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Alice Shalvi Is Still The Queen Of Israeli Feminism At 92

I met Alice Shalvi in 2009, 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 effortlessly 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 2013 and in 2016, 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.

On The Frontlines: Alice Shalvi demonstrates for women’s rights. Image by Courtesy of Halban Publishers

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 different countries, in all of which I was in fact an ‘alien.’”

Born in Germany in 1926, 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 2007.

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 speaking publicly to Palestinians. The costs were personal, too. In the opening acknowledgements of her memoir, she actually apologizes to her children for the suffering caused by her “over-indulgence in public affairs.”

“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.

Holding The Flame: Shalvi participates in Project Kesher Kiev. Image by Joan Roth

“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 2. The Nazis forced the family to flee, first to relatives in Mannheim and then finally to England and relative safety in 1934.

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 difficult. She had attended the 22nd Zionist Congress in 1946, in Basel, Switzerland, where the recent suffering 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 1949, 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 1950, 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 offered 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 63 years, until Moshe Shalvi’s death in 2013. Together they had three sons and three daughters (one son died in 2016), 21 grandchildren and, now, 17 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.”

A Fiery Presence: Shalvi sets fire to marriage contracts. Image by Getty Images

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. Perhaps none so much as during her 15-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 14 when I met my spiritual mother, Alice,” Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum, 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 effect 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 differently 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 trafficking 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.”

Looking Forward: Shalvi with Forward editor Jane Eisner. Image by Courtesy of Jane Eisner

She had already commented that I was 10 minutes late. Now, halfway through a delightful lunch in her home two years ago, Shalvi — then 90 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 affects the entire population. The Kotel affects 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 50th 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.

Seeds Of Hope: Shalvi, with Dafna Izraeli, planting the first sapling in the Women’s Grove. Image by Courtesy of Halban Publishers

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.

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