Alice Shalvi’s spellbinding memoir is both deeply personal and sweepingly political as it records the author’s experience of major events and social movements that have shaped Jewish life over the past century. Born in Germany in 1926, Alice Shalvi (née Margulies) has been a resident of Israel for seventy years. Her book recounts the lives of her parents and extended family through Nazi antisemitism and Russian communism, her immediate family’s move to London in 1933, and her subsequent studies at Cambridge and the London School of Economics. Shalvi’s parents were committed to Zionism, and in 1949 Shalvi herself made aliyah. In Israel, she encountered a complicated multiethnic and socially hierarchical society. She was also confronted by male arrogance and sexual aggression.
Central to this unflinchingly honest story is Shalvi’s gradual recognition of the endemic sexism that characterizes Israeli life at every level. She became an advocate for women’s welfare and for increasing the presence and voices of all women in Israeli academics, politics, and centers of religious authority. From a personal perspective, Shalvi describes the challenges and feelings of failure that accompanied balancing a career and raising six children. In 1950, she married an American immigrant, Moshe Shalvi; the couple enjoyed a happy and fruitful marriage. At the same time, she spent much of her working life as a professor of English and a university administrator. After retirement, Shalvi took on the volunteer position of principal of the Pelech Religious Experimental High School for Girls in Jerusalem, a demanding job she held for fifteen years. Nor did her professional activities end there. Shalvi went on to serve as Rector of Jerusalem’s Schechter Institute for Jewish Studies, the first institution in Israel to establish a MA in Jewish women’s studies, and to serve the Institute in various other capacities; in 2007, she was a recipient of the prestigious Israel Prize.
The descriptions of Shalvi’s various feminist undertakings and achievements in the latter part of this memoir make it an important historical account. However, it is the human voice that truly elevates this book. The reader will long remember Shalvi’s childhood recollections, her subtle portraits of her parents and other relatives, and her descriptions of the difficulties and exultations of building a life and a family in Israel. Among the most moving aspects of Shalvi’s story is her account of her difficult and unresolved relationship with her adored older brother, a generous but ultimately elusive figure whose approval she desperately sought and never felt she had wholly obtained.
Never A Native reveals Shalvi’s brilliance and ebullience, her gift for friendship, and her formidable work ethic. Although she describes herself as “never a native” and always an outsider, it is evident that she is a force for positivity who has always been undaunted in fighting for new and more equitable social realities.
Judith R. Baskin, Philip H. Knight Professor of Humanities Emerita, University of Oregon, is the author of Midrashic Woman: Formations of the Feminine in Rabbinic Literature. Her edited books include Jewish Women in Historical Perspective; Women of the Word: Jewish Women and Jewish Writing; and The Cambridge Guide to Jewish History, Religion, and Culture, coedited with Kenneth Seeskin and winner of a 2011 National Jewish Book Award.