From the Newsletter | The Brilliant and Formidable Alice Shalvi

By | Oct 06, 2023
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When she died on October 2 at age 96, Alice Shalvi left behind scores of mourning family members and friends in Israel and abroad, hundreds of devoted former students, numerous social action and feminist NGOs that she helped to found and support, and an inspiring legacy of activism and leadership.

In 1946 the German-born Shalvi represented British Jewish students at the 22nd Zionist Congress in Basel. She made aliyah to Israel in 1949, intending to become a social worker. Instead, and somewhat by chance, she became a professor of English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. From there, she went on to help establish the Department of English at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, but when she was refused the position of head of the department because she was a woman, as she was explicitly told, her feminism was galvanized. In 1975, Shalvi was named principal for the Pelech School for ultra-Orthodox girls, which became one of the country’s leading progressive schools. Then, in 1984, she founded the Israel Women’s Network, which remains one of the country’s premier feminist-advocacy NGOs. She later served as rector of the (Conservative) Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies and helped establish “Kehillat Zion,” a groundbreaking, fully egalitarian Orthodox synagogue and community.

I knew her through the Israel Women’s Network, where I worked as a fundraiser early in my career, and from the monthly “Portion of the Week” group that she organized. From Alice I learned that Judaism requires committed questioning, that feminism is essentially social justice, and that professionalism demands constant dedication.

Publicly, she was a formidable opponent, willing to speak truth to power, no matter what the truth or who held the power, whether religious officials, politicians or activists. Privately, she was deeply devout, and that devotion inspired her, she wrote in her autobiography, “to seek out the best, the noblest in myself, in others. It bids me love my fellow creatures. It leads us upwards, to the firmament, to perceive the wonders of nature, the depth of human feeling, the height of human achievement…to surrender herself to the Divine Spirit.”

Shalvi was often referred to as the mother of Israeli feminism, especially in the obituaries that have filled the media since her passing. I wonder if she would have liked that. For her, motherhood was complex (she raised six children), and she railed against social structures that prevented women from living “family-friendly social lives.” In her book, she wrote, “In retrospect, I’m painfully aware that, while I attained renown for my professional and public activities, I was a failure as a mother.”

Shalvi could indeed be difficult, demanding that we all work at her frenetic multitasking pace. She could draw one into a discussion of her broad visions and abstract conceptual analyses of social problems, then, based on her sharp understanding, she would swerve quickly and impatiently to a search for practical, implementable solutions. She believed that those solutions were there—if we only cared enough about the suffering of others to find them.

She could seem imperious, her posh English somehow imparting a high tone even to her heavily accented Hebrew. Yet she was well aware of the privileges of her life, and was never haughty or unkind. She was as generous with her resources, time and thoughts as she was with her criticisms, all served with a perfectly brewed cup of tea. 

Born in Essen, Germany, on October 16, 1926, Alice Hildegard Margulies was the youngest of three children and grew up in a comfortable, cultured home imbued with music, literature and Jewish and Zionist commitment. But as Hitler rose to power, the family fled, first to Mannheim and then, in 1934, when she was eight years old, to London.

Shalvi was a brilliant student. She developed a passion for English, her second language, and for English literature, winning numerous writing awards. She went on to study English lliterature at Cambridge University and social work at the London School of Economics. But at school she was called the “little refugee girl,” and at university she was subjected to antisemitism, leaving her with a sense that, despite her achievements, she never fully belonged anywhere—a feeling she summed up in the title of her autobiography, Never a Native, published in 2018.

She married Moshe Shelkowitz, an immigrant from New York in 1950. They Hebraicized their names to Shalvi, and raised their family in Jerusalem. As Shalvi’s public activities increased, Moshe assumed the bulk of the household responsibilities. Together, they opened their home to people from around the world to join at their Sabbath table for dinner and song—and for informal study groups, especially for women. When Moshe died in 2013, they had been married for 63 years.

Shalvi was awarded numerous accolades and prizes, including, in 1991, the Ministry of Education’s Education Prize both for teaching Talmud to girls and for insisting that Pelech alumni serve in either the IDF or the National Service. In 2007, she won the Israel Prize for her life’s work, and in 2019, she was awarded a National Jewish Book Award for Never a Native.

Through all her years, Shalvi found time to encourage former students and colleagues as they searched for their own paths and enjoyed friendship with women of all ages and backgrounds—especially a small group from the United States who referred to themselves as the FOAs (Friends of Alice).

Shalvi’s seemingly disparate career and life choices were guided by values that to her were self-evident: Judaism, Zionism, feminism, pluralism and equality, and the belief that each of us can and must strive to make a difference in the world. And through it all, Alice Shalvi was always ready to stop, if only for a moment, to appreciate the exquisiteness of nature, the power of creation or the beauty of a Shakespearian sonnet, ready to view the world with awe and wonder.

Read Eetta Prince-Gibson’s review of Shalvi’s memoir, Never a Native, here

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