the covers of both books superimposed over a photo of the Israeli flag
(Background photo/Wikimedia-Tiia Mono CC BY-SA 3.0)

Two new books give Zionist feminists a well-deserved place in history

J.’s books coverage is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.

As women have all too often been written out of history, I am always pleased when books emerge that cast light on women who might otherwise escape our attention. Such is the case with two new releases depicting the lives of two remarkable women, both born in Germany in the 1920s.

Alice Shalvi is among the giants of Israel’s feminist movement. She recently published her memoir “Never a Native” at the age of 92, and it was worth the wait to hear her recount her years of unexpected journeys.

Shalvi was born in Essen, Germany, in 1926. As conditions worsened under the Nazis, her family left for England, where Shalvi studied English literature at Cambridge and social work at the London School of Economics. Active in Zionist causes, she made aliyah in 1949, but was unable to find employment as a social worker. Fortunately, an opportunity to teach English at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem fell into her lap, leading to an unanticipated career in education. Her achievements included founding the English department at what would become Ben-Gurion University, heading the Pelech school and leading the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies.

Her involvement in Pelech, a high school for Orthodox girls in Jerusalem, reveals Shalvi’s extraordinary character. In 1975 the school was in precipitous decline, losing its leadership and its building. Shalvi offered to serve as interim principal on a volunteer basis to help the school regain its footing. She ended up playing that role for 15 years, transforming the school into an important institution that expanded learning opportunities — both secular and religious — for girls.

Conscious of the personal and professional mistreatment she had endured for decades and inspired by the feminist movement, Shalvi helped found the Israel Women’s Network in 1984. Under her leadership, the organization challenged sexist practices in many arenas of Israeli society, including the limited opportunities awarded women in the military as well as the laws governing agunot, women whose husbands refuse to consent to a religious divorce.

All of Shalvi’s accomplishments took place against the backdrop of a demanding personal life, as she and her husband, Moshe, raised six children. Sadly, Shalvi deems herself “a failure as a mother,” and one can imagine the inner conflict that she must have experienced as she balanced the demands of being an educator, an activist and a parent.

Whereas Shalvi received the Israel Prize, Israel’s greatest honor, librarian Ruth Rappaport lived and died in relative obscurity. But her life in the world of books is worth commemorating, and Kate Stewart has done so with “A Well-Read Woman: The Life, Loves, and Legacy of Ruth Rappaport.”

The book had its unlikely genesis a few months after Rappaport’s death in 2010 when Stewart, herself a librarian and archivist, was invited by a friend to come to the estate sale at which Rappaport’s belongings were being sold. Fascinated by Rappaport’s life, Stewart was able to construct a biography out of the diaries and letters Rappaport had kept, the words of colleagues and friends (which don’t always paint a flattering picture), and Stewart’s own research and travel in Rappaport’s footsteps.

Rappaport was born in 1923 in Leipzig. Her parents, like Shalvi’s, were Ostjuden — Eastern European Jews who had moved to Germany for a better life.

Rappaport and her mother traveled to Switzerland in 1938, a welcome respite from the terrible conditions in Germany. When it was time to return to Leipzig, Rappaport jumped from the train as it departed the Zurich station, unwilling to return to the Nazi state. She was now on her own at 15 years old. She would not see her parents again, as both would die after being deported to concentration camps.

After stints with foster families in Switzerland, Rappaport obtained a visa for the United States in late 1939, and went to live with family members in Seattle. An active Zionist, she eventually moved to San Francisco and served as secretary for the Zionist Organization of America office.

She moved to Israel in 1948, where she worked as a journalist and photographer (tutored by Robert Capa). Her experience, however, was largely one of disillusionment

She returned to the United States and eventually applied for library school at UC Berkeley. She wrote in her application, “Since childhood I have been an avid reader and perhaps because of my experiences living in Nazi Germany, where books were burned and banned, I have had a profound feeling and respect for books and their value all my life.”

Rappaport went on to become a librarian for the Defense Department, first on a base in Okinawa and then in Vietnam, where she developed an extensive library system during the war years to ensure soldiers’ access to reading materials. She then worked at the Library of Congress for 22 years. Among her first jobs was cataloging the “Delta Collection,” consisting of pornography and other items confiscated by federal agencies (the collection was kept in a locked room).

Reflecting on whether to call Rappaport a hero, Stewart prefers the word “radical.” She writes, “Radicals may not necessarily be lauded in history … their lives don’t always make for simple, heroic narratives. But radicals are the ones in the trenches, doing the grunt work and pushing the boulders uphill, despite the resistance from above.” It’s a description that applies to both Rappaport and Shalvi, two women whose lives deserve our attention.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.