The mourners gathered round the body at Alice Shalvi’s funeral in Jerusalem last Tuesday and sang with great emotion and passion, Eshet Chayil – “a woman of worth”. Chanted each Friday night to welcome in Shabbat, it summed up a woman who was deeply loved and revered. Her family, friends, community, students and colleagues in their hundreds accompanied her to her final resting place.
Many have written glowing tributes about her central concern, the struggle for women’s rights, often against frightened men in authority in Israel and the humiliation and rejection that she received at their hands. This struggle underpinned her life’s work to turn Israel into Zion.
She was born in the Weimar Republic in 1926 – the Germany of President Hindenburg and during the few golden years before the economic crash. The Nazis acquired 2.6% of the vote in 1928. Years later, she remembered her brother, Willi, returning home in a torn shirt – the result of a whipping by the Hitler Youth – and the cheering crowds when Goering’s motorcade passed by the house. She recalled the sight of her toys and books being strewn on the floor after a Gestapo raid.
All this persuaded Alice’s parents to leave Essen for England with her and her brother. While she carried her admiration for Goethe, Schiller and the giants of German culture with her, she quickly embraced the language and literature of her new homeland, which eventually took her to Cambridge University.
Alice’s father, Benzion Marguiles, born in Skalat, Galicia, was an astute businessman who strongly supported the Zionist movement as a member of Mizrahi, the religious Zionist movement. Benzion’s work in the UK for Jewish refugees escaping Nazism brought Alice into contact with many notables such as the poet Itzik Manger and the artist Mané Katz.
Her father’s friendship with James de Rothschild, who had worked closely with Weizmann and Jabotinsky during World War I, allowed him to bring the family to the safety of the Rothschild Estate at Waddesdon, just outside of London, to escape the Blitz.
The flight from Nazi Germany was ever-present and Alice remembered long afterwards Chamberlain’s speech on September 3, 1939, that “we are now at war with Germany”.
Her father had learned about the extermination of Polish Jewry from the Bundist exile in London, Shmuel Zygielbojm, who killed himself in 1943 to protest at the inaction and indifference of the Allies to the destruction of the Jewish people in the Shoah. Alice herself only began to understand what had happened when she was a student delegate to the first Zionist Congress at Basel after the war.
She recalled: “The roll call of entire Jewish communities that had been exterminated elicited an uninhibited outpouring of grief — tears, sobs, cries of ‘Oy, Gottenyu, Gottenyu! (Oh, dear God, dear God!)’. It was only then that I comprehended the full horror of the murderous destruction of European Jewry and its rich culture.”
When Alice arrived in the newly founded state of Israel in 1949, she originally intended to be a social worker. Instead, her skills in the context of the erection of the ma’abarot (tent cities for new immigrants) were superfluous and she fell back on teaching English as a foreign language as a temporary measure.
Within months she had met a new immigrant from New York, Moshe Shelkowitz, and fallen in love with him despite their political differences. He was a supporter of Menahem Begin’s Irgun while she remained the quintessential English liberal. Moshe had been motivated by Ben Hecht’s Zionist pageants at Madison Square Gardens and his incendiary assaults on the British in Mandatory Palestine, published in The New York Times.
“Every time you blow up a British arsenal, or wreck a British jail, or send a British railroad train sky high, or rob a British bank, or let go with your guns and bombs at the British betrayers and invaders of your homeland, the Jews of America make a little holiday in their hearts,” he wrote.
Moshe subsequently hebraised their names to Shalvi, changed his views and went into publishing as production planner and illustrations editor for the Encyclopedia Judaica in the 1970s, and as the project coordinator for the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust in 1990. He died in 2013.
Alice’s entry into teaching and academia – almost by accident – led to an academic career at the Hebrew University. Her doctoral thesis examined Renaissance Concepts of Honour in Shakespeare’s ‘Problem’ Plays and she rose to the rank of assistant professor. Her students included some of the great poets of Israel, such as Yehuda Amihai and Dan Pagis. She commented in retirement that there was “no greater compliment than to be addressed as morati (my teacher)”.
In the early 1970s, the Hebrew University began to develop the English Department at what became Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. While her colleagues repeatedly elected her to be their representative, she met the brick wall of the Council for Higher Education, which was reticent about any kind of innovation.
She further discovered that she had been denied the position of Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences because she was a woman. On further investigation, she understood that this was not an isolated incident amidst many claims of sexual harassment. Alice galvanised fellow women faculty members and presented their demands to their male superiors.
This incident laid the basis for her 15-year long involvement with Pelech, “a religious experimental high school for girls” which her two daughters attended and where Talmud was a compulsory subject for girls. Again, almost by accident, Alice took over the running of the school in Bayit Va’Gan in Jerusalem.
She transformed the school with new programs such as environmental studies, Yiddish, Israeli society and women’s health. The school also encouraged service in the IDF for religious girls. Pelech became a much sought-after institution for the daughters of Jerusalem. In 2007, Alice’s endeavours were recognised when she was awarded the Israel Prize for contributions to society and state.
In parallel, Alice had initiated the Israel Women’s Network during the 1980s and conducted ongoing dialogues with Palestinian women. All this was far too much to stomach for many traditionalist men and their political friends. After years of resistance, Alice bowed to the inevitable and resigned as head teacher.
Pelech today teaches feminism, philosophy, particle science and looks to a female rabbinical authority for guidance. Alice’s ideas now permeate many institutions in Israel and Pelech is recognised as an outstanding educational model.
Alice had a widespread network of friends in the English-speaking world, stretching from New York to Melbourne to London. These Friends of Alice (FOA) in London formed the women’s Rosh Chodesh groups, which gave Jewish women the space to be traditional participants and not token observers.
In England, her friends brought her over for her 85th birthday and for several women’s weekends of learning and discussion in Bournemouth on the south coast. In New York, they sponsored a 90th birthday celebration. In Israel, a former Pelech pupil, Tamar Elad-Applebaum, became her rabbi while Alice became president of her congregation, “Zion”, in Baka, Jerusalem.
Her thirst for new ideas, intellectual discourse and cultural needs was always there – even when she inhabited a wheelchair. She would go to the Khan theatre to see a French farce and thought it was quite appropriate to see a production of Camus’s The Plague when Covid restrictions were relaxed.
She preferred to take the onerous night flight to London when in her nineties – because it gave her more time to go to the theatre and visit art galleries the very next day. A couple of years ago, she embarked on a translation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time to provide a more readable version than the classic one by Scott Moncrieff.
Her energies in her last years were devoted to the writing of her memoirs, Never a Native, and to the Zion congregation in Jerusalem.
She was a member of the Board of the New Israel Fund and was involved politically with Ir Amim, which is dedicated to ensure that Jerusalem should be a city of peaceful co-existence and one of mutual respect for both Israelis and Palestinians.
She also supported the Hapoel Katamon Jerusalem Football Club (HKJFC) which brings together Jewish and Arab youngsters to engage jointly to play football. Some 1600 young people participate each year – and HJKFC is one of the very few football clubs in Israel that has activities for girls and women.
These years also marked the advent of populism, authoritarianism and intolerance at home and abroad. She bemoaned the coming of the age of post-truth and alternative facts with Trump’s election in 2016 and the ideological trajectory in recent years of “the treacherous Netanyahu”.
She mourned the loss of the values of the founders of Israel, commenting: “Our society is today too fragmented, sector set against sector: Jews v Arabs, Ashkenazi v Oriental Jews; right-wing proponents of a Greater Israel v those who would prefer a return to the 1967 borders and a two-state solution. Once there was a considerable degree of economic equality with only a very tiny number of people of great wealth. Even these did not vaunt their wealth by indulging in excessive luxury and acquisitiveness.
“In the face of these and other dismaying phenomena, what I am most proud of is the incredible growth of civil society. Israel must be among the very few countries that can boast of such a plethora of non-profit organisations dedicated to what one can loosely define as in engaging in Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.”
During this time, visits to Berachyahu Street in Jerusalem or via zoom from London became the only way to “see” Alice – as her ailments and restrictions increased. Yet her mind remained crystal clear well into her mid-nineties.
For me, any praise from Alice for an article, including the many published in Plus61J Media, was manna from a literary heaven. Her exquisite command and use of the English language facilitated her determination to remain unbowed in the face of the rising political storm around her. She remained – as she always had been – a liberal Zionist, guided by a sense of fair play and able to distinguish between right and wrong.
She was fond of citing a line from Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well: “The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together.” Alice understood this as a stoic acceptance of the ups and downs, the pleasures and pains, that characterise human existence.
Moshe and Alice had six children and numerous grandchildren. Alice leaves behind her 20 great-grandchildren – and a multitude of disciples all over the world who feel blessed that they knew her.
Plus61j 6 October 2023