Schmoozing with pioneer educator Alice Shalvi

The iconic educator shares her rich life experiences in a long-overdue memoir.

Ninety-two-year-old trailblazing feminist and educator Alice Shalvi. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Ninety-two-year-old trailblazing feminist and educator Alice Shalvi.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
There is something so enriching, refreshing and eye-opening about sitting down for a good chat with someone who may not quite have seen it all and done absolutely everything, but who has clearly been through the mill and back a couple of times and come out smiling.
Alice Shalvi answers that description, and then some. Now 92, the former educator – although the erstwhile epithet should be used advisedly here – and still very much involved warrior for social justice has finally put some of her rich and fascinating life experiences down in black and white.
The publication in question goes by the somewhat eyebrow-raising title of Never a Native, a 332-page memoir that tells the tale of an indomitable, game-changing feminist, educator and champion of progressive Judaism.
The release will be heralded at an event at Beit Avi Chai, on January 15 at 8 p.m., when Prof. Shalvi, who was awarded the Israel Prize in 2007 for her life achievements and special contribution to Israeli society, will be interviewed about her life and ceaseless endeavor to address injustices across a wide palette of political and sociopolitical issues.
But why has Shalvi never felt entirely at home in her country of domicile? Why, indeed, does she not have a sense of being fully part and parcel of a country to which, after all, she chose to move? Surely, seven decades is enough to feel absorbed in the fabric of Israeli society, especially considering how active and proactive she has been in tending to some of its ills and refashioning its structure.
“There’s a critical break between those who were here before ’48, and those who came after,” she says.
The nonagenarian belongs to the latter category, but only just. She arrived just a few months after the declaration of independence in 1949.
“We came to a state. It was a state in its beginnings, very raw, very primitive and in terrible shape economically.”
In fact, she was rudely disabused of any fairy-tale ideas she may have had about how idyllic life might be in the nascent state of the Jews even before she arrived at Tel Aviv.
“We came by boat, and we picked up a fairly large number of what was then called displaced persons,” Shalvi recalls. “The term 'Holocaust survivor' was not very much in use at the time. The displaced persons [DPs] came primarily from Greece.”
“They [DPs] were dancing on the ship and singing “Anu olim artza (we are going to Israel).” That struck a poignant chord with the German-born, British-bred new olah. “That was a song I had sung since my very early childhood Zionist years in England, from the age of seven.”
Now the 22-year-old was about to realize her Zionist dream. The glorious denouement was at hand, and nothing could temper her joy. Or could it?
She duly joined in the dancing on the ship’s deck.
“There was great elation. It was the night before we were due to reach Tel Aviv. I remember, alongside us was a group of Israeli students who were returning from their studies in Europe. I’d known some of them in England. I overheard them saying to each other, in German interestingly enough, ‘So habt Ihr euch das vorgestellt’ – this is how you imagined it would be.”
Shalvi’s euphoria was well and truly nipped in the bud. “It was like a bucket of cold water thrown over me,” she says, grimacing at the painful recollection. “The cynicism. That for me has really summed up the difference between those who were here before [1948] and those who came afterwards.”
That goes some way to explaining the glaring subtext of the book’s title – that and the career path she eventually took here.
“Everyone looks down on whoever comes later [to Israel],” she observes. “The fact that my entire professional life has been in English. The fact that I studied English literature.”
Shalvi gained a BA and MA in the subject at Cambridge University, no less.
“The fact that I taught English literature and taught in English, at the Hebrew University, means that my cultural context is primarily an English one, even though I learned Hebrew from the age of seven or eight and I came here with a fairly good everyday vocabulary.”
SHALVI (NÉE Margulies) was born in Essen, Germany, in 1926. When she was six years old, Hitler came to power and everything changed. Shortly after that, things began deteriorating rapidly for Jews in Germany and the Margulieses were not spared. Her brother, Willy, returned home from school one day, his shirt torn and with bruises and lash marks on his face and shoulders, after being set upon by a group of young Nazis.
Then the Gestapo ransacked the house and, unlike many Jews in Germany at the time, Shalvi’s father was savvy enough to realize it was time to cut loose. He immediately got himself to London, where he joined his brother, who had previously established a business there, and little Alice, Willy and their mother decamped to Mannheim. They endured a trying 11 months there as unwanted guests of Mr. Margulies’s relatives.
Her parents hailed from Galicia, which made them ostjuden – Eastern Jews. That was a generic term used for Yiddish-speaking Jews who migrated from Eastern European countries to Germany and Austria, in particular Vienna.
When I met Shalvi at her home in Jerusalem’s Beit Hekerem, I asked her if she thought her sensitivity to inequity may have been kick-started, in her childhood, by the fact that ostjuden were not allowed, by the bona fide German-born Jewish community, to use the main entrance to the Old Synagogue in Essen.
“We didn’t even have a side entrance; we had to use a completely different place for our prayer services,” Shalvi exclaims. “It was the basement!”
OVER THE years here, injustice reared its ugly head to Shalvi time and time again. After Cambridge, she qualified in social studies at the prestigious London School of Economics. With her developed bent for helping others, she thought she’d come to Israel and proffer aid to other new olim, the majority of whom came from Arab countries. However, the language barrier soon put paid to that admirable quest and as she points out, “Back then, no one was looking for an English-speaking social worker.”
A chance meeting at a neighbor’s apartment led to her, finally, landing a job teaching English at the Hebrew University, and her career took off. She advanced to department head, while juggling her duties as a young mother and completing her PhD in the process, after meeting and marrying the dashing New York-born Moshe Shalvi a year into her aliyah.
On the opening page of Never a Native, Shalvi expresses her gratitude to her late husband, whom she calls “the rod and staff who, throughout 63 years of marriage, unfailingly partnered, encouraged and supported me.” Together they had six children, who were followed by 17 grandchildren and 20 great-grandchildren, and counting.
After several years at the university, Shalvi got a call to transfer her English-teaching gifts and experience to the new Ben-Gurion University, then called the University of the Negev. She did well there, rose through the ranks and found herself sitting on a number of important committees.
When the dean of the university announced his impending retirement, Shalvi decided to throw her hat into the candidates’ ring. Taking what turned out to be ill advice about how to go about it, she approached several university board members, innocently explaining why she thought she was the person for the job. One, the then-dean of the Faculty of Humanities at the Hebrew University, interrupted Shalvi in full pitch, simply stating, “But you’re a woman!”
Shalvi was stunned. “It had never occurred to me that my sex might prove an obstacle,” she writes in the book.
That was a blow, but Shalvi eventually picked up the pieces and, together with other female staff members in Beersheba, she began to lobby for equal pay and career opportunities for women. Gradually, she began to make inroads into the male-governed Establishment.
OVER THE past 40-plus years, Shalvi has also devoted much of her time and doggedness to try to redress the imbalances that exist within the religious spheres of Jewish life here.
Brought up in an Orthodox home, today Shalvi is a member of the pluralist Kehilat Zion community, led by Rabbi Tamar Elad-Appelbaum.
“Tamar is a wonderful person, so positive,” she says. “She is an angel. There is no other word for her.”
Elad-Appelbaum may be all of the above, but in large part she has Shalvi to thank for getting her where she is today. In the mid-1970s Shalvi was asked to help the Pelech School in Baka out of a sticky situation. Pelech, a religious high school for girls, was founded in the 1960s, but by 1975 it had run into serious financial and other difficulties. Shalvi came to the rescue, and today Pelech is considered a prestigious educational institution. Elad-Appelbaum was a student there, and she benefited from Shalvi’s patronage further on down the road, too, when she attended the Schechter Institute while Shalvi was rector.
Shalvi is perhaps best known as founder and chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, an apolitical feminist organization that, since 1984, has been working to achieve systematic change in Israel relating to women’s rights. Under Shalvi’s guidance, the IWN has chalked up an impressive string of successes, including getting court approval for women to train as IAF pilots, the introduction of tough legislation governing sexual harassment and sex trafficking, as well as protecting the employment rights of women during pregnancy.
Perhaps the principal driving force behind Shalvi’s amazing work, over the course of so many years, has been her resolve not to let things slide, not to let herself and other women be dictated to.
She sees absolutely no reason for, for instance, excluding women from having a hands-on role in synagogue services.
“I’ve found myself increasingly discontented by being a spectator. I am very happy with the change that has overcome Modern Orthodoxy, as a result of a growing number of feminists – many of them, to my great delight, are Pelech graduates who are really leading that revolution.”
She is, quite rightly, proud of what Pelech alumni have gone on to achieve, and says there is no substitute for education.
“I see what is happening in Modern Orthodoxy, as far as the status of women, equality between the sexes, is concerned, as probably the major revolution of our time. Women have to overcome more. They have to overcome not just the legal system, or convention, they have to overcome Halacha. They are doing it. They are doing what the Americans call pushing the envelope, and that’s because we now have a generation of women who are knowledgeable. As I always told my pupils, knowledge is power. Men have status by virtue of being male. We have to earn that status, and the only way to that is by showing you know what you’re talking about.”
Shalvi retired from full-time employment in academia around 20 years ago, and began working on what turned out to be a lengthy odyssey to produce Never a Native. She may be a pensioner and less physically active than she was, but she still does her best to get the word out.
“I don’t go to demonstrations in Tel Aviv anymore,” she notes. “That’s too much for me now. But I do go to protests here in Jerusalem, if I can find someone to push me in a wheelchair.”
As I prepare to take my leave, the English literature graduate in Shalvi comes to the fore, quoting from Victorian poet and playwright Robert Browning: “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?”
“You just need to keep on pushing,” she says. “You can never reach your complete goal, but you have to keep on pushing.”