The Robert Slater Interview: Balancing act

A mother, a successful author and feminist columnist, Lihi Lapid now has also to juggle the role of wife of the finance minister.

The spouses of local politicians often live in the shadow of their partners, rarely seen in public, rarely heard from. Lihi Lapid, the 45-year-old wife of Israel’s Finance Minister Yair Lapid, however, is different. She is a well-known figure in her own right – one of the country’s leading feminists; the author of two best-selling novels, a best-selling children’s book, and a best-selling cookbook; and also a highly popular newspaper columnist writing on women’s issues.
She acknowledges that all these activities have made it difficult for her to navigate between motherhood and working outside the house. She came to the conclusion years ago that trying to continue her career as a professional news photographer after having two children was impossible. Elaborating on this, she tells The Jerusalem Report, “I realized that for the first time in my life the fact that I was a woman and a mother didn’t go with my profession.”
Today, her two children, Lior and Yael, are 18 and 17 respectively. Yael is autistic.
While Yael’s disability is no small burden for the Lapids to carry, Lihi insists, “I don’t go around the world presenting myself as the mother of an autistic child. I am the mother of Lior and Yael. I am a lot of things. I am a writer. I am a feminist.”
We met one morning in late September at the Lapids’ modest home in a North Tel Aviv suburb that they bought 10 years ago.
The children were at school and Yair was in Budapest, and we sat on an outdoor porch overlooking land where a major highway is due to be built. When the Lapids bought their home, they were told that the highway would be constructed next to them and, for that reason, the price of their future home had been lowered. The highway has yet to be built. “We are enjoying every minute until the highway will come,” says Lihi, dressed in a blue T-shirt and black skinny pants.
Lihi Lapid’s roots in Palestine extend far back – 10 generations ago, her ancestors came from Russia. One, her great-grandfather, Yitzhak David Malka, supervised the building of homes in Mazkeret Moshe, one of the first Jewish neighborhoods to be built outside of Jerusalem’s Old City. Another, Moshe Avigdor Amiel, became the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv in 1946. Lihi was born in Ramat Gan in 1968. A year later, her parents Rafi and Talma Mann, finding it difficult to manage in the center of the country, moved to the new desert community of Arad where they remained for 10 years. Lihi loved the town. “I’m a desert girl,” she laughs.
“Everybody knew everybody.”
Rafi constructed mosaics. Talma, soon after serving in the army, gave birth to a son, David, today 47. Lihi also has a sister, Ilill Keren, today 36, who lives a few doors away from her.
After Arad, Lihi’s family moved back to the center of the country, to Ramat Hasharon. She spent her high school years at the Thelma Yellin High School for the Arts in Givatayim, a school that, she says, resembled the arts school in the TV series, “Fame.” She loved the school, where she initially studied drawing and then turned to photography. “I found heaven,” she recalls.
In 1986, at the age of 20, she began her two-year service in the Israel Defense Forces as a photographer for the army’s weekly newspaper, Bamahane. Getting hired had not been easy. Only one woman photographer had preceded her at Bamahane.
Then there was the officer, interviewing her for the post, asking her if she could carry the 20-kilo bag of photo equipment. Distraught at the question, Lapid replied, “Do you ask that same question of the boys?” When the interviewer said no, plucking up her courage, she responded, “Then I won’t answer your question.”
She was still accepted onto the staff.
Later, in an ironic twist, she arranged for the officer to become the Maariv daily’s chief photographer. Given her ambition to photograph as much of the army experience as possible, she was frustrated when told that women were not permitted to enter Lebanon, where the IDF had maintained a presence since 1982.
After her army stint ended in 1988, she studied at Tel Aviv’s Camera Obscura for the Arts’ school of photography and in the same year obtained work as a photographer for the weekend section of Maariv.
One day she went out on assignment – “Nightlight in Tel Aviv” – with a Maariv reporter doing his reserve duty writing for Bamahane. Friends of theirs, upon hearing of the assignment, predicted that they would marry one another. Though the relationship his keys in his car,” Lihi remembers vividly), there was a spark and “we fell in love.” Two and a half years later, in December 1990, she married the reporter, Yair Lapid. In 1992, she began studying literature at Tel Aviv University but did not complete a degree.
In 1994, the Maariv photography editor offered Lapid the assignment of traveling with an IDF medical team on an aid mission to Rwanda while the country was in the throes of a genocidal civil war, during which half a million people, 20 percent of the nation’s population, were massacred.
Shocked at the scope of the killing and traumatized by photographing so many dead bodies, Lapid recounts that the 10-day assignment “changed my life.”
Back in Israel, relating her experiences to friends, she was exasperated to discover that they were apathetic about the Rwanda massacre, calling it old news. “No one cared,” Lihi recalls with much frustration.
She continued to take news photos, but wanted out of the profession. “I realized I wanted to become a mother,” she says.
She was 27 years old. Soon she became pregnant; and in 1995, Lior was born; Yael followed a year later. When Yael was 15 months old, the Lapids realized that she had developmental problems and she was diagnosed as autistic. The Lapids understood that the gap between Yael and the other children would grow over the years.
Yet, even as she sought to enjoy her career, she began to confront the conflict that a mother faces trying to raise babies while holding down a job outside the house. Her job as a freelance photographer required that she drop everything upon getting a photo assignment and tear through the streets of Tel Aviv on her motorbike. She learned the hard way that no one wanted a news photographer who was not available day and night. She could not say, “Oh, I’m breastfeeding now.”
Eventually, the phone stopped ringing.
Her feminist instincts boiled over and she decided to put together a novel about four women sharing a hospital room for three days just after they had given birth. With two babies at home and still working as a photographer at Maariv, the writing came hard, but she persisted. In 2001, the book, “Secrets from Within,” was published in Hebrew and became an instant bestseller.
Two years later, she began writing a column on women’s issues for the Yedioth Ahronoth daily.
Lihi published her novel, “Woman of Valor” in 2008 in Hebrew, and it became the No. 1 bestseller for 17 weeks. She wrote movingly of how hard it had been to “let go” of the need she felt to cure Yael’s autism. “Because you can’t control everything anyway. I won’t be able to save my daughter, even if I devote all my time to her – my entire life, all my energies, all of myself. Because sometimes you just can’t save someone… I have to remember that the here and now is also important, and I have to enjoy it.”
“Woman of Valor” was translated into English this year and will be published in the United States in November.
Branching out, Lihi authored “The Magic Whisper,” a best-selling children’s book, in 2006; a year later, the best-selling “Lihi Lapid’s Favorite Recipes” was published, a compilation of recipes that had appeared in her column.
To Lihi, the defining element of a feminist is whether she works outside the home. “Any woman who works is a feminist whether she wants to call herself one or not,” she says adamantly. She wants the right for mothers to choose whether to work outside the home. “You don’t want a situation where in order to be a mother you need to be at home,” she insists.
In January 2012, her life changed radically.
It was then that Yair told her that he wanted to enter politics. Hugging him she said, “I’m with you.” Both realized the newspaper column and television talk show, he was already a household name.
And, adds Lihi, “Yair realized that we are the adults now.”
Still, she had no idea how much his entry into politics would change her life.
The real shock came when she confronted her husband’s sudden new fame. “When I saw my husband on the front page of the newspaper while sitting in a coffee shop one day, I spilled my coffee all over,” she recalls. It was as if suddenly her life had “turned to full volume.”
Another change was a loss of privacy.
With her husband running for office, she was thrust into the limelight, and she felt an obligation to be candid when asked questions. “You cannot not answer,” she observes. The fact that reporters and others seemed to listen carefully to what she had to say was, in her view, an extra bonus.
In order to concentrate on her husband’s political campaign, she took a threemonth break from writing her column.
She stood outside malls, wearing a T-shirt with the phrase Yesh Atid on it, the name of the political party Yair had formed, distributing leaflets and answering voter’s questions. She sensed that Yesh Atid would attract far more support than the six Knesset seats the polls showed.
Young couple: Lihi Lapid and spouse, long before Yair became finance minister (MOSHE SHAI / FLASH90)Young couple: Lihi Lapid and spouse, long before Yair became finance minister (MOSHE SHAI / FLASH90)
On election day, Lihi handed out sandwiches to volunteers at the polls.
“We voted for him, we voted for him,” she heard often enough to believe that something positive was happening. On election night, close family members gathered at the Lapids’ home. When the TV anchor announced that Yesh Atid had won 19 Knesset seats, far beyond what the polls had predicted, making it the second-largest political party, other family members screamed with joy. Yair and Lihi remained quiet. Then he kissed her.
Since her husband became finance minister in March, Lihi says that they lead an “informal” life. “In that sense, our life is the same as before. I can’t say I have worn a dress more than once,” she comments.
The one wrinkle in their lives, she notes, is her seeing Yair less. “I see him late at night, very late at night,” she bemoans.
For Lihi, life is full. She spends hours in front of her computer each day writing.
She also receives many letters from women discussing their problems. She devotes her afternoons to being with Lior and Yael.
Lihi Lapid will be doing book tours in November and December in the United States for the English version of “Woman of Valor,” her first English-language book.
For the book to be published in English, Lihi says, has long been “a dream of mine.” She feels that it is important that people outside Israel hear an Israeli voice writing about issues other than security.
“It’s a chance for people outside Israel to hear about our struggling with a disabled child and continuing to be a loving couple,” she says.
See book review 'The ideal woman myth'- page 46