One on One with Alice Shalvi: A woman's work

Receiving the Israel Prize next week, educator and feminist says it's as though cause for which she's been fighting for so long is being awarded recognition.

alice shalvi 88 298 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
alice shalvi 88 298
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
When Alice Shalvi ushers me into the book-lined living room of her garden apartment in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood, I am initially intimidated. This is not due, however, to her greeting or her manner, both of which are warm and friendly. Nor is it due to her stature as one of the country's key women thinkers and actors. It is, rather, the result of this meeting's being my first close encounter since the late 1970s with a person who loomed so large in my own life all those years ago. As a student of English literature at the Hebrew University, I - like all my contemporaries in the department - had "had Shalvi for Shakespeare." And I - like they - had been as mesmerized by her teaching as we had been desperate to elicit a comment of praise from her in the margins of our papers or warrant a good grade on our exams. This is not to say that, during the decades since then, Shalvi had remained for me or my peers a mere memory. On the contrary, her voice is one we would continue to hear, if no longer from the back of a Givat Ram classroom, then on the radio and TV, talking in British-accented Hebrew about the plight of agunot and other women's issues. (And when she took over the principalship of the formerly haredi Pelech School for Girls that ended up being housed in a building within walking distance from my home, I even occasionally caught a glimpse of her arriving at or leaving the premises.) By this time, though, her utterances were bearing more resemblance to the words of the kings and queens in the texts she so brilliantly brought alive to all of us than to her previous teaching of them. For what Shalvi is - according to her, always has been - is an activist, one of whose claims to fame was her being among the founders of the Israel Women's Network. Which might appear peculiar, considering the 80-year-old happily married mother of six is a self-proclaimed "halachic Jew." Still, she calls Judaism "a patriarchal religion," in which "the husband and the father are the authority figures." Though neither Shalvi's description of the relationship she had with her father - nor the one she has with her husband - jibe in the least with that depiction, she says she remembers from early on "feeling a tremendous resentment against the role to which women are relegated - particularly in the synagogue." In an hour-long interview with Shalvi on the eve of Independence Day, when she will be awarded the Israel Prize for Lifetime Achievement, Shalvi bemoans what she considers to be the country's lack of leadership and disproportionate focus on defense issues; expresses partial satisfaction with strides being made toward gender equality; and says she is genuinely pleased - for herself and her cause - about becoming an Israel Prize laureate. As an expert in Shakespeare, how would you categorize Israel - as a comedy or a tragedy? It's been both. I'm hoping it'll still end up a comedy, with a happy ending. But, if one of the causes of tragedy is the fatal error of the chief protagonist, we're making all the mistakes that might lead to a tragedy. It will take a serious turnaround, as far as our leadership is concerned, in order for us to have a happy ending. Are you referring to Israeli politics or Jewish history? At the moment, Israeli politics. We sorely lack the kind of leadership we had at the beginning of the state, or even before statehood. At this point of crisis, we really need someone of the caliber of David Ben-Gurion - a person of vision, real vision, who is prepared to take that leap into the unknown, which is a characteristic of leadership. Ben-Gurion had no idea what the result of declaring a state would be. Lots of people were against it at the time, and he decided that this was it. And he was right. But it took a great deal of daring, particularly since it immediately led to an attack by all our neighboring countries. Right now, what our politicians lack is vision. Though someone with vision could be wrong. You say Ben-Gurion "was prepared to take that leap into the unknown." When Prime Minister Ehud Olmert went to war in Lebanon last summer, he was chastised precisely for taking such a leap. Everything involves taking a risk. On the last day of Pessah, we read the parasha about Nahshon - the first one who leapt into the Red Sea. He didn't know whether he was going to live or drown. And the water reached up to his mouth - but then, he didn't drown. You have to take a risk. But you have to know why you're taking the risk, what lies beyond the risk and what it is that really gives you the confidence to say it's now or never. Speaking of leadership, you are winning the Israel Prize for your own leadership in furthering women's rights. Do you think that being a woman helped or hindered you in the process? Hindered, definitely. Particularly in this male chauvinist society, in which military considerations are such a determining factor in what happens. This patriarchal and paternalistic attitude stems not only from our security situation, but also from Judaism, which is a patriarchal religion. Large sectors of our community still believe that the husband and the father are the authority figures. We're breaking ground - more than that, we've come a long way - but it is still widely accepted. Even many of the women still feel that this is how things should be. I'm talking about something like the use of the word "ba'al" for husband. Well, "ba'al" means owner. A lot of women who use the term don't realize that if the husband's the ba'al, the wife is his property. In fact, the whole marriage ceremony is one of purchasing the wife. You know, language is such a determining factor as far as the way we think is concerned. On the one hand, we choose our language according to how we think; on the other, language cements - almost makes permanent - something that you may not really believe is there, but is there nevertheless. Had Israeli society been totally blind to gender would someone like you have had the chance to lead the kind of quest that characterizes much of your life's work? I might not have felt the necessity as much. But, all right, if there's no necessity, I don't have to do it [she laughs]. The fact that there is a challenge leads you to do something. For example, in the field of education, it's not just the lack of equal opportunity that determines the differences between males and females from a very young age. It's a question of received wisdom or tradition. And, of course, the one major factor which still militates against equality is the continued perception - obviously biologically based - of woman as the mother and, hence, also the chief caretaker, the housewife, the homemaker, etc. Until we really manage to break away from all the traditional concepts of what functions belong to the respective sexes - until we cease this gendered discourse - there won't be equality in the true sense of the word. In other words, in considering who does what, the whole issue of a person's sex should not be a consideration at all. And, apart from the fact that the woman is the one who gives birth, we always forget that parenting is actually, ideally, something done by a father and a mother, or by two parents - they could be of the same sex, I'm not opposed to that. But it's very hard for one person to bring up children alone. Given everything you're saying, it's peculiar that you were an Orthodox Jew for most of your life - until joining the Conservative Movement a few years ago - because Judaism certainly stresses traditional male-female roles. It depends on what you mean by Orthodox. I'm an observant Jew. I don't know whether I was ever Orthodox in the true sense of the word. I remember, from quite early on in my life, feeling a tremendous resentment against the role to which women are relegated - particularly in the synagogue. Not so much in terms of learning, because my parents [Benzion and Perl Margulies] were very enlightened [religious-Zionists who emigrated to England from Essen, Germany, in 1934]. But I remember when I was in my late teens, just after World War II, going with my father on Simhat Torah to a hassidic rebbe - to whom he used to go on that holiday - and very much resenting the fact that while the men were very joyfully dancing with the Torah, the women were just standing around. So I called the rebbe's daughters - and there were quite a few of them - into the other room, and we started dancing a hora and singing - we didn't have a Torah, of course. And within five minutes, someone came in and started scolding us, because one isn't allowed to hear women's voices. A couple of years later, I went to Cambridge. [She attended Newnham College, one of two colleges at Cambridge where women could then study, and did her BA in English literature.] The Cambridge University Jewish Society used to have Friday-night suppers, after which we would sing zmirot [traditional singing after the Friday-night meal]. In the zmirot, somebody sings the verse and then everybody joins in for the chorus. It was always men who sang the verse. At the end of my first year, I presented a motion at the general meeting of the Jewish Society that women should also be allowed to lead the zmirot. And it was passed by a majority! So I actually was the first woman to lead zmirot in Cambridge. I also want to stress that, unlike the Reform, the Conservative is a halachic movement [based on Jewish law]. The Conservative Movement's philosophy, or belief, now is that contemporary Judaism has to continue the Jewish tradition of reinterpreting Halacha in the light of changing social norms. The whole relationship of the movement to the status of women reflects precisely that: both to let women play a larger role in the synagogue, and then even to ordain them. You see, Conservative Judaism is the modern form of "Orthodox" Judaism. When asked what I am, I say a "halachic Jew." I belong to the Conservative Movement, but what I am is halachic. You say that you don't oppose same-sex unions. But isn't male homosexuality forbidden by Halacha? This is a very problematic issue, because to many people - including, for example, Rabbi Einat Ramon [the first woman to head a Conservative rabbinical school in Israel or abroad] - it seems to be a complete breach of Torah. On the other hand, I think we do have to relate to the fact that what modern psychology - even genetics - have shown is that people don't necessarily determine whether they are homosexual or not. I would, however, make a distinction - at this stage certainly - between commitment ceremonies between same-sex couples and accepting homosexuals and lesbians into the rabbinate. I realize that there's a very fine line between them. But perhaps one will be a stepping stone to the next. Although, again, I know a number of homosexuals who are superb rabbis. This is really something I'm still in a dilemma about. Because of the element - or lack thereof - of choice involved? Yes. Or practice, for that matter. One may have that inclination and say, "No, I'm not going to do it, because I know it's forbidden." You know, there are several things in life one feels like doing and may opt not to. Adultery, for example. I understand that lesbianism is not forbidden by Halacha, while male homosexuality is. That's true; there is a distinction between the two. So we can have women rabbis who are lesbian, but we can't have male rabbis who are homosexual. Would you say that you practice what you preach in terms of feminism in your own household? Absolutely. It's something that you don't necessarily do consciously. I mean, you don't say at the time of, or before, marriage, "We are going to have an egalitarian household." It just happens. I do think, though, that too many young people don't discuss these issues before marriage. Altogether, there isn't enough preparation for marriage. You have to obtain a driver's license before you're allowed to drive a car. It would be very good to make people take courses before they marry, and certainly before they have children. But I happened to have married a man who is a partner. [Shalvi married husband Moshe, who made aliya from New York, in 1950.] Since we got married, there's always been total partnership, mutual support, a sharing of whatever needed to be done - whether it was earning the income or, since I worked right through our married life, sharing the homemaking. We actually even switched roles at one point. Until I took on Pelech in 1975, I had a comparatively easy career, because the university doesn't demand that many hours out of the home. But then, when I started at Pelech, I left home early every morning and returned late every afternoon. Just at that time, my father-in-law had a stroke and came to live with us, and my husband resigned from work in order to care for his father. So he was at home, and he started doing the cooking, He did it extremely well - better than me, because he likes to experiment, and I don't particularly like experimenting. For 25 years, we switched roles. Then, in 2000, when I gave up Pelech, we started just sharing again. Did this have an effect on your [six] children? Did it set an example they have followed? Absolutely. I see that not only have my daughters made the choice - by chance - I don't think they asked their husbands to take a share in the homemaking, but they do. All three of my sons are very egalitarian in their lifestyles as well. Altogether I believe in example rather than preaching. As a child, I learned about mitzvot such as hachnasat orhim [hospitality], tzedaka [charity] and relating with respect to other human beings, no matter who they are, from my parents. I learned it from seeing it. They never preached to me. I watched. You know, you see how your parents live - for better or for worse - in my case, it was for better. When you took over Pelech, it was an Orthodox girls' school, and you transformed it. How? It had been haredi, and I turned it into an experimental school. Its founders, Shalom and Pnina Rosenbluth, had a very interesting vision: They wanted to create a school for girls who would otherwise go to Beit Ya'acov - girls from a really haredi population - and give them a more in-depth Jewish education and a broader general education than they would otherwise receive at Beit Ya'acov. When my oldest daughter enrolled there [two of her daughters studied at Pelech], the girls still wore long stockings and long sleeves all year round. Which is not exactly our lifestyle, but she wanted to go there, because she'd heard it was a very good school, which it was. In fact, when I first went to see the school - which I did because I was a bit taken aback when my daughter asked to transfer there from the secondary school she'd begun attending - I had an eye-opening experience. While sitting and talking with the two principals, a 12th-grader I knew from our congregation happened to walk by and I greeted her. As it happened, the principals had just been telling me about the fact that they encouraged the girls to do final papers as part of their matriculation exams. And they said that this girl was covering an interesting topic - the Christian symbols in the novels of Graham Greene. So, I thought to myself, "Aha, this is the kind of school I want - one which gives an in-depth Jewish education, but where someone can write about the Christian symbols in the novels of Graham Greene." But, within a couple of years, the haredi community put a herem [boycott] on the school, forbidding members of their community to send their daughters there. One reason for this, other than perhaps the broad general education, was that the girls were being taught Talmud from the word go. Because the Rosenbluths felt that if students don't know Talmud, they're not really being educated Jewishly. So, by the time I started at the school, there were only two girls in the class I was responsible for from Beit Ya'acov. Even before that, when my daughter started there in 1973, the majority of the parents were modern Orthodox. We were all attracted to the school because of the content - just that content which, perhaps, prevented the haredi community from accepting the school. Did the dress code remain constant? No. One of the things I introduced was the general assembly, a kind of parliament in which all the pupils and staff were automatically members. We met once a month, and everybody was allowed to raise any subject connected to the school for discussion. Early on, the subject of the uniform came up. I had noticed that the girls didn't wear stockings when they weren't in school. So, why impose that on them in the Israeli summer? The stockings were the first item to go. Gradually, there were some very interesting discussions on this issue, because many of the girls realized the advantage of a dress code - that it removes social class and economic background distinctions, for example. On the other side, there was a very cogent argument made by the girls, as more and more of them started going into the army, according to which, since they were going to be wearing uniforms for two years, they didn't want to be wearing uniforms at school before that. I'd never considered that aspect before. So, gradually, there was a wider choice of colors for the blouses, but it remained skirts only and maintaining a modest appearance. I remember once passing one of the other high schools and being so upset by the sloppiness of the pupils. It was horrible. I don't think modesty means that everything has to be covered up. But there is a sense of inner modesty which makes you realize what [apparel] is appropriate for what. I see that you wear pants. Was the issue of how the mothers of pupils dressed outside of the school ever raised? No. In fact, I noticed that toward the end of my stay, some of the mothers actually came to parents' evenings already wearing pants. Although I had an assistant principal at one point who lived near the school, and one day when there was a very heavy snowfall and we decided that nevertheless the school had to be open, she walked over to the school wearing pants. Well, the next day, there was an outcry. And this seems to me so extraordinary. I always feel that it's far more modest to wear trousers, provided you wear a tunic kind of blouse over them. What's more, it's no longer "kli gever" [male garb]. This was actually something I went to consult a rabbi about, because I myself wore trousers before I took up the principalship - a wonderful rabbi who happened to be the grandfather of one of our pupils - and he showed me in the Talmud that, for reasons of cold or heat, women may wear trousers. But, he went on to say, it's not minhag; it's not the custom. And in Judaism, minhag is almost as important as Halacha. But once enough people switch, it becomes the minhag. The same goes for head-covering, I assume. Did you ever cover your hair? No. I considered it, and then I thought it would just be a deception, because I never did it before then. Reb Sholem [Shalom Rosenbluth] - who thought I should cover my hair - explained that the origin is "pru'a," which means disheveled-looking. But my hair was never disheveled. Today, however, I feel that in many cases, the head covering has become for the women rather like the kippa for the men. It's not Halacha for men to wear kippot all the time, right? They have to wear a kippa when they're praying, studying Torah and making a blessing. But not all the time. Still, it has become a symbol - a form of identification. You know, as if to say, "I belong to such-and-such a community." In many cases, the same thing is true of young married women who wear these little hats. It indicates where they are on the scale of religiosity. Is there any truth to the idea that the broader an education you give religious kids, the greater danger they are in of straying from observance? Not if they are firmly grounded in their own culture and tradition. That's essential; it's very important to learn about other things, but it's even more important to learn about one's own identity. If you have a strong enough sense of who you are and why you are and what you are, then I don't see that there's a danger. Nor would I judge the religiosity of people necessarily by the extent to which they observe things like Shabbat - particularly in a country that has a one-day weekend, which is appalling. If you are Shabbat observant, you're so torn between what you'd like to do and what you're allowed to do. And it's really painful to see young families who'd like to, say, visit relatives on their day off and can't do so. If you view Shabbat as a wonderful experience, a day of rest, a day of being different from other days, I think you observe it. But everyone observes Shabbat in his or her own way. Furthermore, I know of many cases of young people who stopped being observant and later on returned to observe. Would it have been a problem for you had your children attended a coed school? Not at all. In fact, I'm in favor of coeducation. But I do think that, during adolescence, it's better for girls to study among themselves. What research has shown is that girls in the 13-18 age group do academically better in the absence of boys. When the whole business of sexual attraction and attachments comes up, they are distracted from their studies, there's no doubt about it. Is that not true of boys as well? Well, yes, it is, but they tend to be more assertive - though things are changing now. They find that as the girls are becoming more assertive, and are doing better, some of the boys develop a sense of inferiority. The same research shows that it's better for boys to have girls present, because it civilizes them [she laughs]. In other words, what's good for the boys is bad for the girls. What I'm really in favor of is a coeducational school with separate classes for some of the subjects, where the method of teaching has to be different. For example, mathematics. It's been shown that boys have a better sense of space than girls. So if a geometry or trigonometry teacher only uses diagrams, the boys do better. The moment there's an adequate verbal explanation, the girls do as well. So, then, you have to train teachers - if they're teaching a mixed class - to realize that their teaching methods have to take into account the way that girls study. I'll give you an example of this whole issue. We had a very large percentage - far greater than that of any other high school - of pupils who chose physics as one of their majors. And they were really excellent. There was a group of about eight girls with a male teacher. And then a religious boys' school opened in the city, but it had no lab. So the school asked us to ask whether the boys could join our physics class, and I said, "By all means." After about three weeks, the physics teacher came to me and said, "I don't know what's happened to the girls. Until the boys came in, they answered questions; they solved problems at the board. But since the boys arrived, they've been silent; they don't volunteer; they don't even respond when I ask them to come up; they've changed completely." They were self-conscious and afraid of making mistakes in front of the boys. I also remember one math teacher - a woman - who also taught at a boys' school in the city. And I remember the girls coming to me and complaining that she was making unpleasant, degrading remarks. So I called her in and she said, "I don't understand. I teach their brothers at the other school, and they come up to the board, and do well..." And I said, "Oh, you're comparing them with the boys. Don't do that." She had been getting this message across to them that they were not as good as their brothers. This is one of those self-fulfilling prophesies. If you're told often enough you're not as good as... then you're not as good as. So, as I said, my ideal is a coed school with some separate classes, but with lots of social activity, so that the two sexes get used to being together without the sexual tension. By the way, this is even more difficult for unattractive girls. Because the attractive girls become the queens of the classroom, and the unattractive ones feel very bad. I remember finding a note in my room asking me to forbid the boys from waiting outside the school doors for the girls at the end of the day. I knew exactly who'd written that note. It was a girl who has since done extremely well - she's now a judge - but she was a plumpish adolescent. Having been a plump adolescent myself, I knew exactly how she felt. But I couldn't drive the boys away; I had no authority to do so. But it sort of made clear to me the lack of self-confidence among so many adolescent girls and boys. What about such differences after they reach university? One of the things that struck me was that there was total equality in that respect at the university. It was one of the things which also prevented me from realizing for so long that there was actually a lack of equality, because the English department had as many women students as men, if not more. We were also the department with the largest number of women faculty members, and eventually the highest proportion of women professors of any department. Did you see a difference in the process of analyzing literature between men and women? Could you tell the difference between a paper written by a male student and one written by a female? Only by the handwriting [she laughs]. Otherwise, absolutely not. We had outstanding male and female students. How do you feel about the education system in Israel in general? There were the Dovrat reforms, which were all but stillborn. Then, there are the teachers' strikes... One main problem is the short school day. And that means that all of what are called in England and America "extracurricular activities" - but which are actually an integral part of the school day - have disappeared. Sport, for example, which is essential. Art, music. There's no school choir any more. There's been a kind of impoverishment of education. Nor is there a sufficient amount of in-depth Jewish studies. Youngsters - even those who attend religious schools - don't know enough about Jewish history; they don't know Jewish literature, not even contemporary literature; they don't know the Bible. The people of my age who grew up in pre-state or early state years did know all that. They had a very fine grasp of biblical and even rabbinical literature. Many schools taught Talmud then. [Shalvi made aliya in 1949.] On the other hand, only a minority of the population went to high school then. We forget that. It wasn't free and it wasn't compulsory. So then you have this tension between wanting to give everybody at least a minimal education and wanting to give a rich education. But our whole national budget is skewed. We spend too much money on defense and don't pay enough attention to education. I agreed with many, though not all, of the recommendations of the Dovrat Committee. I agreed, for example, with the recommendation that teachers be better paid and have better conditions, and that they should be required to have academic degrees - even an MA in the subject they are teaching, certainly at high-school level; but also thorough pedagogical training. None of this is happening. As a result - and it pains me to say this - the people who are going into teaching are not exactly the cream of the cream that I'd like to see. Is that going to change? Only when our national priorities change. Altogether the defense and military [establishments] have far too much say, and it's very hard for people to deny them what they want. Our military needs, and our military elite, carry far too much weight in the process of making national decisions. Isn't that necessary, given Israel's security situation? No. We need far more civilian input - thinking in terms of what the nation as a whole needs. We needn't worry so much. We should have a strong army, but we what we really need is peace. Were you surprised when you were told you were winning the Israel Prize? I knew I was a candidate. You can't help knowing, because you're asked to present all sorts of material - you know, your CV in 12 copies and so forth. On the other hand, people had submitted my name in the past as well. So, in that sense you could say I was surprised. But I must say I was very happy, because I think it's a sign of progress if a woman receives the prize because of her activity in advancing the status of women. It means that there is recognition of the importance of the advancement of women. I was especially pleased because it was almost as if the cause for which I've been fighting for for so long was being awarded a prize, not just me personally.