At 90, Israeli Feminist Pioneer Wonders if Women Can Ever Have It All

A documentary set to debut next week at the Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival takes a look at the life of Alice Shalvi, the founder of the first Israeli lobby group for women

A screenshot of feminist Alice Shavli in a 2017 documentary about her, 'The Re-Annotated Alice.'
Philippe Bellaiche

Looking back at her life from the vantage point of 90 years, Alice Shalvi, the trailblazing Israeli feminist and educator, ponders the following question: Where have I failed?

Her response will not go down well with women convinced they can have it all.

“It’s very hard to combine career, public life and family,” she tells her interviewer in the latest film about her life. “Something has to give. You can’t do them 100 percent simultaneously. If you ask about the failures, I would say the failure was in motherhood. Not in partnering. I think I was a good wife. But I wasn’t a good mother.”

“The Re-Annotated Alice,” a 30-minute documentary by filmmaker Paula Weiman-Kelman, will premiere Tuesday at the annual Jerusalem Jewish Film Festival. It is essentially a sequel to a longer film about Shalvi produced and directed by Weiman-Kelman 20 years ago. Initially titled “The Annotated Alice,” the original film was bought by ABC for broadcast and renamed “Rites of Passage: The Spiritual Journey of Alice Shalvi.”

“Rites of Passage” traced the remarkable life of Shalvi – a mother of six and winner of the prestigious Israel Prize – from her birth in Germany before Hitler’s rise to power through her appointment, at post-retirement age, to provost of the Conservative movement’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. It followed her life as a Jewish refugee child in England and her decision to pick herself up at age 23, after graduating from Cambridge University, and move to the barely 1-year-old State of Israel on her own.

It documented her career as a professor of English at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and her role as the founder and chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network – the first lobbying organization for women in the country. It also focused on her 15-year tenure as principal of Pelech, an experimental religious school for girls in Jerusalem, considered one of the best in the country, and her rather-late-in-life emergence as a peace activist.

Her takedown of herself as a mother needs to be seen in the context of remarks she made in the original film, played back for her 20 years later in the sequel. In the first film, Shalvi recalled asking her children when they were young how they felt about her working outside the home. One of her sons responded, “You are often not there enough when one needs you.”

Her oldest daughter, though, jumped to her defense, saying: “But when you are here, you’re much more interesting than the mothers who are constantly polishing the windows.” For many years, Shalvi allowed herself to take comfort in her daughter’s words. Looking back, though, she says, referring to her son: “I think I should’ve paid more attention to his comment.”

A screenshot of feminist Alice Shavli in a 2017 documentary about her, 'The Re-Annotated Alice.'
Philippe Bellaiche

A founder of the Israeli Orthodox feminist movement, Shalvi eventually left Orthodoxy because of her growing frustration with the exclusion of women from prayer and other rituals. She has since become affiliated with the Conservative movement but says that aside from the synagogue she attends, little else has changed in the way she observes Judaism.

The second film picks up where the first one left off. By now, age has taken a toll on Shalvi, but only in the physical sense. Her mind appears as sharp as ever. In one of the opening clips, she is being pushed in a wheelchair at a peace march in Jerusalem, as demonstrators around her chant: “Jews and Arabs refuse to be enemies.”

“I want a sign to hold, too,” she calls out and proceeds to ask a passerby for hers. “Let’s build hope,” it says in Hebrew and Arabic. After sharing a warm embrace with Aida Touma-Suliman, a Knesset member from the Joint List of Arab parties, Shalvi says: “May I live to see ....”

Touma-Suliman completes the sentence for her: “That’s it, we’re finishing it this year. Fifty years is enough. Right? We’ll end the occupation this year.”

“Inshallah,” responds Shalvi with a hearty laugh, using the Arabic expression for “God willing.”

Death is very much on her mind these days, especially since the loss of Moshe, her beloved husband of more than six decades, a few years earlier. During the film, Weiman-Kelman plays back a clip from the original documentary, in which Shalvi, then barely 70, reflects on mortality: “I think I have to confess, I no longer have the energy, I’m no longer as young as I was.”

She watches herself making these comments 20 years earlier. “Youth means energy and the awareness that you have a long time ahead of you. There’s a wonderful line: ‘And the days dwindle down to a golden few.’ So they’re golden, but you know that they’re dwindling down as well.”

As she observes her younger self, still so vibrant yet fretting about old age, Shalvi tears up.

At a 90th birthday celebration held in her honor by close friends in New York, Shalvi confides she is not sure she will live to see another year. “Death is inevitable,” she says. “We’re all going to die. But one thing, we hope we’ll die quietly, gently, with as little pain as possible, but also, I think that we hope that we have left some kind of legacy.”

Shalvi most certainly has.