Rest in Power: Alice Shalvi, the Mother of Israeli Feminism

The late Alice Shalvi was an Orthodox mother of six, a remarkable intellectual—and a breaker of glass ceilings who advanced women’s equality in realms both secular and religious.

Alice Shalvi, Israeli professor and educator, at her home in Jerusalem on March 14, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel / Flash90)

I first met Alice Shalvi in 1978 in a meeting room at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel when I was still an editor at Ms. magazine.

The year before, I’d visited Israel for the first time and been impressed by the energy and activism of its homegrown feminists. On my return to New York, I decided to organize a “Ms. Tour of Israel” and persuaded my sister editors to let me run an ad in our pages offering readers an itinerary featuring individuals, groups and events of special interest to people with a special interest in feminism. To our astonishment, 52 women and four men sent in their deposits and, duty-bound, I set out to fulfill the tour’s promises.

When I sought speaker suggestions for a panel on the diversity of the Israeli women’s movement, five knowledgeable people recommended Alice Shalvi, an Orthodox Jewish feminist (in those years, an oxymoron), who was a professor of English at Hebrew University and head of a high school for religious girls.

Had I asked Central Casting to send us the ideal spokesperson for mainstream Israeli feminism, I doubt they would have chosen a religiously observant mother of six children, an elite intellectual I once described as “a white-haired Jewish leprechaun with the silhouette of a Russian nesting doll.” But that’s who joined the group on the dais of our hotel’s meeting room on the night of March 7, 1978. And who eventually became one of my most beloved friends and teachers.

Born in Germany in 1926 to parents who were patrons of the arts and played records of famous cantors on a gramophone in the parlor, Alice Shalvi enjoyed a privileged, culturally rich childhood. She taught herself to read German at age 4 and gathered neighborhood children in a circle so she could read aloud to them. Like all Jewish girls of her era, she was denied a formal religious education—though her father, a fervent Zionist and cofounder of a Hebrew-language publishing house, did provide her with a Hebrew tutor.

Soon after Adolf Hitler came to power, Alice’s big brother was mauled by Nazi thugs, and the family’s house was raided by the Gestapo. The family fled Germany and took refuge in London. In her memoir, Never a Native, she admits to spending her youth blissfully ignorant of the Holocaust but plagued by air raid sirens, gas masks, underground shelters, antisemitic insults and ridicule from classmates who teased her for being “a little refugee.” Excellence was her rebound strategy: She polished her plummy British accent, won prizes in English literature and was accepted into Cambridge University a year ahead of her age group.

At Cambridge, Alice studied English and became active in the Jewish Society, an extracurricular group that hosted hora dances, Zionist study groups and religious events. In the first of what became a lifetime of pushbacks against inequality, she broke one of Orthodox Judaism’s thickest glass ceilings by becoming the first female hymn leader at the society’s Sabbath suppers. Not content to be the first and only, she made sure the group officially codified that the position would always be gender neutral.

In 1946, she attended the Zionist Youth Congress in Basel, Switzerland, where exhilarating speeches by Chaim Weizmann and David Ben-Gurion, the future first president and first prime minister, respectively, of the soon-to-be Jewish state, solidified her decision to make Israel her permanent home. After pausing to earn a master’s in social work from the London School of Economics with the hope of landing a job counseling traumatized Holocaust survivors, she “made aliyah” (became a citizen) in 1949—one year after the founding of the state of Israel.

To her surprise and dismay, despite the prestigious degree, Israeli social work agencies wouldn’t hire her because she didn’t speak Arabic. She did, however, qualify for a post at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, teaching English as a foreign language.

Her life took another major turn in 1950, when she met Moshe Shalvi, a recent émigré from New York City, and married him five months later. Moshe would become her romantic soul mate, the most indefatigable champion of her work and the primary parent to the six children their union produced between 1952 and 1967. In the same period, she also earned a Ph.D. in English, with a dissertation entitled “Renaissance Concepts of Honour in Shakespeare’s ‘Problem Plays.’”

All of this BF—before feminism.

Then again, Alice and Moshe had an effortlessly nonsexist marriage from the start. Before one of my trips, I remember asking her what I could bring her from the States. She thought for a moment. “A fun kitchen implement for Moshe,” she said.

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2024 issue of Ms. magazine. Join the Ms. community today and you’ll get the Winter issue delivered straight to your mailbox.

In 1969, Alice, despite her dazzling credentials, suffered a blow familiar to female academics everywhere: Although she had inaugurated its English department, Ben-Gurion University denied her a deanship because she was a woman.

Rather than bow to its decision, she joined forces with other female faculty members and presented the university with a list of their complaints about gender bias and sexual harassment along with specific demands for equal treatment. And they won. That was the first of what I think of as “wonders in Aliceland,” victories resulting from her fierce, often simultaneous, efforts to advance women’s equality in realms both secular and religious.

From 1975 to 1990, she headed Pelech, an innovative high school for Orthodox girls, and created a curriculum that includes the humanities, arts and sciences but also women’s history and the study of the Talmud. (The latter in defiance of Jewish tradition, though not of Jewish law.)

In 1984, while working at Pelech, she cofounded the Israel Women’s Network, a nonpartisan advocacy group that employed consciousness-raising, education, litigation and lobbying to get more women on local and national legislative bodies and corporate boards, equalize pension rights and military combat units, and pass laws against domestic violence, sex discrimination and harassment.

In the late ’90s, she became rector of what is now known as the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, a graduate school for Jewish organizational professionals that includes a multidisciplinary program in gender and feminist studies. From 2000 to 2003, she served the institute as its executive board chair.

Late in her 70s, Alice spurned retirement to work as assistant editor on Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia, a CD that contains nearly 1,700 biographical entries on Jewish women from biblical to current times.

During the last 20 years of her life, she split her time and waning energy writing her memoir (published to rave reviews in 2018) and giving talks all over Israel and the U.S. about her two enduring passions: promoting justice for all women and a peaceful resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

[The Jerusalem Football Club] organizes and supports girls’ and boys’ soccer teams with both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis on their rosters. In other words, it was a sports-world expression of her commitments to feminism and peace.

Alice Shalvi teaching at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem in the 1960s. (Halban Publishers)

Whenever she had a gig in New York, the dozen American Jewish feminists who’d dubbed ourselves “Friends of Alice” would plan informal events centered on her.

In 2016, our most affluent FOA member funded a business-class airline ticket to bring her to New York so we could celebrate her 90th birthday together. Correctly anticipating that we’d be chipping in for a gift, Alice emailed that she didn’t “need anything material” but would appreciate a gift in her honor to the Jerusalem Football Club, which, she said, was “making an incredibly important contribution to maintaining the social fabric of our deeply divided city.” Baffled by her request, we researched the club and discovered that it organizes and supports girls’ and boys’ soccer teams with both Jewish and Palestinian Israelis on their rosters. In other words, it was a sports-world expression of her commitments to feminism and peace. We honored her wish.

Conversations with Alice were rarely frothy, and thank heavens. Whenever I was in Israel, we had tea together in her garden and small talk got short shrift. I could hardly wait until she went off on some disquisition about ha’matzav (the situation between Israelis and Palestinians), or a Yehuda Amichai poem we both loved, or a deplorable statement by some right-wing Knesset member.

“And what are you thinking about these days, Leh-tee?” she’d suddenly inquire. But I always tried to get her back on topic because she had so much to say about women, politics, books and people, and I had so much to learn from her.

I can’t quite believe that Alice is no longer sitting in her garden in Jerusalem receiving friends like me. But though she missed her 97th birthday by two weeks, I confess to being relieved that this proponent of justice and peace died five days before the shock of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks could kill her.

Up next:

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Letty Cottin Pogrebin is a founding editor of Ms. magazine, writer, lecturer, social justice activist, and author of 12 books—most recently, Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.