Grapevine: Happy birthday, Alice

The German-born Shalvi spent much of her youth in England and graduated from Cambridge University with a BA in English literature.

President Reuven Rivlin  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
President Reuven Rivlin
Even in a world in which women in many countries have broken through the glass ceiling, it’s still not the done thing to remind a woman of her age, or for that matter to ask her age. However, when she reaches a milestone birthday, it’s permissible to make an exception. October 16 is the 90th birthday of Alice Shalvi, the founder of the Israel Women’s Network and the standard-bearer of Israel’s feminist movement.
Some people attribute feminism to Golda Meir, of whom David Ben-Gurion said she was the only man in his government. Others attribute it to Rahel Yanait Ben-Zvi, who was one of the pioneers of modern agriculture, a member of the Hagana and a staunch Labor Party activist.
Yet, despite their numerous accomplishments and inspiring biographies, neither did as much as Shalvi to upgrade the status of women in Israel and to revolutionize the way that women see themselves and their potential.
The German-born Shalvi spent much of her youth in England and graduated from Cambridge University with a BA in English literature.
While at Cambridge, she was president of the university’s Jewish Society, which was responsible for operating the city’s synagogue, and she became involved in outreach through Friday night dinners in which she permitted female students to lead the singing of zmirot at the Sabbath table. This was an extremely revolutionary trend that was to characterize her future career.
After meeting Holocaust survivors in 1946, she decided to also study social work so as to be able to be useful when she eventually migrated to what was then Palestine. She came from a Zionist family and had heard several of the great Zionist leaders when they spoke at events in England and in Basel.
She had also visited her future home in December 1947, and though she wanted to remain, she took the advice of friends to return to England to complete her postgraduate diploma in social work at the London School of Economics. In November 1949, she sailed for Israel, where she has been living ever since.
Her social work diploma was of little use because she was assigned to deal not with Holocaust survivors but with refugees from Arab lands, with whom she could not converse because she knew no Arabic.
Fortunately, she heard that the Hebrew University was in need of English teachers for a course that it had recently introduced. She applied, was accepted, and spent the next four decades in the university’s English department.
In 1969, the university asked her to establish the English department for the Institute of the Negev, which was the forerunner of Ben-Gurion University. From then, until 1973, she served on numerous university committees, in the senate, on the central steering committee, on the appointments committee and even on the board of governors.
But when she applied to become dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, her application was rejected on the grounds that she is a woman. Ironically, the current president of BGU is a woman, Rivka Carmi, who has been in the position for 10 years.
Following her own disappointment, Shalvi discovered that many other female academics had suffered sexual discrimination, regardless of their proven scholastic abilities.
Shalvi organized a meeting of all the female academic staff at the Hebrew University, who together formulated a list of demands that was presented to the university’s male decision- makers, who professed to have been unaware that such inequality existed and agreed to all that was on the list.
Two of Shalvi’s daughters were pupils at the Pelech religious experimental high school, whose founders, Rabbi Shalom Rosenbluth and his wife, Pnina, felt that after eight years, they could no longer carry on.
So in 1975, Shalvi offered to step in on a temporary and voluntary basis until a permanent principal was found. This interim arrangement lasted 15 years during which time the student body grew fourfold.
Shalvi expanded the curriculum in her belief that women are entitled to all areas of knowledge. She wanted her graduates to be well equipped to become leaders in Israeli society.
As a result, many achieved prominence in Orthodox feminist organizations.
Although her students were by and large from religious families, she encouraged them to serve in the Israel Defense Forces or to engage in civilian National Service. As a result, the army established a special unit that enabled religious young women to serve without compromising their values or lifestyle.
In 1984, she was one of the founders of the Israel Women’s Network and its star spokeswoman. Her gift for eloquence and ability to speak spontaneously made her a natural, and it was her voice that was behind much of the legislation that improved the status of women in Israel.
Already well past retirement age 19 years ago, Shalvi was offered the rectorship of what is now the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. Just as she had done at Pelech, she made significant revolutionary changes to the curriculum. In the course of time she was also the president and chairwoman of the institute, retiring in December 2003 but maintaining a close connection till the present day.
Even then, she embarked on a career as the assistant editor of the Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. Over the years she has received numerous prizes and awards from academic and other institutions in Israel and abroad; she has been in great demand as a speaker, and her writings have been widely published. She and her late husband, Moshe, also raised six children ranging in age today from 66 to 50.
AMONG OTHER female nonagenarians who have groundbreaking achievements to their credit are Ruth Dayan, 99, Raya Jaglom, 97, and Tamar Eshel, 96, who collectively and individually built up traditional handcraft industries for Jews from Arab lands, were active in peace movements, diplomacy, the struggle for Soviet Jewry, fighting antisemitism, creating educational networks, promoting cultural institutions, encouraging women’s empowerment, and much more.
But none of them were chosen by Yossi Alfi for this year’s Storytelling Festival, which takes place during the Succot season with literally hundreds of participants dealing with a huge variety of themes. These three women are literally living history.
They not only witnessed but participated in the transition of an ideal into a sovereign state, in the development of which they played pivotal roles. One of the many themes of this year’s festival is Groundbreaking Zionist Women, with representatives of the Women’s International Zionist Organization, Na’amat, Hadassah and Emunah talking about their organizations this coming Friday morning at the Givatayim Theater.
Dayan, who is a celebrity in her own right, was for many years the wife of Moshe Dayan, before they divorced, and their three children all went on to become celebrities in their specific fields; Jaglom, who served as World WIZO president for more than quarter of a century and in numerous WIZO executive roles before that, was personally groomed by Rebecca Sieff, who was one of the founders of WIZO; and Eshel is the daughter of Tzila Feinberg, sister of one of the leaders of the Nili Jewish spy network that operated on behalf of the British against the Ottoman rulers of Palestine. She is also a former diplomat and politician and a past secretary-general of Na’amat.
The speakers chosen are all prominent representatives of their organizations, with many credits in their CVs, but simply don’t have the same historical perspective. Hadassah is being represented by two native English-speakers who work in the Israel Office of Hadassah, the Women’s Zionist Organization of America.
One is spokeswoman Barbara Sofer, who is also a Jerusalem Post columnist, and the other is deputy director Barbara Goldstein, who has lived and breathed Hadassah since she was a teenager, and didn’t show up to her own engagement party, because she had a Hadassah event to which she gave priority.
ASIDE FROM Shalvi’s, the birthdays of at least two other noteworthy personalities are being celebrated in October. One is the milestone birthday of noted psycholinguist Tsvia Walden, the first of the three offspring of Sonia and Shimon Peres, who will celebrate her 70th birthday on October 20, and the other is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who will celebrate his 67th birthday on October 21. Male government employees are supposed to retire at age 67, unless they are elected and not appointed, which gives Bibi breathing space for yet another election, unless the police investigation into his activities comes up with a reason that prevents him from once more standing for office.
VISITORS TO the President’s Residence often hear the story of how his family came from Lithuania to Jerusalem in 1809. But the children of Harel Toubi, the director-general at the President’s Residence, also have a long and interesting history.
Their great-great-grandfather Rabbi Tuviah Geffen of Atlanta, Georgia, who gave Coca Cola the kosher green thumb, wrote on many halachic issues. His writings are contained in a book titled Lev Tuviah, which includes a section on Coca Cola which he wrote in 1935, making it possible for Jews who observe the dietary laws to enjoy the pause that refreshes.
Toubi and his wife, Sharone, will present the book to President Reuven Rivlin this coming Wednesday, October 19, while he is holding open house in his succa. With the arrival in Israel this summer of five more great-great-grandchildren of Geffen and his wife, Sara Hene, the total number of their descendants living in Israel now numbers 160.
The number falls somewhat short of Rivlin family members living in Israel, whose number stretches into the thousands.