Tag : israel

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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January 10, 2019 by

Haifa’s Feminist Archive •

The latest archival material to be added to the Jewish Feminism Collections at the Brandeis University Library includes contributions from the Haifa Feminist Institute, documenting women’s activism in Israel. Since 2015, the Haifa center has worked with volunteers and a professional archivist to classify, catalogue, digitize and organize the Haifa Lesbian Archive and make it accessible to the public. In 2016 plans were made to develop an online resource to highlight another section of Haifa’s feminist archive: “1970s Feminism in Israel,” based on the personal archives of American-born former Knesset member Marcia Freedman. The Haifa Feminist Archives joins the Lilith magazine archives, considered the keystone of the Brandeis collection.


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The Lilith Blog

December 26, 2018 by

A Filmmaker Listens to Germans, Jews and Palestinians

Like many born into the generation following the Holocaust, Ofra Bloch has always been fascinated with, and affected by, generational trauma–on both sides. Bloch set out to make a documentary focusing on descendants of former oppressors, focusing on the effects of the Holocaust on non-Jewish Germans. But what she ended up creating extends far past that initial subject. Instead, “Afterward” weaves together three emotional narratives: Germans after the Holocaust, Palestinians after the “Nakba” (the “catastrophe,” known by Israelis as the 1948 War of Independence) and Bloch’s personal story of growing up in Israel squeezed between inescapable shadows of WWII on one hand, and silence regarding Palestinians on the other. 

As a child, Bloch dreamed of pursuing both psychology and filmmaking. Now, 30 years into her career as a psychoanalyst, “Afterward” is the meeting point of these dreams. “I have a lot of chutzpah, I take risks and I do things,” Bloch told Lilith. Throughout the six years it took to film and edit “Afterward,” Bloch continued to work full-time at her practice in New York. “I’m not a filmmaker, I’m a psychoanalyst, but I think both professions need the same skills,” she says. “You need to listen, which is like the camera looking at the subjects, and analyzing is like the editing process.”

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October 3, 2018 by

Yael Dayan at A Rally in Tel Aviv for LGBT Surrogacy

For most of the years of my life, I was myself among the groundbreakers and the defenders of your rights, and today I have come to ask of you all not to be egotists. To this giant crowd: Please join a part of my struggle that I believe is all of ours.

Today is the eve of Tisha b’Av: [mourning] the destruction of the First Temple, the destruction of the Second Temple. I am calling us now to prevent the destruction of the Third Temple. The Third Temple is not in the messianic future, it is not on the Temple Mount, it is not in the Western Wall with texts to God. The Third Temple is the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel. 

-Yael Dayan Addressed a July Rally in Tel Aviv, Held to Protest an Israeli Law Banning Pregnancy Surrogacy for Single Men

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September 27, 2018 by

Fashion Statements •

Israel’s globally trendsetting fashion design is the subject of the exhibition “Fashion Statements,” that features a diverse range of over 150 outfits of traditional dress, both Jewish and Arab, and explores themes of religious and national symbolism. The exhibition’s four sections—Holy/ Land; Austerity/Prosperity; Made in Israel; and Fashion Now—move the viewer from late 19th-century indigenous pre-Zionist “fashion” to the Europeanism and Orientalism in the early decades of the state, to the growth of leading industries and fashion houses like Gottex, Maskit, Fini Leitersdorf, and Rojy Ben-Joseph, as well as global contemporary brands. Until Feb 1, 2019, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. israelmuseum.org.il

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September 26, 2018 by

Israeli Kids in the U.S. •

To cultivate a connection to Judaism and encourage Hebrew language learning and knowledge of Israeli culture among Israeli families who live in the United States, the Israeli American Council offers Israeli children’s books, selected by educators for children ages 2–8, to any family signing up for this service. An annual subscription is $10 for seven books, plus activity kits based on the books, and additional resources. israeliamerican.org/keshet/ hebrew-books

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