In her brand new memoir, Alice Shalvi, the trailblazing feminist and educator, dedicates a chapter to her move to Israel nearly 70 years ago. She calls it “Homecoming.” But she wonders now whether that was the right term to use.
“After all these years in Israel, I still think of myself as an immigrant and don’t entirely feel at home,” she tells Haaretz in a recent interview. “Although I was married in this country and bore all my six children here, to this day, I still don’t think in Hebrew.”
“Never a Native,” the 332-page memoir published by the London-based Halban Publishers is launching in Israel on Monday, a day before Shalvi celebrates her 92nd birthday.
Shalvi is perhaps best known as the founder and chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network – the first lobbying organization of its kind in the country – and as the principal of Pelech, an experimental religious school for girls in Jerusalem, considered among the best in the country. A winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, she has distinguished herself not only as a champion of women’s rights and religious pluralism in Israel, but in recent decades, also as a peace activist.
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The Israel Women’s Network, under Shalvi’s leadership, played an instrumental role in advancing women into politics in the country, both on the national and municipal level. As an advocacy organization, it also helped push through important legislation pertaining to women’s pension rights and their status in the army.
Her memoir's title, she says, sums up the overriding theme of her life. “I’ve lived in three countries but have never felt fully at home in any of them,” she says.
Alice Hildegard Margulies was born in Germany, the youngest of three siblings, to parents who had moved there from Eastern Galicia. When she was eight years old, the family fled to England to escape the Nazi regime. Shalvi was one of only a few women in her graduating class at Cambridge University, where she studied literature. Very much influenced by her ardently Zionist parents, she had always dreamed of living in a Jewish state. And after completing a master’s degree in social work at the London School of Economics, she did just that. Shalvi moved to Israel in 1949 and has lived in Jerusalem ever since.
“In Germany, we were Ostjuden (“Jews of the East”), and so, we were never real German,” she says. “In England, I was an immigrant, but I was never English. And in Israel, I am still an immigrant.”
It’s ironic in a way, coming from one of the most admired women in Israel.
When she immigrated to the fledgling Jewish state, Shalvi had hoped to find employment as a social worker, preferably working with Holocaust survivors. But much to her dismay, she discovered there was little work available, and so, almost by default, she began teaching English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Ultimately, she rose to the rank of professor.
“Only as I was writing this book did I understand how many things had chanced upon me,” she reflects. “I didn’t intend to teach, and I ended up loving it. I think it’s the best profession in the world. I never intended to be a school principal either. And then there was the Israel Women’s Network, which I had never planned on, but people said, ‘Alice you go, you do it.’ It’s another lesson I’ve learned in considering my life – if you’re prepared to grasp the nettle, there’s no end to what you can do.”
She began writing her memoir more than 20 years ago, during a stint as a visiting scholar at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center in Italy. Explaining the many years it took to complete, she acknowledges that “there have been far longer periods of barrenness than of fruitfulness.”
Shalvi was forced to take a break from writing when she assumed her last big job as provost of the Conservative movement’s Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She also needed time off to recover from several personal tragedies: In 2013, Moshe Shalvi, her beloved husband of 62 years, passed away, and three years later, her youngest son Benzi died suddenly of a heart attack.
Taking stock of her long and productive life has provided one of Israel’s most prominent feminists with a timely opportunity to share her own #MeToo moment. As she recounts in her memoir, it happened in 1950, when she was a young single woman, barely a year in the country, and with a man that she knew quite well. But back then, as she notes, the preferred term to describe what she had experienced was “seduction.”
“Today, we call it rape,” she writes frankly.
Asked whether she struggled with her decision to go public with an incident she now acknowledges has traumatized her for years, Shalvi responds: “I knew I had to tell it, particularly in light of the whole issue of sexual consent today. I realize now that just because you don’t kick and fight doesn’t mean that you are a consenting partner.”
Nor does Shalvi shy away from other subjects once considered taboo. She reveals in her memoir, for example, that she underwent an abortion in the late 1950s, at the urging of her gynecologist. Her doctor, she recounts, had feared for the welfare of the unborn baby because Shalvi had been ill with the mumps when she learned she was pregnant. So secret were such things kept at the time that her late husband never even knew about the abortion.
Writing her memoir has also provided Shalvi, at long last, with an opportunity to delve into another painful chapter in her life: her son’s decades-long struggle with PTSD, prompted by his experiences during the 1973 Yom Kippur War.
The book also reflects on some of her professional setbacks. In the late 1960s, for example, Shalvi lost her bid for a deanship at the newly-established University of the Negev (now known as Ben-Gurion University). She has no doubt that it was because she was a woman. Years later, she was forced out of her job as Pelech because of her leftist politics. Neither was her departure from the Israel Women’s Network, as she recounts, on the best of terms. “I was more or less thrown out,” she tells Haaretz.
Born and raised in an Orthodox family, Shalvi acknowledges she has a complicated relationship with Judaism. Although she now belongs to a Conservative congregation and observes Shabbat and kashrut, she finds the traditional Jewish prayers hard to swallow. “The whole concept of God as male, it’s difficult for me,” she says. “There are certain things I keep on doing because that’s what we did at home and that’s what distinguishes me as a Jew – my folklore, if you like – but as far as my conception of God is concerned, it’s changed very radically. I do believe that there is something greater than us that inspires, but I connect to it more through music these days. It’s when I listen to music that I feel a real rising of the soul.”
Nonetheless, she is deeply proud of her Pelech graduates – “my girls” she calls them – who have remained Orthodox and are “pushing the envelope every time a little fraction further.”
Shalvi served as Pelech's principal, without a salary, for 15 years. At Pelech, girls study Talmud - a radical concept in the religious world. Egalitarian education is part of the curriculum, and graduates are encouraged to enlist in the army, as opposed to performing national service as most religious girls do. Its alumni are especially active in women's religious issues, such as the struggle on behalf of agunot (women whose husbands refuse to grant a get, decree of divorce) and are among the leaders of a growing number of liberal Orthodox congregations in the country.
Observing the revolution they have created within Orthodoxy in recent decades, she wonders whether she didn’t break with the movement too early. “Maybe I just wasn’t patient enough,” she muses.
One might think Women of the Wall, the feminist group that has been fighting for the right of women to pray as they see fit at the Western Wall, would be a cause close to her heart. It most definitely is not, though. In fact, she believes the organization, which holds a monthly prayer service at the Jewish holy site, is diverting attention and funding from the real problems affecting women in Israel.
“I am not a Kotel fan,” she says, using the Hebrew word for the wall, “certainly not since it turned into an Orthodox synagogue. You want to celebrate Rosh Chodesh (the start of the new Jewish month)? Why do you have to go to the Kotel to do that? Why make it a casus belli? It’s all wrong.”
Based on her interactions with women’s groups abroad, Shalvi says, she has reached the conclusion that “they haven’t a clue about the real problems for women in a country that has a state religion.”
“They don’t realize the degree to which there is no freedom of religion for women, in fact for everybody, in this country,” she adds. “Americans can’t understand it because freedom of religion is so basic to their mentality. They don’t understand that in Israel, you can’t get divorced except in a religious court where all the judges are men and often very hostile.”
Yet the absence of religious freedom in Israel is, to her mind, not the most egregious problem threatening the country today. “I think that the worst thing that has happened is that we’ve become an occupying country,” she says. “I think that power corrupts and that to have power over another people and denying freedom that you enjoy yourself to others is sinful and it corrupts you. What we have is a very ugly occupation.”
The assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin 23 years ago, Shalvi believes, was “the greatest tragedy of our time.”
“When Rabin was killed, so was the peace process,” she says. “I really believe that if he had lived, he would have reached an agreement with the Palestinians.”
Asked if she believes the occupation will end one day, she responds affirmatively. “Think of the British empire,” she says. “Whoever dreamed that it would break down into so many little bits?”
“I’m an optimist,” she adds. “Sometimes I think I’m foolish for being an optimist, but I remain one.”