice stop­ping all classes in Pelech in the mid­dle of an un­usual rainy win­ter day to make sure that our feet were dry; Al­ice teach­ing Shake­speare, ask­ing us in agony what is it that cre­ates evil in hu­man be­ings’ hearts; Al­ice de­scrib­ing in­jus­tice and build­ing our courage to stand against it when­ever we meet it..

“She be­came to me, and is to me since then, con­science it­self, liv­ing amongst us.”

But this con­science of­ten col­lided with Is­rael’s hard­ened re­li­gious and gen­der re­al­ity. Shalvi per­mit­ted her Pelech pupils to meet with their Arab coun­ter­parts. She her­self par­tic­i­pated in di­a­logues with Pales­tinian women. She di­rectly ob­jected to what she con­sid­ered the chief rab­binate’s “dis­crim­i­na­tion and dere­lic­tion of du­ties” in deal­ing with is­sues of di­vorce.

Even­tu­ally she was forced to re­sign from Pelech over these trans­gres­sions. But she knows that the seeds she planted in that one school are tak­ing root through­out the na­tion. Her stu­dents, she writes, “are judges, doc­tors, univer­sity lec­tur­ers, cu­ra­tors, busi­ness ex­ec­u­tives. They are bear­ing out my con­tention that no area in life should be closed to you just be­cause you are fe­male. Above all, they have mod­ern­ized Mod­ern Ortho­doxy.”

Shalvi had a sim­i­larly last­ing, gal­va­niz­ing e‘ect on the women’s move­ment in Is­rael, be­gin­ning with her par­tic­i­pat­ing in a spe­cial gov­ern­ment com­mis­sion on the sta­tus of women, and later lead­ing to her be­com­ing one of the founders of the Is­rael Women’s Net­work.

Gottes­man was the first paid em­ployee of IWN, where she says that she “learned the art of fundrais­ing.” The or­ga­ni­za­tion lob­bied the gov­ern­ment to re­form laws that un­fairly treated women di‘er­ently from men — in the mil­i­tary, in mar­riage and em­ploy­ment, and in the way health care was ad­min­is­tered. IWN held po­lit­i­cal train­ings, pub­lic demon­stra­tions and writ­ers’ con­fer­ences, spon­sored re­search on hu­man tra–ck­ing in Is­rael, and made com­mon cause with fem­i­nists in the United States and else­where.

But on the global stage, that com­mon cause some­times gave way to par­ti­san pos­tur­ing, and in her mem­oir, Shalvi doesn’t hes­i­tate to call it out. Her por­trayal of Pales­tinian ac­tivist and leg­is­la­tor Hanan Ashrawi is scathing, after Ashrawi used a plat­form at a con­fer­ence to at­tack Is­rael. “True fem­i­nists,” Shalvi writes, “do not take kindly to their ac­tiv­i­ties be­ing ex­ploited for nar­row na­tion­al­ist pur­poses. Their man­date is to cre­ate a world of equal­ity and mu­tual re­spect: sis­ter­hood.”

She had al­ready com­mented that I was ˜ min­utes late. Now, half­way through a de­light­ful lunch in her home two years ago, Shalvi — then ™˜ years old — be­rated me for not eat­ing enough.

“And you’re not drink­ing your wine!” she ex­claimed. Noth­ing went un­no­ticed. Cer­tainly not the piece I had writ­ten for the For­ward the day be­fore, over the dis­pute about women’s prayer at the Ko­tel, the most sa­cred por­tion of the West­ern

Wall in Jerusalem. It would be an­other half-year be­fore Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu re­neged on an agree­ment to cre­ate an egal­i­tar­ian prayer space ad­ja­cent to the gen­der-seg­re­gated syn­a­gogue op­er­ated with gov­ern­ment au­thor­ity by the ul­tra-Or­tho­dox.

But Shalvi wouldn’t sign on to the fem­i­nist cam­paign to re­form the Ko­tel. “In my mind, it’s the wrong bat­tle,” she said firmly. “I don’t want to daven at the Ko­tel. It’s not re­ally a holy place. I see it as a case where all the fuss around it has made it much more im­por­tant than it is his­tor­i­cally.”

She con­tin­ued: “What I would be fight­ing for is equal rights for ev­ery­body. I would carry on the fight against agunot [the women whose hus­bands don’t grant them a di­vorce] and against the rab­binic courts. That’s what we have to be work­ing on. It a—ects the en­tire pop­u­la­tion. The Ko­tel a—ects only those who want to pray there.”

There surely was no sense in ar­gu­ing the point with her. But our con­ver­sa­tion took place just months be­fore the th an­niver­sary of the Six Day War, and I asked her about her mem­o­ries of the mo­ment that Jerusalem was re­united. The Shalvis took their five el­dest chil­dren to join the thou­sands of peo­ple lined up to see the an­cient stones that many felt had been mirac­u­lously lib­er­ated.

“I’ve never known the Is­raelis to be as dis­ci­plined as they were that day. It was as if Jerusalem had be­come the cen­ter of the world. It must have been what it was like when the peo­ple went up to the Tem­ple,” she re­counted wist­fully.

Al­ice Shalvi is still search­ing for that sense of unity, of be­long­ing. She prac­tices med­i­ta­tion each morn­ing, and she is de­voted to her rabbi and to the Zion com­mu­nity, to or­ga­ni­za­tions pro­mot­ing co­ex­is­tence be­tween Jews and Arabs, and to the sis­ter­hood she’s cre­ated around the world.

“One thing I learned from Al­ice is that it is im­por­tant to act and move an is­sue, con­cern, idea, down the road… and then there will be new choices, and you’ll fig­ure out what to do then,” Gottes­man told me. “She does take ac­tion with­out know­ing the out­come — but she knows in what di­rec­tion she wants to go and lead.”

Shalvi said some­thing sim­i­lar to me a few years ago, as we sat on plas­tic chairs in her back­yard, the place of so much con­nec­tion and con­ver­sa­tion: “When an op­por­tu­nity arises to do some­thing which can be of value to oth­ers, seize it, I say! You have to be ready to face chal­lenges.” And her life is the story of do­ing just that.

Jane Eis­ner

‘I re­mem­ber Al­ice teach­ing Shake­speare, ask­ing us in agony what is it that cre­ates evil in hu­man be­ings’ hearts.’

WOMAN OF HON­ORS: Shalvi won the Is­rael Prize in 2007.


TRAIL­BLAZER: Shalvi in class at He­brew Univer­sity (above) and with her fam­ily in their gar­den in Beit HaKerem in the 1960s (be­low).

LEAD­ING A MOVE­MENT: Shalvi (sec­ond from left) with Project Kesherin 1993.

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