“Never a Native” by Alice Shalvi— An Unforgettable Woman

Shalvi, Alice. “Never a Native”, Halban Publishers, 2019.

An Unforgettable Person

Amos Lassen

With the publication of her autobiography, Alice Shalvi is 92 years old. I met her sometime in the late 1970s when I would grade Israel’s National Matriculation Exams in Jerusalem during the summer. She was already legendary and I never cease to be amazed at how  she becomes more and more legendary with every passing day.

“Alice Shalvi is the most famous Israeli whom the average American Jew has never heard of. Revered Hebrew University English professor, principal of the Pelech school, founder of the Israel Women’s Network, rector of the Schechter Institutes, intrepid feminist activist, prominent advocate for Israeli-Palestinian peace, and winner of multiple honors—among them, the Israel Prize, the country’s Nobel—Shalvi nonetheless remains virtually anonymous in the mainstream Jewish world.”

Alice Shalvi possessed a wide-ranging expertise and coherent in-depth analyses of women’s issues. She is a living denial of feminist stereotypes. Alice was married for more than 60 years and religiously, she practices what is regarded as  modern Orthodoxy. She was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany and then went to England where her family took refuge in 1934.

Alice’s memories of the war years are sketchy. She remembers being afraid when the Gestapo raided her house and when her brother came home beaten by Nazi street thugs. In London, she remembers taping the windows, the sirens and gas masks and running to the shelter.

She also remembers growing up with “a gramophone, records of Gigli, Jan Kiepura, famous cantors; opera, cinema, theatre.” She heard the child prodigy Yehudi Menuhin play at the Royal Albert Hall. During the blitz, her family left London for Buckinghamshire. Her mother provided meals for anyone who came to their door and even hosted a Seder for more than 30 Jewish soldiers stationed in the neighborhood.

Her Zionism was nourished by her father, an active Zionist and co-founder of both a publishing company of Hebrew books and a weekly newspaper whose back page featured Yiddish writing. As a child, Alice had a Hebrew grammar tutor. After the war, her family kept a chauffeur, daily household help, and a nanny.

Shalvi was a bright child who had taught herself to read German before turning 4 and often read aloud to other children. She invented imaginary alter egos to amuse her friends and amused adults with plots of movies she’d never seen but whose stories she’d imagined. She had been denied a formal Jewish education, she eavesdropped on a friend’s father’s Hebrew drills.

When she came to England, her classmates called her “a little refugee” but by the end of the school year, she was at the top of her class. She fell madly in love with English literature and was an ardent monarchist. When King George died, she wore a black armband.

She was determined to eliminate suffering and this began one rainy day while she saw a hungry old man in rags, soaked to the skin, shivering in the doorway, and felt powerless to help him.

She entered Cambridge a year earlier than her age group and spent her free time with the Jewish Society and joined a Zionist study group and discussed Herzl, Ahad Ha’am, Leo Pinsker and was elected its president. In 1946, she attended the World Zionist Congress as a junior delegate. After Cambridge, she went to the London School of Economics and got a degree in social work You get the idea; she was a star.

It was not all happiness, however. She felt like an alien in England “not only Jewish but a foreigner, and though my flawless accent did not betray my foreign birth, my ignorance of … upper-class British traditions and mores would.” At Cambridge, she felt ill-prepared. Physically,  “I did not meet ideal standards. My bust was too small, my hips too broad.” She was ashamed of being “plump.” Before she had a boyfriend, she retreated into one of her fantasy alter egos, “a witty, physically more attractive person far more successful than me in winning the attentions of the opposite sex.”

When anti-Semitic remarks became unbearable, she detached from her “Jewish self” except in the privacy of her home. At the same time, she felt immense guilt for her ignorance of the Holocaust and became aware of “a startling paradox: while the extermination of European Jewry was in progress, I was enjoying what were undoubtedly the happiest years of my adolescence, safe and secure amidst the natural beauties of rural England.”

Her first visit to Palestine was in 1947, a month after the U.N. voted in favor of partition and two years later, she made aliyah. Her achievements as an educator, public speaker, social justice activist, and public intellectual are well known and her life paralleled Israel’s growing pains. However, Israel did nothing to relieve her self-doubt and shame. She had hoped to do social work with Holocaust survivors but discovered her “qualifications were inappropriate” and by accident, she found a job teaching English at the Hebrew University (her former students include Hebrew poets Yehuda Amichai, Dalia Ravikovitch, and Dan Pagis). Her confessions here are a testament to the durability of the female impostor syndrome and the emotional fortitude required for a woman to function in a judgmental patriarchal world.

We read of the unspoken and the unspeakable as Shalvi revisits episodes that sensitized her to gender inequity: The sexist pushback she got from higher-ups when she was the founding chair of the English department at the Institute of Higher Education in the Negev, the misogynistic humiliations that doomed her application for the position of dean of Ben-Gurion University, her service on the Namir Commission shich had been tasked by the Knesset with proposing legislation and other changes to improve the social, economic, and political status of women, her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school that aims to provide Orthodox girls with both a secular and religious education, where she faced conflicts between Orthodoxy and modernity, her role as co-founder and chair of the Israel Women’s Network, a nonpartisan organization dedicated to advancing women’s status through advocacy, consciousness-raising, litigation and legislation. She initiated new projects, like Nashim, the journal of Jewish feminist studies, created a Centre for Women in Jewish Law, and ended up as the institute’s president. This is a book about a little refugee who, despite suffering self-doubts lived a very large life.

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