Book review: Never a Native

Amanda Hopkinson praises a distinguished career.


Never a Native by Alice Shalvi
Halban Publishers, £20


Alice Shalvi’s memoir is more than personal. It stands as an aspiration realised for her generation, gender and people. Born a German Jew in 1926, Shalvi’s journey took her to exile in Britain, before her “homecoming” to Israel in 1949.

Never a Native covers her ongoing travels, including the journey she made in becoming a socialist feminist, as important to her as her Jewish identity. Together, these identities were the basis for a full and successful career, pursued in tandem with raising six children in a clearly contented and mutually supportive marital home.

By 1950, she had attained degrees from Cambridge and the LSE, indicative of twin professional interests in social work and English literature. It was also the year when she met and married fellow academic, Moshe Shalivi. From there on, whatever the obstacles she encountered, he would be there urging her to overcome them.

It was due to Alice’s feminism that Moshe determined to crown his achievement as the compiler of encyclopaedias on Judaica, Hebrew and the Holocaust by collaborating on compiling Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopaedia.

There were few challenges that Shalvi did not meet. Her reiterated metaphor is “life is a river”. She acknowledges that it is “a tired, clichéd metaphor… yet appropriate”. She refers to it, not in the Heraclitean sense of constant inconstancy, but as momentum and divergence, giving rise to fresh tributaries, moving onwards.

It accurately represents her multiple interests, and is used to introduce a seminal chapter (The Volcano Erupts, mixing fire with water) containing a chart showing “Exclusion” and “Discrimination” erupting from the volcanic crater into the many spheres in which Shalvi has played an active part: Academia, Class, Religion and Politics. These in turn include areas of scintillating activism, whether at the Hebrew University (where she took her Phd, and her first academic position), or in campaigns for free abortion and against the ketubah.

Beyond her formidable reputation as principal of the progressive Pelech School for Charedi girls (1975-90); the longest-serving woman academic at the Hebrew University (1969 — 2009); and founder/chairwoman of the Israel Women’s Network, there are her awards, which include the Israel Prize for her lifetime’s achievement and contribution to society.

Never a Native, however, avoids glorification in favour of presenting a surprisingly modest account of a life well-lived.

Through it all shines Shalvi’s sheer enjoyment of literature, digressing into fascinating interpretations of Shakespeare’s women and much more. Book-ended by moving accounts of her parents’ humble background as Ostjuden, and by homage paid to her late husband and her brother, Shalvi’s book charts her path from activism to academia, social practice to analysis, sustained in all things by love of home and homeland.


Amanda Hopkinson is a writer, lecturer and translator

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