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Tag : israel

The Lilith Blog

March 10, 2020 by

What Purim in Israel Taught me About Inequality

When I was growing up in Israel I never looked forward to Purim. Pestering my overworked mother for a costume was bad enough, but the ritual I dreaded most was the mishloah manot—an exchange of baskets of candy and dried fruit. Wrapped in tinted cellophane and displayed on the teacher’s desk, these baskets let everyone know just how rich or poor we were. When the teacher redistributed the packets, everyone hoped to get the treasure troves that the well-to-do Ashkenazi kids brought. As for the rest of us, the immigrants and the Mizrahis, we braced ourselves for the grunts of disappointed and muttered insults with which our offerings would be received.

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The Lilith Blog

February 6, 2020 by

Why We Started a New Women’s Political Party in Israel

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Photo Credit: Efrat Shpruker

Every time I turn on my computer, I remember why I decided to form a women’s political party. Not alone, obviously, but with a diverse and talented group of women. Nevertheless, I am constantly reminded about what brought me here, every time the screen comes to life.

No matter how many ad-blockers I use, the ads are constant: Do I want a hot babe? Or, do I need Viagra? Or maybe I’m in the mood for a Russian bride?

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The Lilith Blog

November 14, 2019 by

The Controversial Centerpiece of the Other Israel Film Festival

By Chanel Dubofsky

In 2015, Israa Jaabis’s car exploded at a checkpoint. The 33 year old Palestinian suffered first and third degree burns over 60 percent of her body and was charged with attempted murder.

It wasn’t intentional, Jaabis’s sister told Lea Tsemel, the Jerusalem lawyer at the center of the documentary, “Advocate,” directed by Rachel Leah Jones and Philippe Bellaiche. The explosion was a technical glitch, not a terrorist attack. Also, she told Tsemel, there was the fact that her sister had attempted suicide multiple times in the past. 

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November 6, 2019 by

Fiction: Diamonds and Ashes

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The water is a silk sari, pleating, unraveling beneath us, falling away. Eucalyptus trees blink in the morning sunlight. I am on a boat on the Sea of Galilee, with my aunts Esther and Hannah. With their short dark hair and stocky figures, they make it hard for me to believe that they are—were—my mother’s older sisters. 

“Can you believe this is what he tells me?” Aunt Esther gestures at the older of the crew members. The men wear black t-shirts emblazoned Holyland Sailing. “He says last year a group of billionaires are coming from Texas with the ashes of their loved ones. They mixed them with, how you say? yaholamim.

“Diamonds,” Aunt Hannah helps out. Like her sister, she has a strong Israeli accent.

“Yes, diamonds, and they throw them in the water.”

“So they are used to it, even though it is not so Jewish. People scattering ashes.”

“Really?” I ask. “Are these stories true?”

I shake my head in amazement. Tucked under my arm is the box labeled Rose Williams: Cremated Remains. Hudson and Son, Bath.

“Of course,” says Aunt Esther. “By the way, your mother’s name was Shoshana Ullmann. We never called her Rose.” History hangs in the air between us, my aunts’ skin darker than my mother’s as if 40 years of disappointing English summers had drained her of any color. She was also slimmer than her sisters, and more reserved.

For two weeks in Israel, my head has been spinning with questions. Why did my mother leave Israel when she was twenty- one? Why did she never return? Why did she distance herself from her parents? Why did she anglicize her name and deny her Judaism? Why did she make a monthly payment to her sisters? And most curiously of all, why did she request her ashes to be scattered on a lake she never visited?

My aunts have introduced me to so many cousins that I have struggled to remember which children and grandchildren belong to which aunt. I have been conscious that my white skin and cautious demeanor must seem as alien to them as their effusiveness appears to me. Now that both sisters live again in the family home, Esther (widowed) and Hannah (divorced) fill their days with family. They eat at a large dining table, served by their Arab maid Mimi, who limps slightly as she carries plates of food in. I am intrigued by her.

Mimi looks like a woman in her twenties, dark hair twisted into a bun, her nearly black eyes downcast, her brown skin smooth. Beautiful and silent. The aunts thank her for her service, but she does not reply, just nods her head slightly in response.

Wrapped around this stone house in Herzylia like a sash, the garden bursts with mangoes, pomegranates gleaming red; passionfruit and guavas concealing their moisture beneath rough skins. Banana trees with wide leaves; palms with golden dates stored high like jewels; olive trees fluttering their silver foliage and a single rose bush, its pink flowers blushing at their incongruity in this exotic terrain.

‘We grow this for your mother,’ says Aunt Esther as she shows me their garden. Aunt Hannah walks silently on.

The days spent with them have been filled with love and warmth but I have sensed that they are holding something back. We have eaten many meals together in their pleasant home: books straight on the shelves; fruit in wooden bowls; framed black-and-white photos, including one of my teenaged mother and her sisters, Mum in a short skirt and beaming surprisingly broadly. In her later work as an administrator in the hospital, she always looked smart, her skirt below her knees, her shoes flat, nothing Mediterranean about her apart from the slight Israeli accent she could not lose. Her dark hair and eyes often led to questions she just waved away with the reply: ‘I was born in Israel but left many years ago. England’s my home now.’

My aunts have opened my eyes to Israel: Jaffa, its yellow stone and bobbing boats in the Mediterranean; Tel Aviv, its busyness and sophistication a surprise to me; Ashdod, a new city gleaming with pride in the white light; Haifa, its harbor spread below us like a feast; Jerusalem, where I laid my hands on the hot, golden Western Wall; and the Druze market where I bought my father a silver coffee pot with tiny espresso cups on a matching tray.

But with all the pleasures has been a tension. Not only the soldiers carrying guns and security at every mall and train station. Not only the stories of Orthodox spitting at secular girls because of their immodest dress. Not only the way that Israelis are overtly political in a way that the British are not. My aunts scan the papers daily for news. One day while I am there the headlines tell of an Orthodox Jewish man who has stabbed a young woman in a gay pride parade in Jerusalem. A Palestinian family with a baby daughter is burned alive in their own home. Jews and Arabs live their lives against a backdrop of fear.

The tension has been closer to home, too. Hannah and Esther have been constantly bickering, slipping into Hebrew to do so, excluding me from the conversation, glancing in my direction and then looking away. They return to English when they are calmer, and I am included again.

“What kind of studies you are doing, Claire?”

“I’ve started a Ph.D. at Bath University.”

“Near your home?”

“Yes. Near where I’m living with my father.”

“We met him when we came to England once. Do you remember we came to see you when you were still at school?”

“Yes I do.” I recall, aged 14, that my mother’s two sisters briefly entered our lives.

“What you are studying?” “I’m researching literature, culture and identity.” The next morning, Esther gives me T. Carmi’s At the Stone of Losses and his words reduce me to tears. She lends me poems by the poet Rachel, “In My Garden” and “Will you hear my voice?” She takes me to see Rachel’s grave in the Kinneret cemetery, and the single, simple name on her headstone: Rachel. I place a stone on her grave.

I have been emotional on this trip, which would surprise Hugh, his ongoing complaint about me that I don’t connect. In spite of liking him, I have been unable to commit, scared of the age gap, my 25 to his 38. Worried about what kind of mother I might be. I have felt homesick here, missing Hugh, missing my father’s soft, genial kindness, missing our English garden and cottage, the honeysuckle which curls around my bedroom window. Missing my mother, who when she passed away in September, was not fighting the cancer but letting it take her at 62, submitting to it as if she felt that she deserved it.

Ours was a quiet, understated family, my sweet doctor father with rumors of an early unsuccessful marriage before my mother, which no one really spoke about. And my mother, dutiful, always supportive of me, attending every concert and play at my girls’ school tucked genteelly away in the hills. And yet when it came to the bear hugs I witnessed other families exchanging…it didn’t happen with us. My father would pat me on the shoulder if I did well; my mother would put her arms around me but almost without touching. If I asked about her past in Israel, the details were sketchy.

“I grew up in Herzylia, a lovely house with my parents who ran a pharmacy and two older sisters. I went to the army, and then a kibbutz for voluntary work and came here to study. That’s all.”

And then she would turn away, a clear signal that she didn’t want to talk about it. When I was asked my religion at school, my mother would tell me to state “No religion,” as I was brought up with no Judaism at all. We did not light candles on Shabbat; we did not go to synagogue on the High Holy Days or any days; we did not have a Chanukiah; we did not dip apples into honey on Rosh Hashanah. I learned about these festivals in school but they remained theory, not practice. At home, we celebrated Christmas modestly, a small tree with white lights and not overly lavish presents, as if she was ashamed of celebrating a Christian festival.

I learned more about her after she died. She left me money to continue my Ph.D.; she made a bequest to the Centre for Peace Studies in Jaffa, and to the Divan orchestra. She requested a humanist funeral to include music by Louis Armstrong and Bach. And most curious of all were these lines in her will: “I would like to be cremated and for my ashes to be scattered on Lake Kinneret.”

It took me months to face sorting out her wardrobe. I put her copies of Country Life magazine in a pile for recycling. I folded her clothes—the sensible skirts, the flat shoes, the beige cardigans, the long cotton nighties and white underwear—into bags for Oxfam. All the while, I fought back tears and felt that I was handling the costumes of a young actor who plays an older character, as if she had assumed a false identity. I felt overwhelmed with regret that only after she had gone had she really come to me.

And in the darkness at the bottom of the wardrobe a wooden box inlaid with purple anemones and a bag of poems she had written. I knew she liked reading poetry, especially Keats, Shelley and the Romantics but I did not know that she wrote it herself. I read her words:

Once we walked at the lake’s edge,
Purple anemones tucked in our hair
And there my dust will settle.
I am the lake. I am the fish.
I am the leaves that float.
I am a part of whatever grows.
There is no other eternity that I desire.

Even seeing the word desire shocked me. My mother, who never expressed her wishes and did not seem to demand anything, not even a biscuit to go with her tea.

I phone my father a few times. I keep in touch with Hugh, whose replies to my emails are always warmer than mine to his. Something restrains me. Would it be right to open myself like a book at its center? To let him completely in?

I think of the times we have had, watching the swans puff themselves up on the river; the meals in our favorite trattoria; the nights where I have opened myself physically to him even while emotionally I have been closed.

On the boat, the men have taken us to the centre of the lake where no shoreline is now visible, and have stilled the vessel. My aunts say Kaddish together, which they tell me is the mourner’s prayer. Then together we take the bag from the red box, our hands overlapping, and scatter Mum’s ashes on the water. They remain on the surface for an instant, then dissolve and vanish.

The tears come fast and my aunts hug me close, so that I can feel their breasts rest on mine, in no hurry to run away. “Thank you,” I whisper. “Thank you for your kindness.”

‘She is at peace now,’ says Hannah.

I finger the locket around my neck my mother gave me, her tiny photo trapped inside. I wonder why she asked to be scattered on this lake?

Esther and Hannah exchange glances. “I want to tell you,” says Esther. “You deserve to know.”

Hannah glares at her. “Esther, remember what we agree.”

“No,” says Esther. The boat has begun to sail again and the motion seems to spur her on. “I will tell you, Claire. This is your history.”

Hannah moves to the other side of the boat, turning her back to us and staring out at the water, disapprovingly.

“Your mother,” begins Esther carefully, “was very clever at school and our abba—our father—was very proud of her. He has high hopes. After the army, she does not know what job to do so she, Shoshana, goes to the kibbutz there.” And as if on cue, the community comes into view. I can see sugar-cube houses in the distance, clinging to the hills.

“When she is there she meets a young man, an Arab, Ibrahim, from Um-el-Fachem. They fall in love. He was a carpenter for the kibbutz.”

I recall the wooden box with the anemones on its lid. “What happened then?” “Abba finds out. He is very angry.”

Hannah turns to stare at Esther, calls out something in Hebrew which I don’t understand. “I have said enough.”

“Please. I need to know.”

“Your mother got….” She mimes a round stomach.

“Pregnant? My mother was pregnant?” 

“Yes. Abba, angry, come to the kibbutz, says Shoshana must not have the baby. Must get rid of it. Your mother said no.”

“My mother had a child before me? With Ibrahim?” I feel my heart thump in my chest and my legs quiver.

“Yes. A girl.”

“I can’t believe it. What happened to her?”

“She go to…how you say?” “An orphanage?”

“Yes. She is not well. And your mother sent away to England to study. Abba says she must not return. But the child is not happy in the home so we help out. Hannah and me.”

“What was the child called?”

Esther pauses. “Mimi,” she says.

The bottom of the boat collapses beneath my feet and I am falling through water.

“Mimi? The Arab girl who works for you?”

“She is half-Arab,” says Esther. “She helps us in the house and we support her. Your mother always sent us an allowance for her, too. She likes to draw.”

“Mimi is my sister?” I think of the dark-haired girl who stumbles into the dining room carrying a jug of water, a plate of watermelon.“Does she know her story, who her parents are?”

“No,” says Esther. “She does not.”

“But surely she is curious?”

Hannah is still staring at the water, searching for answers there.

“She is a quiet girl. She asked once who her parents were and we just said that we didn’t know. It’s easier that way, less complicated.”

The lake and land spin. There is nothing beneath me. I think of my parents, about my strong sense that they loved me, in spite of their secrets, their understated ways. It seems wrong that Mimi does not know who she really is.

We leave the boat and thank the crew. I wonder what they think of me: cheerful at the start, weeping in the middle; stunned at the end.

In a restaurant in Tiberias we order salad and fish. Porcelain dishes are brought to the table. They form a ceramic patchwork on the cloth: hummus, tahini, pickles, salads, yogurt, roast cauliflower with sunflower seeds, eggplant dip, chopped beetroot stained by its own juices.

We eat in silence, the sisters angry with each other. “Does my father know about Mimi?” I ask. The aunts shake their heads.

“I am pleased you told me,” I say quietly. “It is a shock, but now I know my mother’s history.”

On the last day of my visit, my aunts go shopping for gifts for me, but I ask to stay at the house. I have packing and washing to do.

Once they have gone, I walk through their garden to the small house where Mimi lives. I knock and wait, watching the olive leaves shift in the breeze. At last the door opens tentatively and she peers round the frame.

“Shalom. Salaam,” I say. “May I come in please, Mimi?”

She looks uncertain but she lets me in. Her home is functional: a wooden table and chairs, one settee, tiled floors, beautiful sketches on the walls. It strikes me that her home may be simple but her history is not. In the corner of the room is a chair and desk with a half-finished drawing upon it. Then I realize that the framed pencil drawings adorning the walls are by her: the serrated edges of shells; the outside and inside of tropical fruits; mountains delicately drawn. No portraits, only nature.

“These are really good,” I say, pointing to them, and although she does not comprehend the words, I am sure she understands the message.

Mimi goes to the kitchen, limping slightly and returns with juice for me. I take it, “Todah rabah,” I say and drink. I taste guavas and passionfruit, the sweetness I need.

I nod and smile. She seems pleased. We sit together on the sofa and I search her face for my mother’s likeness. The downcast eyes, the modesty, the translucent skin. Yes, my mother is there within her, and in a strange way, I feel my mother’s presence. I may have scattered her ashes but she is here with me.

I hold out my hand and take hers. I wonder whether she will resist and refuse, but to my amazement she even curls her small fingers upon my skin. I am surprised at how comfortable I am with her and she with me. Before, when I have had to hold hands with a stranger at a dance, or even when someone has brushed by me in a crowd, I have felt uncomfortable but not here. We sit like this for several minutes in silence and I feel that I could stay in this position forever, but I don’t want the aunts to come back and find me here.

I take the locket of my mother—our mother—from my neck and place it around Mimi’s. Our faces are so near I can feel her soft hair. The gold catches the light as she moves.

Mimi lifts her face and her dark eyes are, without doubt, the eyes of our mother. We half smile while I drown in those eyes.

She gives me one of her delicate sketches, mangoes and lemons. I convey my thanks with an embrace.

By the time the aunts return, I have packed. They have brought halva for my father and books of poetry for me, which I will treasure.

At the airport, I ask:

“Isn’t Mimi lonely?”

And Esther says no, she likes to be alone to draw. They use the money Sho—Rose—sent to buy her materials.

“May I carry on sending her that monthly allowance?” I ask, and they agree. “And may I visit you all again?’ They smile and we hug again.

On the airplane I notice my gently tanned skin, as if I am edging closer to Mimi. I text Hugh, “I love you. I want you,” switch off my phone and close my eyes, opening them again only when I glimpse through the small window the thin green skin covering England.

Tamar Hodes’ latest novel is The Water and the Wine (Hookline Books).

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November 5, 2019 by

The Closer You Get, The Farther You Are

Let’s say you are a girl born in the 1950s. Born after the greatest catastrophe to befall the Jewish people since the destruction of the Temple. And let’s say you are the eldest of four daughters and no sons, descendant— so you are told, frequently—of a lustrous rabbinic family, one that includes a revered scholar of the 17th century, Shabtai Ha-Kohen, the ShaKh.

Let’s say, as well, that you inherit the luster of this estate without the prestige that might have accrued to the eldest son of such a family in the world of Before— before the Enlightenment sheared off some of the brilliant ones to heretical ideas and ideologies; before the Nazis and the Poles and the Hungarians and the French murdered one third of the rest.

Born after that intact world but ahead of the era when women donned the garment of sacred scholarship that had not previously been their birthright, you become an ardent, mystical young woman who yearns to be closer, much closer, to God; who has an unaccountable instinct for your family’s lost authenticity, but without the sanction, power or pathway to retrieve it and bring it to life. Except, sanctioned only by yourself and the pedigree of centuries of commentators, as a writer of poems who has begun to discover her voice.

You are a seeker, in quest. But you have been given the gift of Jewish literacy and are in love with the Jewish story. Beneficiary of your parents’ commitment to a day school education, to Hebrew, to joyful holy days, the beauty of summer camp, and the miracle of Israel, you launch yourself into the world to deepen the profundity of the ecstatic and grieving communal experiences that your then-exceptional upbringing has bequeathed you.

You are not alienated. You do not feel parochial. You are not trying to escape.

You come of age at the dawn of Jewish feminism, the essential idea that allows you to claim a legacy that is only beginning to find an equal place for you; that grants you and a community of peers the confidence to defy the universalist feminism of Jewish women who reject a presumed and indicted patriarchy—a Judaism whose riches they were not given the learning to savor—in favor of the way of the biblical daughters of Tzlofchad, who appealed directly to Moses for the right to inherit their father’s portion.

And so, you do not leave. You do not become a Buddhist. You do not make the counterculture your religion or India or liberation theology. Instead of the expected Ph.D. in English literature, you drop out of graduate school, forsaking the Anglo-Saxon, Christianity-laden writing you were meant to teach someday, to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

You are looking for a teacher to guide your soul, to quiet your turbulence, to meet your longing for God with a vocabulary, and—you suspect—boundaries, as your passion is consuming and, at times, terrifying. You are very alone, occasionally afraid you might go mad.

What do you find?

At every turn, your gender is an unscalable deterrent. You are not a young seeker. You are, it turns out, merely a young woman. You cannot become the talmid muvhak, the chosen pupil of an acclaimed rebbe. You cannot attend a yeshiva that teaches women advanced Talmud, for such an institution does not exist—although, decades into an unimaginable future, it will. You can scarcely be alone in a room with a rabbi or master teacher who has the knowledge and the wisdom for which you thirst. You find quirky avenues, a man who is not Orthodox to teach you Zohar privately; a class open to men, women, observant and secular Israelis given in Heichal Shlomo by a Talmud prodigy; a weekly gathering in the dining room of a gentle Bratslav hasid who opens his home in Me’ah She’arim each Thursday night to offer Likutei Moharan, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav’s teachings, to the women of Jerusalem. You don a skirt and long sleeves to learn these eloquent, paradoxical texts at their source. (The teacher will die young, some say because he taught women.) You join a meditation group of women who speak only Hebrew to meet at night in Jerusalem’s winters in a shudderingly cold apartment where you are never sure you understand the instructions or what is meant to happen.

It is a motley education, self-assembled, that does and does not appease your hunger. You are a Canadian and a New Yorker, but your essentialist identity is: Female. You have hundreds of conversations to analyze and channel your yearning, but none can mitigate the barrier of gender.

In New York, an ocean away, women are awakening to their autonomy and ambition. The first National Jewish Women’s Conference has taken place in 1973. The air is electric with new stories, a cornucopia of women’s voices. Young women are thronging to law school and applying to rabbinical school. Your friends are entranced by vistas of possibility, for it turns out that in our own tradition, unbeknownst to us, women are permitted to put on tefillin; women are allowed to say kiddush.

In Israel, you are told, again and again: “We don’t have time for feminism. We have to worry about security.”

You meet women you deem holy, women whose faces are alight with the joy of serving their Creator. There is no doubt that they are happier than you are. Their hair, arms, and legs are covered— and they have a single prescribed path: To have many children and be the spiritual counterparts to their learned husbands. You were taught that “Jews are never too learned to outgrow the need for printed words of prayer in their hands, or the need to encircle their heads and wrap tefillin around their arm every day— because Jews require these concrete aids to link them to the ineffable.” But Jews turn out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you do not need any physical manifestation of your bond with Hashem, with God. You were taught that the task of Jews is to raise up biology to an altar of intentional holiness. But Jews turns out to mean male Jews. As a woman, you are told, you have an innate biological sanctity that is higher than a man’s, even though you cannot be a witness, or be counted in a minyan, or initiate a divorce. (Forty years later, in Modern Orthodoxy, you still can’t.)

 

I am a witness to the fact that life for women is exponentially better than when I was a girl, but the legislation of Jewish women’s bodies is worse. Before feminism and before Jewish feminism, we wore whatever we wanted in my Orthodox Jewish day school, including mini-skirts that were one foot long. Now to be an observant girl-woman in an Orthodox context means to be given exhaustive lists about what to wear and how to wear it, to be instructed in shomer negi’ah—no touching a boy or even being alone with him—to be stopped from singing before a mixed audience, to be told that you, in your body, as you go about your day, are the sexual temptation to men.

Who cares? a reader might wonder. Leave this traditional framework for the parity of other denominations or none— the start-up minyanim, the halakhic-egalitarian ones.

The answer depends on how much solitude a woman should be asked to endure. Because if you want a life of observance, of Shabbat, kashrut, fast days and feast days, you need a community. And if you join a community of true equality between women and men, you are less likely—sometimes much less likely—to find as well a community of observance. In current North American Jewish life, the two do not, except in a few enclaves, align.

The brochures of gap-year educational experiences will speak of pluralism, but you will be in Israel programs where you may be the only one left on campus on Shabbat. You will be part of an engaged, vital Jewish community, but you will be invited to dinner parties where the food is not kosher or that begin before Shabbat has ended. You will explain what you do and cannot do, and you will grow tired of explaining.

Why should a person have to choose between an encompassing community of practice and equality before Jewish law? Why, if an American woman’s life expectancy is 86.6, should her childbearing years—if she has children—determine her secondary Jewish legal status for all her days? Or, if she joins a community that attempts to live in the world and practice Jewish law, why should she be equal in the eyes of the law in her American daily life but not in her sacred Jewish life?

Generally, those communities where women speak actively of a life of holiness— where the quest to be close to God and discern what we are obligated to do in the name of the Name is articulated and constant and considered a sufficient reason for daily choices—are more likely to be settings whose members devote themselves to halakhah and its detailed stipulations. But the more that those communities place God’s will, as manifest in Jewish practice, explicitly at the center of their values and behavior, the more a woman like the young woman I was will have to abide by tightening strictures over her body, her nature, and her purpose.

We live in an unredeemed world, where the interpretation of Jewish law in observant Jewish life is owned by one gender that can still tolerate the cries to heaven of women who cannot leave their abusive or mentally ill husbands without paying a ransom or forfeiting their children. In mediated middle age, the young woman I was is more than ever in love with the Jewish story and the Jewish homeland. My ardor has been tempered by a complexity earned by decades of being alive, but far more by the sobriety of the chief realization of my embodied experience as a Jewish woman: The closer you get, the farther you are.

We live in the second creation story, dreaming of inhabiting the first. We live in a world man enters alone, where woman is still a part taken from the whole of him. But all of us can dream of paradise, of a universe where God creates a person first, in the divine image, and only then, and only equally, gives gender, blesses us, and sees that all is very, very good.

Nessa Rapoport is the author of a novel, Preparing for Sabbath; a collection of her prose poems, A Woman’s Book of Grieving; and a memoir, House on the River: A Summer Journey. Her new novel will be published in 2020. ©Nessa Rapoport.

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The Lilith Blog

July 22, 2019 by

An Israeli Official Called My Family a “Second Holocaust” — and I Felt Relieved

In a recent meeting, the Israeli Minister of Education, Rafi Peretz, called my family part of “a second Holocaust.” According to three sources present, the new Netanyahu appointee told the Cabinet, in response to a presentation on demographic trends among American Jews, that the rate of intermarriage between Jews and non-Jews in the United States was the moral equivalent of our people’s greatest trauma in recent memory. 

When I read his comment, I braced myself for a wave of indignation. Instead, I felt relief.

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July 9, 2019 by

Kayama Moms •

In Israel, women up to age 45 qualify for the National Health Service free in vitro fertilization for two children. Now, not only secular single women, but also Orthodox single women have overcome stigma and chosen to become mothers. Kayama, founded in 2011, aims to create a community for Shomer Shabbat (religiously observant) families of single moms by choice, offering information, tools and support to accompany them from making the decision, to conception, pregnancy or adoption and beyond. Seminars include— pregnancy/adoption procedures, fertility for 35+ women, financial planning, parenting tips conducted by doctors, rabbis, educators, psychologists and experienced single moms. They also arrange Shabbat retreats and vacations for single moms and their children. kayamamoms.org

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April 2, 2019 by

A School for Peace

Photo: Avram Hay

Photo: Avram Hay

The summer of 2018 saw a breakthrough for female recruits joining the male-dominated ranks of the combat units in the Israel Defense Forces. Some 1000 young women volunteered for combat duty, 150 more female recruits than in 2017, and up from 547 in 2012. Four (not new recruits) became the first female tank commanders, and the Israeli Air Force announced the appointment of the first female commander of a flight squadron.

Leaders from women’s organizations, and many politicians, hailed these events of breaking gender boundaries as symbols of feminist achievement and gender equality. But some viewed it differently.

Dr. Nava Sonnenschein, a veteran peacemaker and teacher of conflict resolution who has focused on Israeli-Palestinian dialogue for decades, declared that this upsurge is not the equality for which Israeli women should be striving. “Women should not barrel their way in to gain equal access to combat units,” said Sonnenschein, in an interview in Hebrew with Lilith. “Instead, they should fight to change the pervasive militarism in Israeli society.”

That’s a cause Sonnenschein has been engaged in for some 45 years, since she herself served in the IDF as a teacher at the Ein Karem Agricultural School in 1973—notably, not a combat position. In the Yom Kippur War that year, Sonnenschein lost several classmates and friends, and her impulse to pursue peace actively was sparked after she attended a memorial ceremony at her high school in Haifa. “Among the many people I knew who had been killed were my first love, Nimrod Gazit, and Muly, my cherished counselor from the HaMachanot HaOlim youth movement. I had also visited an injured friend at Soroka Hospital in Beer Sheva, and saw soldiers badly burned, with body parts hanging in the air.

“When the speakers at the memorial ceremony recited rote lines about valiant soldiers sacrificing their lives so that we could live, I felt a pit in my stomach. Was there really no alternative?”

Determined to find one, Sonnenschein co-led her first Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group utilizing a Jewish and an Arab facilitator. This was in 1974, while she was studying for a bachelor’s degree in education and art at University of Haifa, That group opened the door to a lifetime of peace work.

Alongside her peace activism, Sonnenschein has supported feminist principles. But an influx of women into combat units is not the gender segregation we should be challenging, she said.

“A border policewoman with an M16 slung over the shoulder frisking an elderly woman at a checkpoint is not the pinnacle of equality between the sexes,” asserted Sonnenschein. Nor is it the best use of that inductee’s talents. “Women should strive to promote a different sort of equality in our society: democracy, justice, and peace for all those who live in Israel and Palestine.”

Perhaps the historic exclusion of women from combat units has been a determining factor in bolstering their impulse to participate in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue. A byproduct of this exclusion has been that more women appear to have gravitated to peace work. And once engaged in dialogue, women seem to exhibit a greater ability to feel the other side. “From my vantage point, women seem to have more interactive tools to reach across the divide,” says Sonnenschein.

“IDF soldiers who spend three years policing civilians…in the West Bank begin to see the Palestinians not as people,” said Sonnenschein, speaking in Hebrew. “It’s a very difficult job. After these soldiers are released from the army, their motivation to participate in Israeli-Palestinian dialogue is greatly diminished.”

Sonnenschein knows a great deal about peacemaking. She is one of the founders of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam (“Oasis of Peace”), an egalitarian community of Jewish and Palestinian-Arab citizens of Israel, located on a Latrun hilltop between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. She is also a founder and director of the country’s first and only School for Peace, located in the same community. Since 1980, Sonnenschein has taught some 70,000 Israelis and Palestinians, aged 16 to 72, how to “dialogue-around-conflict,” using a signature method she helped develop at the School for Peace.

The method is rooted in social psychology. It puts the conflict right on the table and addresses the asymmetry of power, allowing for the identity of each side to stretch to include the other.

And stretch it does. For Israeli Rachel Yanay, one of the dialogue participants interviewed for a book by Sonnenschein now out in English, The Power of Dialogue Between Israelis and Palestinians, this stretching involved an embrace of her Mizrahi identity, and changed her relationship to Palestinians.

“First of all there’s my acceptance of the Arab-ness in me; I was more prepared to acknowledge it (after the course). And then there is a different connection to the other place: now it’s not off limits, not unacceptable. It is not the evil enemy who has no connection with me. It is part of who I am. Denying that they are part of who I am is incomprehensible now. What were they before? Some kind of group that you designate, they don’t belong and they don’t have to belong, and heaven help us if they do belong because they want to kill me; they want me not to be here.”

And Ayelet Roth says “The fear hasn’t disappeared, but it has diminished. I see myself as someone who has a partner. It’s possible to take action together to influence what happens in this country.”

For Maram Masarwi, facilitating the School for Peace course provides “tools for your whole life,” she says. 

“As soon as you begin this process, it’s as though you’re beginning to see past your blindness. Then no one can tell you not to see, because you are already seeing. And you also find that you are dealing with yourself through the way you are dealing with the other.”

School for Peace staff members have taught their method in Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the UK, South Africa, Costa Rica and Kosovo. And in Sonnenschein’s decades of work in Israel and abroad, she told Lilith that she has found peace processes advance further when there is a higher proportion of women on the team. Strong empirical evidence suggests that including women in the various aspects of peace negotiations yields better results. For example, an International Peace Institute study of 182 signed peace agreements between 1989 and 2011 found that “when women are included in peace processes, there is a 35 percent increase in the probability that a peace agreement will last 15 years or more.” But everywhere women are in fact woefully underrepresented at the peace table. Between 1992 and 2011, only four percent of signatories to peace agreements were women, and less than ten percent of the negotiators at peace tables.

For Nada Matta, a Palestinian woman living in Israel who has been a facilitator of dialogue groups, the process of facilitation is “not easy,” as she says in the book. “I remember once regarding the subject of women, which is a very sensitive subject with the Jews. By the way I don’t much like to get into that, because the Jews love to latch onto it as a weak spot (of the Arab group). On the other hand, things must be addressed candidly. I remember on one occasion, something about the hijab, I think. Taking a position that is farther removed from Arab culture is not easy, and some issues are more sensitive than others.” 

Sonnenschein has observed that in the Israeli-Palestinian case, both Israeli and Palestinian women are more effective than their male counterparts at bringing the central issues to the peacemaking table and engaging in constructive discussion.

“When our courses include Palestinians from the West Bank, we feature a three- or four-day simulation of negotiating a final-status agreement between Israel and Palestine. Women are consistently greater catalysts for this process. They’re better able to see the interests of the other side. Instead of just thinking of ‘what do I lose’, they consider the needs of each side on matters like Jerusalem, borders, sovereignty and historical justice with the refugees.”

Asked if patriarchal tendencies common in Israeli and Palestinian society creep into the dialogue, Sonnenschein nodded yes.

“There are times where I listen to men from both sides sharing their views vociferously, with notably less participation from the women. When it is my turn to give feedback, I turn to the women and say, it would be great to hear your voices!”

Sonnenschein has spent nearly four decades using her voice to promote dialogue. In 2010, she was awarded the U.S. State Department’s “Women of Courage” certificate for her “tireless work in advocating for social change and coexistence.” Last June, Sonnenschein and her colleague, Harb Amara, were awarded the Institute of International Education’s 2018 Victor J. Goldberg Prize for Peace for creating and leading the Change Agents Program for Jewish and Palestinian Professionals.

“Meeting the ‘other’ in the right environment and under the right conditions can change your life and your approach,” she says. The Power of Dialogue Between Israelis and Palestinians: Stories of Change from the School for Peace (Rutgers University Press) features interviews, mostly conducted around 2008, with 25 Israeli and Palestinian graduates of the program, 11 of them women, telling how they implement what they’ve learned “to promote peace in human rights, politics, environment, social work, urban planning, civil engineering, you name it.”

Ruth Ebenstein is a writer, a historian, public speaker and peace activist. Her forthcoming memoir is Bosom Buddies: How Breast Cancer Fostered an Unexpected Friendship Across the Israeli-Palestinian Divide.

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April 2, 2019 by

On the Coattails of Other People’s Grief

Courtesy Susan Kennedy

Courtesy Susan Kennedy

The first of February 2018 was unseasonably warm. A crowd of people had gathered outside the Jerusalem Theatre where Haim Gouri’s coffin was lying in state. White plastic chairs set out in rows on the sun-bleached plaza were filling up quickly, leaving a few hundred guests standing on the sidelines. A handful of Filipino care-givers maneuvered wheelchairs down the rows, pressed bottles of water into their charges’ hands, fanned them with rolled up newspapers. The mood was upbeat and nostalgic, the sense of camaraderie palpable. No-one complained about the heat. The crowd on the plaza was the liberal Ashkenazi elite who had built the country, designed its institutions and fought its wars. They had come to pay homage to a national hero.

I watched the event from the back of the plaza, close to where the TV cameras were located, with tears rolling down my cheeks. A man recording the event put his arm around my shoulder and asked about my connection to Gouri. I admitted there was none. Not for the first time in my life, I felt like an imposter. I was in fact an imposter, riding on the coattails of other people’s grief, making it my own as I’d been unable to make my own grief my own. When we mourn we mourn for ourselves, for our own lives and our own losses.

Haim Gouri’s obituary was in the paper that morning. The same morning I’d received the eulogy my sister had read at our father’s funeral earlier in the week. Gouri and my father were a year apart in age and died within days of one another. They belonged to the same generation, the generation that witnessed the Holocaust first hand, celebrated the birth of Israel, and gathered up orphans after World War II and sent them to Palestine. Wasn’t it because of my father that I made my first trip to Israel, inspired by his emotion whenever the country was mentioned or its national anthem played? Israel was about the only thing that moved him and which meant something to him. I was scared to look at him when news about Israel was broadcast on TV, because I feared he’d be crying. When photographs, documentaries or clips about the Holocaust were shown, I knew without a doubt he would be.

I might not have known who Haim Gouri was had I not given him a ride home from Jericho almost three decades ago, when he flagged my car down on a dusty road not far from the Jerusalem-Dead Sea highway. He was standing in front of a small car that had smoke wafting out of its engine. His companion was still inside the car, a knee and an elbow jutting out from the open door of the driver’s seat. The two men, both in off-white trousers and loose shirts, climbed into the back of my hire car and introduced themselves. “Do you know who he is?” Gouri asked me, nodding towards his companion. This was my first visit to the country and I had no idea.

“Uzi Narkiss,” he said. It meant nothing to me. “And do you know who he is?” the man who was Uzi Narkiss asked in turn. “Haim Gouri,” he said with a flourish. I was none the wiser. The two men talked all the way to Jerusalem. I didn’t understand a word, but they left a memorable impression on me. Affable, jovial, worldly. Later that evening I discovered that my two illustrious passengers were the commander of the Six Day war and the country’s national war poet.

On that first trip to Israel I saw my father in every Israeli statesman, general, politician and actor of a certain age and background. In my daydreams, he was always heroic, beloved, successful, and charming. He was Ariel Sharon and Yehuda Amichai, he was Topol from Fiddler on the Roof and of course Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek; more modestly, he was the pastry-maker on Kibbutz Hazorea, where I picked melons and worked in the kitchen that first summer, a diver I met on the beach at Atlit, and the non-kosher butcher on Frishman Street in Tel Aviv. After my chance encounter with Gouri, my father was also the national war poet of Israel.

The reality was far from the dream. I conflated the two because I wanted my father to be a hero, wanted to believe he was, or could have been, as great as the man for whom all these people were gathered. 

England, I always told myself, had been my dad’s undoing. All that formality, bad coffee, small talk and milk. Or the Kindertransport. Or the Holocaust. Marriage to my mother. A fear of the quotidian. None of the excuses I made for him really explained why he led the life he did, but they were necessary to protect myself from believing anything bad about him. Those excuses, so worn as to be threadbare by the time I was an adult, were trotted out on each occasion I felt let down and hurt by him. They were already too numerous to count when he was sent to jail when I was seven. My eulogy for him, read in my absence by a friend because of a final betrayal on his deathbed, persists with the excuse-making, the hero worship, the cover up. As I write this, approaching a year since his death, I can hardly bring myself to admit that the image so carefully constructed over the course of my lifetime bears little relation to the truth.

Ten years after giving Gouri a ride home, I was commissioned by a British publisher to write a book about Israel, and flew out from London for a second time. It was an exciting period. The Oslo Accords had just been signed, Israelis were travelling to Jordan for the first time in decades and the Sinai was once again a safe destination. My book, a walking guide to the region, was literally going to be a trailblazer. In fact, it turned out to be a flop, because by the time it was published, in 1996, Baruch Goldstein had slaughtered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron, Rabin had been murdered and the Oslo peace process was dead. Tourists were avoiding the country and even locals weren’t hiking in remote areas alone. Still, the experience changed my life. It gave me an intimate connection to the land and its people and made me feel optimistic about what life had to offer. After the publication of my book I came back to Israel for a third time, this time permanently, got a job with the Jerusalem Post and started working as an editor.

For decades Gouri lived in a modest flat a stone’s throw from the Jerusalem Theatre. The building has multiple entrances, a dark stairwell and a well-tended utilitarian communal garden. Whenever I passed I’d look up, hoping to spot Gouri. I never did. From the voluptuous plants on his terrace I imagined what the flat looked like inside. I’ve done that since I was a child. Made up stories about people’s lives from the faintest of clues, because a life without fantasy, my own life, was so grim. A painting glimpsed from behind curtained windows could set my imagination off. A fat cat on a windowsill, a man’s shadow, a coat on a hook, a cracked window, a potted plant. I imagined Gouri rheumy-eyed in an armchair near the window, smoking a pipe beneath a portrait of one of his children while his wife baked in a kitchen lined with cupboards of peeling wood. She was always baking. She made the scene feel cozy and intimate which was why it held such appeal for me. In my fantasy, homes smelled of baking and there was always food in the fridge. Some of what I imagined, like the rheumy eyes, I knew to be true, because Gouri and his wife weren’t complete strangers to me. The notion that all homes have food in the fridge I knew from experience to be untrue.

Over the past decade I had seen the Gouris from time to time in a cafe where they and I often ate lunch. They always sat at the same round table, opposite the entrance, and from what I could see, always ordered the business lunch, and still gazed affectionately at one another after close to 70 years of marriage. No one paid them much attention. That’s how it is in Israel. They ate slowly, with easy silences and just as easy conversation. They dressed in the way Israelis dressed seventy years ago, not formally but carefully. By Gouri’s tenth decade his jackets hung off his pared-down form, and the chair he had once inhabited fully had begun, like his clothes, to look too big for him. Towards the end of his life, the table reached the height of his chest, and when he ate his elbows pointed upwards rather than downwards. When I last saw him, only months before his death, there was more Haim Gouri under the table than above it.

Haim Gouri and my dad were born a year apart in different countries and in radically different circumstances. Both were sent to Europe after the war to locate orphaned Jewish children and prepare them for a new life in Palestine. Unlike Gouri, my father himself was an orphan at the time, having just discovered that his family had perished in Auschwitz. An orphan collecting up orphans. An orphan who wanted to start his own life anew in Palestine. Gouri lived in the country my father silently, passionately, yearned for. My father joined the Jewish Brigade when he was 17, fought at the side of officers from Palestine whom he admired and emulated, but he never became one himself. He was  for a short while an undercover agent for British Intelligence, hunting down and soliciting confessions from Nazis hiding in Germany after the war ended, but that was the extent of his military career. A handful of people showed up on a rainy day in late January for my father’s funeral and fought at the graveside. There was so much shouting that my eulogy could not be heard. My sister chose to return to the graveside to read hers after the others had gone home, fearful of being interrupted and disgraced. No gravestone will be erected for him because the few people who care, his three daughters, have been cut out of the story.

In his long and sad life, my father visited Israel only once, disastrously. He still has a bank account in my local bank. He opened it in my name and his, telling the bank manager he was coming out to live here and was about to send over a few million, but of course I knew, and maybe even he knew, that he wasn’t. He dragged me to estate agents in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, asking them to show him the most luxurious properties on their lists because he would soon be retiring here. He took me to the best restaurants and to the King David pool and then asked to borrow some money so he could pay the bill. He wandered around Jaffa and impressed art gallery staff by admiring all the finest works and discussing whether to buy them or not. Margaret Tayar fell in love with him when we ate at her restaurant and he kissed her hand and told her he’d never eaten better anywhere. And left me to pay the bill. He exchanged our simple hire car for an Audi and ordered new furniture for my flat. He moved to the Hilton because my flat was depressing and he preferred Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and flew home without telling me, leaving me to pick up the pieces and the tab. And now the bank manager won’t let me close the account because he doesn’t believe my father is dead.

Haim Gouri was the person I would have liked my father to have been. If only things had been a little different, I told myself, Henry Kennedy, aka Harry Finger, aka Heinz Kuhe, would have been an Israeli national poet. Or if not a poet, then a general, or if not a general then a mayor, or if not a mayor then an actor, diver, chef or butcher. And in my wildest dreams, a father. Instead he was a tailor who turned to a life of increasingly audacious crime, spending more of his life behind bars than in them. He never ordered the business lunch anywhere, never gazed lovingly at his wife and penned little more than the occasional letter home from jail. He was of course charming, because conmen are, and he was funny and generous, at other people’s expense. He was a terrible father and husband. He betrayed those he purported to love and stuck by those he said he despised. He didn’t tell anyone he was dying because he didn’t think he was worth mourning, and, I suspect, because he knew that if we visited him in his final weeks, he would no longer have the strength to keep things moving along and the chasms in the facade would become too obvious. The consequences of a lifetime’s bad choices and cowardice would be, and in the event were, all too manifest.

Prevented from attending my father’s funeral, I attended Gouri’s instead. There I said goodbye to my fantasy father, the hero and poet, the man loved by family and friends, surrounded by children and grandchildren, and to my real father, the man who was incapable of speaking up for those he loved and who died alone, haunted and lost, an orphan who didn’t trust a soul and was careless with his own. I cried for who I thought he could have been, for who he was, and for who I am now. It was good to have so many mourners at his final farewell, to hear such heartfelt speeches, to feel the love. For those short moments, I was surrounded by family and found myself wondering once again how things might have turned out differently had my father moved here and become Haim Gouri.

Susan Kennedy is a freelance writer and editor based in Jerusalem, currently working on a memoir.

 

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April 2, 2019 by

The Matron Saint of Israeli Feminism

Photo: Joan Roth

Photo: Joan Roth

Reading Alice Shalvi: Never a Native was like discovering a kindred spirit. From the moment I first picked it up, I carted the heavy hardbound volume around with me everywhere, stealing glances at the cover photograph of kindly, white-haired Alice smiling pensively back at me—in synagogue, where I read her book behind the mehitza; in the classroom, where I tore through a few more pages while my Talmud students learned in hevruta; and in the theater where I’d taken my children to see a play, my cell phone flashlight illuminating the page. “Ah yes, I know where you are, I have been there too,” Shalvi seemed to be saying to me wherever I toted her around.

Shalvi, whose memoir (Halban Press, $18.99) was published just before her 92nd birthday, knew the synagogues and study houses and theaters of Jerusalem intimately, though she too, as she avows, was never a native. Alice Margulies was born in 1926 in Essen, Germany, and fled to London with her parents and older brother eight years later. Shalvi had already taught herself to read in her native German by age four, and she quickly taught herself English as well so she could devour the novels of Lewis Carroll, Louisa May Alcott, E. Nesbit, and Arthur Ransome. In her primary school she was frequently asked by her teachers to entertain the class by reading aloud while the other pupils learned to sew, a skill she consequently never acquired. (And here I flipped to the front cover and smiled back at Alice, because I shared her predicament—I never learned to sew or drive or acquire any practical life skills because I was always the designated reader in the family.)

During the war, Shalvi’s family moved to a village in Buckinghamshire. When she was not performing in school plays, singing in the choir, or reading books from the lending library, she rode around the corn fields on a bicycle, learned to play tennis and cricket, and discovered British Romantic poetry: “One spring day, turning a bend, I found myself, unprepared, confronting a vast bank of daffodils. I had never before seen such an abundance of what appeared like wild flowers thronging an open space.” Years later, in Jerusalem, teaching Wordsworth’s poem about stumbling upon a field of daffodils, she was astonished to discover that her students had never heard of a daffodil. Five years ago, when substituting for my husband in the English department at Bar Ilan University, I taught this same poem and had the same experience. Like Shalvi, “only then was I made aware of the absence of this quintessentially English flower from the abundant flora of the holy land.”

Shalvi and a friend bribed a teacher with cigarettes to teach them Latin so that they could take the entry exams for Oxford and Cambridge. She was accepted to Newnham, then one of two women’s colleges at Cambridge, where she and her fellow students were expected to live cloistered lives: sex was considered “obscene, indecent, smutty,” and women had to sign out if they left the college after 8pm. Reading about Alice’s adventures in Cambridge, I am grateful that I attended this university over a half a century later, though I identified with many of her experiences: I too hung a photograph of the Kotel on my dorm room wall; I too suffered from an inadequate number of toilets (mine was across two courtyards, though fortunately my baths were not limited to a shallow five inches of water, the depth designated by a black line on the tub); I too attended Friday night dinners at the Jewish Society on Thompson’s Lane, where at the Sabbath meal (by my time, alas, this license had been revoked). As the only religious Jew in my English program, I had many experiences similar to Alice, who relates that she tried to explain the concept of simile to her classmates by citing the prayer in which the children of Israel’s relationship to God is compared to “clay in the hands of a potter”; she was dismayed to discover that few of her classmates had ever heard of this prayer. At Cambridge I also found that many of my frames of reference were foreign to my classmates, which rendered my experience there all the more lonely.

 

After Aliyah…

It was at Cambridge that Shalvi first became aware of the horrors of the Holocaust and the fate of her father’s brother’s family, all of whom were shot to death in their native Poland. “Worst of all and hardest to come to grips with, even today, was my growing awareness 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.” A Zionist from her early childhood, when she’d danced the hora around her family’s kitchen table, Shalvi resolved to move to Palestine: “I made the fateful decision to go there as a social worker, rehabilitate people like these youngsters, and assist them in becoming useful, committed citizens, fellow builders of a new Jewish state that, together, we would help bring into existence.” She went on her first visit to Palestine during Christmas vacation of 1947, less than a month after the U.N. vote on the partition plan but before the British withdrawal. The euphoria was evident, particularly in Tel Aviv, where “houses were shooting up, sparkling white in the bright Mediterranean sunshine that heightened the blue of the ocean with an intensity never seen in England. I’d not expected the sun to be so blinding, the sky so cerulean, the sea so calm.”

After studying social work at the London School of Economics (L.S.E.), Shalvi made aliyah, settling in Jerusalem in November 1949. She recalls a period when everyone walked around confused, unsure whether the street they were on was called Queen Melisanda or Heleni Ha-Malka. In neighborhoods like Talbiye, Katamon, and Baka—where I live now, with all modern conveniences— the streets had no names, the houses had had only plot numbers, and no one had telephones at home. In her first year in the country, she was seduced by her landlord who forced her to sleep with him when his pregnant wife was out of the house; “today,” she writes, “we’d call it rape.” Shalvi describes several men she dated as a young single woman in Jerusalem, though she never explains how she overcame the sense of unattractiveness that haunted her as a child: “My bust was too small, my hips too broad. Even had my mirror not reflected the reality… many wounding comments on my appearance… combined to instil in me both an overwhelming sense of my own inadequacy and a comparable need to compensate. Such compensation might be accomplished by academic achievement.” Surely her academic achievement was responsible for some of her confidence, but it is still hard to understand where she mustered the courage to pursue and then propose marriage to the handsome young American banker named Moshe whom she fell in love with when she first sighted him at a party for the Hebrew University. The couple set off to Paris on their honeymoon, where they bought baguettes and cheap plates and cutlery so that they could eat in their hotel room, since Moshe kept strictly kosher. “It was our first experience of keeping house together. We made abundant and blissful use of the big brass bed. We were inordinately happy. The week in Paris proved an auspicious beginning to over 60 years of compatibility and compassionate companionship.” Moshe took pride in Shalvi’s professional accomplishments and always encouraged her to excel, never feeling threatened by her achievements. He was, in every sense, just as feminist as she.

Shalvi became pregnant soon after their marriage, and she went on to have six children in 15 years: “My conception of a happy family was undoubtedly inspired by the numerous books I read that portrayed the adventures of siblings engaged in a series of fascinating activities… I envied these fictional families and perhaps unconsciously longed to replicate them in my own adulthood.” Her first pregnancy in 1951 was during a period of rationing, when pregnant women were allocated two fresh eggs a week, but she felt happy and healthy. On a visit to London she bought a book about natural childbirth and taught herself its precepts, shocking the doctors when she refused medication during labor: “It seems I was Israel’s pioneer of natural childbirth,” she muses. Her labor pangs began during an English department study session at her apartment, where members of the faculty were gathered to read Blake, and throughout her children’s early years, she and her husband remained intensely engaged in their respective professions.

Shalvi’s reflections on working motherhood are brave, candid, and—surely not just for me—deeply inspiring. She acknowledges that she was not present for her children nearly as much as they needed or wanted her to be, but she is proud of the people her children became: “I was not a source of the loving individual attention every child desires and needs. Frustrated, they sought other sources of attention and affection—friends, lovers, and eventually spouses. Today my children reproach me for my neglect but I take a certain degree of (cold) comfort in the fact that they’ve learnt from their own negative experience and that they, in contrast to me, are not only model parents but equally dedicated grandparents.” How refreshing that Shalvi can write so openly about her inadequacies as a mother, while also appreciating decisions that leave us feeling most uneasy can prove surprisingly salutary.

In one of the more private and painful moments in this memoir, Shalvi reflects on an illegal abortion she underwent in 1950s Jerusalem. She became pregnant while her older children had mumps, and her doctor informed her she had to terminate the pregnancy because infection with mumps could result in brain damage in the embryo. Shalvi reluctantly and ambivalently consented. She continues to be plagued by what she underwent in the back room of the doctor’s house: “I never told Moshe about the abortion. I fact, I told nobody. I have never spoken of it. Yet similarly, I have never forgotten it. Though I gave birth with my customary ease to three additional blessedly healthy, carefully planned, children, the thought of that unborn child still plagues me. Was it a girl or a boy? Fair-haired like Micha or dark like Ditza? As placid as Hephziba or wild, like Benzi? And would it indeed have been in some way abnormal, or might it, despite our fears, have proved no less healthy than its siblings? The questions can never be answered; the regret and guilt never fully assuaged.” Decades later Shalvi would go on to fight for increased awareness of women’s medical and psychological needs.

 

Gender Inequality, First-Hand

Shalvi learned her compassion and her concern for others from her own life experiences. When she birthed her first son, her roommate in the maternity ward of the Anglican school where Hadassah Hospital was then housed was a gaunt Kurdish woman who had just given birth to her seventh child, and had no visitors. The woman lay there miserable as all the members of the English department took their turns visiting and congratulating Alice on the birth of her firstborn: “I learned a great deal through this pathetic woman and her experience, of the overriding importance in some cultures of bearing sons, of the lowly status of females…of the contempt in which new immigrants from the Arab countries were held by the European veterans.” Shalvi went on to become instrumental in founding a “Women’s Kitchen” in a poor neighborhood in Katamon, a clubhouse for women immigrants from Arab lands. 

Though she had made aliyah with a degree in social work, Shalvi was unable to find work in her field. Instead she landed a job teaching in the English department at Hebrew University; among her students were the young Yehuda Amichai, Dan Pagis, and Dahlia Ravikovitch, who became some of Israel’s most famous and celebrated poets. Nearly two decades later, when her youngest child was a toddler, she accepted an offer to found the English Department at Ben Gurion University. Four years later, the position of university dean became vacant. “Few of the men (needless to say they were all men) whose names were mentioned [as candidates] had what I considered the necessary qualifications.” And so Shalvi submitted her candidacy. Here, as throughout this memoir, Shalvi does not come across as arrogant or brash. On the contrary, she had a realistic sense of her own abilities and a supportive husband always at her back, and she was undaunted by the possibility of failure. “But you’re a woman!” she was told by the humanities dean. “You should be ashamed of yourself,” said the incumbent she hoped to replace. She was accused of “blatant lobbying” and “shameless self-promotion,” and she did not get the job. But for Shalvi, each failure, like each success, was a learning opportunity. “My humiliating experience led to a profound change in my perception of gender equality in Israel.”

Shalvi went on to devote herself tirelessly to advancing the status of women in all sectors of Israeli society throughout the 1980s and 1990s. She served on the Namir Commission to propose legislation and administrative changes designed to improve the social, economic, and political status of women. She worked with religious feminists to campaign on behalf of agunot, women whose husbands were missing, and mesuravot get, women refused divorce. She was instrumental in founding the Israel Women’s Network, a non-partisan organization to advance women’s status. She organized an international conference of women writers in 1986 to raise the self-esteem of Israeli women authors, hosting such luminaries as Grace Paley and Marilyn French. She persuaded the head of television at the Israel Broadcasting Authority to begin designing programs for women, of which there were none. She spoke on panels with Palestinian women, searching for common ground. She was involved in a six-month in-depth investigation of human trafficking and forced prostitution. She helped raise awareness about women’s health issues, founding an information hotline that referred women to sensitive and sympathetic doctors. Just recently, when I called the national hotline of my health clinic and listened to the menu of dialing option, I was told for the first time that I could press “5” if I wanted to speak to a doctor or nurse about pregnancy or childbirth; I have no doubt that Alice Shalvi is responsible, albeit indirectly, for this development.

 

Educational Excellence for Religious Girls

And yet in spite of all her work on the national level, in Jerusalem Shalvi is perhaps best known for her tenure as principal of Pelech, a high school founded in the 1960s for ultra-Orthodox girls. From its earliest days, Talmud was part of the compulsory curriculum at Pelech; a rarity for girls’ schools at the time. (The name of the school means spindle, and is spoken derogatorily by a misogynist sage in the Talmud who contends that “Women’s wisdom is solely in the spindle.”) Shalvi first became involved in Pelech as a parent—her eldest daughter Ditza, who was unhappy in her Orthodox high school, asked her parents to transfer to the Pelech High School for Haredi Girls, as it was then known. Uneasy with the idea of sending her daughter to such a religious school, Alice climbed up Mount Zion—where the school was then housed—to check it out. She engaged one of the students in conversation, and discovered that this ultra-Orthodox girl was working on a paper on Christian symbols in the novels of Graham Green. “Christian? Graham Green? At a haredi school? This openness was beyond belief. After that I had no objections to Ditza transferring to Pelech.”

In 1974, when Ditza was still enrolled, the founders of the school announced their intention to close it down—they were uncomfortable with the “infiltration” of modern Orthodox families. One day shortly thereafter, during a visit from the Ministry of Education, the principal was asked whom the ministry should be in future contact with on matters regarding the school. Without a moment’s pause, the principal told him to be in touch with Professor Shalvi—and thus to her total surprise, Shalvi became the school’s new principal. Though the school was already catering to a more enlightened demographic, Shalvi found that her religious progressivism was often at odds with the school’s ethos; in her new role, she had to put away her elegant pantsuits and instead wear long skirts, though she was never able to bring herself to cover her hair, as many traditional Orthodox women do. When she tried to advocate for replicating the American bat mitzvah program she had witnessed on a recent trip, one of the male Jewish studies teachers caustically replied, “In an orchestra, when the violinist plays the notes composed for the violin and the trumpeter plays the notes composed for the trumpets, there is harmony. But when the violins play the trumpets’ notes and the trumpets play the notes of the violinists there is discord.” Chastened, Shalvi writes that she “learned never again to express my heretical views on the inferior status of women within the confines of Pelech.”

Even so, Shalvi continued to push the envelope in her role as principal—she hired an American woman with an expertise in Talmud to teach a course on women and Jewish law, and she brought in a commanding officer from the Israel Defense Forces to speak to her students about women’s service in the military. Ultimately, her heresy became too much for the school officials to bear, and she felt she had no choice but to resign so that the school would not lose its accreditation. Still, Shalvi remains inordinately proud of “my girls,” as she refers to her Pelech graduates, one of whom is now her own rabbi. “Surveying how feminism has affected Israeli society, one is compelled to admit that the greatest revolution has occurred in Modern Orthodoxy,” she contends. “Not only have the women themselves ‘come a long way’; they have carried their communities in their wake.”

Shalvi, who was the subject of Paula Weiman-Kelman’s documentary “Rites of Passage,” which aired recently on ABC, was tireless and tenacious in her professional and public roles. In 1990, when she was settling down for what she thought would be a quiet retirement, she was asked to head the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, which offered rabbinical training and advanced degrees in Jewish studies. Shalvi agreed and became rector and then president, a decision she later regretted: “The double burden was too heavy for one person to bear, and as I soon learned, I was totally ignorant as to the complexities of the Conservative movement in the U.S.” Even so, she acknowledges that she has “nothing but happy memories” of her days at Schechter, where she founded Nashim, an academic journal of Jewish feminist studies, and she helped create the Center for Women in Jewish Law.

Reading this memoir, I was struck by the enormous debt of gratitude that I, as a woman in Jerusalem, owe to Shalvi’s trailblazing. When Shalvi pushed for a bat mitzvah program at Pelech, such an idea was unheard of; there is no question that my daughters and their contemporaries will have bat mitzvah ceremonies. When I was pregnant, I had my pick of Lamaze classes to attend (though it was still difficult, in the early 2000s, to find a woman obstetrician/gynecologist). When I wanted to study Talmud on a high level, there was a host of institutions to choose from—some for women only, and some co-educational. And when I wrote a book about my experiences studying Talmud as a woman, the opening chapter was first published in Nashim, the journal Shalvi founded.

Feminism among religious women in Jerusalem is a funny thing; just recently, I offered a copy of Lilith magazine to a religiously observant friend my age who swims with me at the pool in the mornings after dropping off her children at school. “A feminist magazine?” she looked at me quizzically. “Sorry, that’s not for me. I’m no feminist,” she said, before heading out to teach history at the university. I wanted to call after her, “You’re not a feminist? How did you get to where you are, if not for the feminists? Why do you think you have childcare for your toddler? Why are you able to work as a mother? How did you get your maternity leave? What kind of historian are you?” But I knew my protests would fall on deaf ears. Her response is a reminder that we still have a long way to go. Alice Shalvi, having completed the memoir she began two decades ago, has taught herself to meditate and seems finally to have found tranquility: “No words are needed. No words suffice. Just as two lovers sit side by side in silence, each absorbing each other’s presence, so I sit absorbing and at the same time surrendering myself to the Divine Spirit.” There is more work to be done, but the mantle has been passed to my generation, and to my children. We are so fortunate to have Shalvi as our model, our mentor, our guiding light. 

Ilana Kurshan’s own memoir, If All the Seas Were Ink, won the 2018 Sami Rohr Prize in Jewish Literature.

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