At 93, the Mother of Israeli Feminism Is Still Striving

February, 04 2019

In Never a Native, Alice Shalvi, a founding mother of Israeli feminism, has written a book that is both inspiring and painful. A memoir rather than an autobiography, Never a Native is non-linear, crossing time, space and context, placing Shalvi’s personal and familial choices in social and political environment and wisely mixing her emotional responses with her rational analyses. Born in Germany in 1926, Shalvi, now 93, and her family fled to London in 1933. She holds a degree in English literature from Cambridge University, where few women studied at that time. An avowed Zionist, she also earned a social work degree from the London School of Economics, planning to be a social worker in Israel. But when she came to Israel in 1949, just one year after the establishment of the state, she could not find a job in social work, so, almost by chance, she became a professor of English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

She created the English Department at the nascent University of the Negev, then went on to found the Israel Women’s Network, serve as Rector of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and take over as principal for the Pelech School for Ultra-Orthodox girls, considered one of the country’s leading progressive schools. She has mentored countless feminist activists, many of whom have taken on positions of leadership in the feminist movement today. Students she taught at Pelech have become the vanguard of religious feminism in Israel and the Diaspora. She has been a forceful advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace and has won numerous awards in Israel and abroad, including the Israel Prize, the state’s highest cultural honor.

Shalvi writes about all these chapters in her life and in the life of her adopted country in elegant, mostly understated prose filled with wit, irony and compassion. Yet at times these memoirs are dark, too, filled with sadness over what she and the country have not achieved, and over the inevitably approaching end to her own life.

When I spoke with Shalvi, she was as sharp as always, somehow able to be both detail-oriented and broadly analytic in the same sentence. She is deliberate and careful in her speech, placing her fingers to her forehead, her head titled down, listening intensely and formulating precise responses. And then, frequently, she looks up suddenly and turns the question back. “And what would you say,” she challenges. We meet in her home, in the green, tranquil Beit Hakerem neighborhood of Jerusalem. Her office is filled with books and papers, and a Franz Schubert symphony is playing in the background.

She chose the name for her memoirs carefully, she says.

“I am not a stranger, nor an outsider, nor a wanderer. Yet, I have never been a native anywhere,” she explains. “I was born in Germany, where we were Ostjuden (‘Jews of the East’), and so, we were never really German. In England, I was an immigrant, but I was never English. As an adult, I made my home in Israel. Here, I married and raised my children. But here, I am called, of all things, an ‘Anglo-Saxon.’”

Even her name, she notes, has never been a native name. “In Germany, I was called Alicia. In England, I became Alice. In Hebrew there is no vowel for ‘A’ in ‘Alice.’”

In England, Shalvi learned to love daffodils–the “quintessentially English flower,” she writes–and English art, music and literature. She majored in Shakespeare at Cambridge. Her accent is posh-British, at times even imperious. But she was never, she says, truly at home. While at Cambridge, she did not yet have British citizenship and so she had to report to the local police station at the beginning and end of every terms. “Although the constables who dealt with me were unfailingly polite,” she writes, “I felt like a criminal on parole, whose lenient sentence might at any time be revoked, to be replaced by more severe sanctions.”

Even more poignantly, she writes about an outing with friends on a “blue gold Sunday morning with no clear destination.” As they meandered, they came across Knole House, the ancestral home of the Sackville-West family, whose inheritance Virginia Woolf’s lover, Vita, had been deprived only because she was a woman. Shalvi walks along a gallery lined with portraits of the Sackvilles, a history of England that covers four centuries and more.

For the first time in her life, she writes, “I felt envy.” She had seen, for the first time, “not just the wealth of property, but the wealth of continuity, of knowing not only the names of one’s great-grandparents and their forebears, but knowing what they looked like, what they wore, what corridors they traversed, where they…danced to the sounds of the tumbrel, made love…And us? My father had his father’s Kiddush cup. My mother lit her Shabbat candles in the candlesticks her mother had brought from Galicia…Oh, for the serenity, continuity and stability of the Sackvilles and of Knole.”

“I know who I am—a woman, a Jew, a Zionist, a citizen of Israel,” she says now. “But I am not wholly Israeli, unlike my children. I am happy that they have that clarity and certainty. They may not even realize how fortunate they are to be living at home, in their own country.” And yet, it may have been her “non-nativeness” that drove some of Shalvi’s religious and political choices. Throughout her career and personal life, she remained critical, a bit iconoclast, always willing to be critical, never falling into the comfort of taking anything for granted.

She was raised in Orthodoxy, and identified herself as “a halakhic Jew,” but remembers from an early age “feeling a tremendous resentment against the role to which women are relegated–particularly in the synagogue…where I had the feeling that I was being pushed into some obscure corner.” She has never been comfortable with rabbinic rulings, which, she says, “have simply failed to keep up with the progress in the last century on the status of women.” She eventually left Orthodoxy and joined the Conservative (Masorati) movement. Today, she is president of the “Kehilat Zion,” synagogue, which seeks to unite Israeli Jews from all backgrounds, and is led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, who had been a student of Shalvi’s at Pelech.

Shalvi embraced the Israeli feminist peace movement early on, and attended some of the first meetings between Israeli and Palestinian women. Yet as committed as she was to reconciliation with her Palestinian counterparts, she never hesitated to call out hypocrisy or injustice, whether on the part of the Israelis or the Palestinians. When Palestinian activist and legislator Hanan Ashrawi used a platform at a conference to attack Israel in a manner that Shalvi thought was unfair, she criticized her sharply. “True feminists,” she 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.”

Many of her feminist ideas were truly radical for their time in Israel. Under her leadership, the Israel Women’s Network became Israel’s foremost feminist organization, playing a critical role in the advancement of women into local and national politics and pushing through legislation that still provide a de jure–if not always de facto, she notes sadly–basis for equality for women. Yet, at its root, her feminism stems from an almost-simple yet fierce “determination to eliminate suffering,” which she adopted on a rainy day in England, when she saw a hungry old man in rags, wet and cold, shivering in a doorway, and was powerless to help him.”

Feminism, she says, “is a point of view. It’s about equality between all human beings, with no privileges for one group or another.” And she is critical of some feminists who, she says, are “anti-male and so deny men their full humanity, too.”

She writes honestly about the disappointments and betrayals in her life. Her first year in Israel, she was sexually attacked by a man she knew well (and whom she still refuses to name). She told no one at the time. Back then, as she notes, the preferred term to describe what she had experienced was seduction. “Today, we call it rape,” she writes tersely. In the 1960s, she was humiliatingly refused the position of Dean of the University of the Negev because she is a woman. Years later, she was forced out of her job as Pelech because of her leftist positions. And she was, she says, “more or less thrown out of the Israel Women’s Network,” due to internal politics.

But most painfully of all, she writes about her children who, she writes, “undoubtedly suffered as a result of my overindulgence in public affairs. I sincerely apologize. I take comfort in seeing how different are the choices that they themselves have made.” “My greatest failure,” she says, “was in mothering. Not in partnering. I think I was a good wife. But I wasn’t a good mother.” It is the only time that her voice breaks during the long interview.

But while taking responsibility for what she sees as her failure, she also puts that failure in a feminist context. “In our society, it is impossible for men and women to have meaningful, fruitful careers and at the same time a meaningful, fruitful role as a parent. We value childbirth, but we don’t think enough about parenting. We must create different paradigms for our lives.”

She fears her country is failing, too. “This country has become a nightmare. The early years were wonderful, but we’ve gone backwards since then. We have no religious freedom, and the lack of separation between religion and state enslaves women to archaic, sometimes cruel, rabbinic rulings.” But even worse, she says, is the ongoing occupation. “To have power over another people is sinful. It corrupts you. We have become ugly, coarse, lacking in compassion.” Touchingly, Shalvi writes about her love and partnership with her husband of 63 years, Moshe Shalvi, who, she writes in her dedication to the book, was her “rod and staff who…unfailingly partnered, encouraged and supported me.” Moshe Shalvi died in 2013. Three years later, her youngest son, Benzi, died suddenly of a heart attack.

Moshe, she recalls, “used to scold me because I don’t ever really appreciate what I have achieved. I know that people may not see this, but I have a profound inferiority complex. When I was young, I did not meet ideal standards. My bust was too small, my hips too broad. I was plump and not at all pretty. “But there is something good in always striving for more,” she muses, and chooses to conclude the interview with a quote from Robert Browning’s, Andrea del Sarto:

Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, 

Or what’s a heaven for? All is silver-grey, 

Placid and perfect with my art: the worse! 

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