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The Secret of Eternal Youth: A Tribute to Prof. Alice Shalvi

Eulogies and Words of Tribute
Responsa by David Golinkin

Insight Israel

Volume 4, Number 5

January ‏2004

 On December 15, 2003, the International Board of Governors of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies held an evening of tribute to honor Prof. Alice Shalvi upon her stepping down as Chair of the Executive Committee after six years of intensive service to the Schechter Institute. Prof. David Golinkin, President of Schechter, made the following remarks at that beautiful event.       – Linda Price

I shall begin with three stories:

A story is told of an elderly man who made a party for his children, grandchildren and relatives on his birthday every year, and every year he would reduce one year from his age. Once, at the annual party, his son-in-law stood up, held up his glass, and said:

“My dear father-in-law – how shall I bless you? If I say to you: May you be privileged to see children and grandchildren – you already have!  That you should reach old age – you already have! Rather, may it be God’s will that you and we should rejoice together at your Bar Mitzvah! ” (1)

Rabbi Moshe Margalit, author of Pnay Moshe, the only commentary to the entire Talmud Yerushalmi, lived in Lithuania and many other countries in the 18th century. In 1779, he enrolled in the Department of Botany at the University of Frankfort an der Oder. He did so, apparently, due to his desire better to understand the complex agricultural laws found in Seder Zeraim, the talmudic order which deals with agriculture. And how old was Rabbi Margalit when he enrolled at the University? He was seventy. (2)

The third story is about my wife’s grandmother Dr. Mattie Rotenberg, who passed away in 1989 at the age of 92, and who deserves to be included in Moshe Shalvi’s upcoming Encyclopedia of Jewish Women. She was an amazing person in may ways. She had read the complete works of Shakespeare by age 12. She was the first woman and the first Jew to receive a doctorate in physics from the University of Toronto – in 1926. She founded the first Jewish day school in Toronto in 1929 and served as its Director. She had her own magazine column from 1930-1932 and her own radio program on the CBC from 1939-1966.

But her most outstanding characteristic was her eternal youthfulness. She never rested on her laurels and she was never afraid to try new things. Her five children taught her how to ride a bike when she was in her forties. At age 65, she learned how to drive a car. In her sixties, she took up painting and she showed a real talent for it. When she retired from the University of Toronto Physics Department at age 70, she became a high school substitute in math and physics. Finally, at the age of 90, she took a word-processing course in Florida so that she could type letters to her 19 grandchildren on the computer. (3)

What can we learn from these three stories? The first man wanted to hide his real age. Rabbi Moshe Margalit and Dr. Mattie Rotenberg, on the other hand, paid no attention to their chronological age. Rabbi Margalit wanted to study botany at age 70 – so he did! Dr. Mattie Rotenberg wanted to learn how to type on a computer at age 90 – so she did!

There is no question that Prof. Alice Shalvi has followed the paradigm of Rabbi Moshe Margalit and Dr. Mattie Rotenberg. She continues to learn and to teach and to do, regardless of her chronological age. She understands, and she taught us, what Rabbi Shmuel Hanagid wrote in “Ben Mishle” in Spain almost 1000 years ago:

“There are grandparents whose souls are youthful,

and there are young people whose souls are old.” (4)

How does Alice do it? How does her soul stay so young? I believe there are three explanations for her youthfulness:

First of all, she maintains a sense of wonder. As Solomon Roodman so beautifully stated, “Man’s eternal quest for happiness stems from his recognition that a life without wonder is worthless”. (5) When Alice hears a good lecture or reads a good book she gets excited and she shares her enthusiasm with others. She is wont to say about a good lecturer: “hee nifla’ah” – “she is wonderful”. Take note, the root of the word “nifla’ah” is “peleh”, which means wonder.

Secondly, she agrees no doubt with Midrash Tanhuma (Haye Sara, par. 2):  “mipney arba’ah devarim haziknah kofetzet al ha’adam: mipney hayir’ah…” — “Old age overtakes a person for four reasons: due to fear…”. Or, as a modern writer put it, “The belief in life, not [the] fear of it, is the very essence of youth”. (6)

Alice is not afraid of anyone. She left the Orthodox world a number of years ago due to matters of principle, without fearing what people might say about her. She is not afraid to say her opinion, even if she knows it’s a da’at yahid, a lone voice, which will not be accepted. She was not afraid to teach all sorts of new subjects at the Pelech high school for girls which she ran for fifteen years, and she was not afraid to set up the Israel Women’s Network, and she was not afraid to set up the Center for Judaism and the Arts at the Schechter Institute.

A third reason for Alice’s youthfulness was explained by Samuel Ullman,  a Jewish civic leader who lived in Alabama. He said in 1920: “Nobody grows old by merely living a number of years. People grow old only by deserting their ideals.” (7)

Alice has three basic ideals or principles which she likes to emphasize: Judaism, Zionism and feminism. She has been loyal to these principles for decades and she continues to fight for them and to work for them. Thus, for example, Alice’s Judaism and feminism are evident in many of the projects she began or supported at Schechter. She invited guest lecturers in order to enhance our M.A. in Jewish Women’s Studies. She encouraged us to hold conferences on Jewish women’s studies. She helped us set up the Center for Women in Jewish Law and to fund the Center. And she has raised all of the funds for Nashim, our Journal of Jewish Women’s Studies, year in and year out.

A while ago I met with an FOA – a Friend of Alice – of whom there are hundreds in the U.S. He had given generously in order to support the Center for Judaism and the Arts, which Alice founded at Schechter. During the course of the conversation I asked him why he supported Alice’s projects. He replied: “I support Alice’s projects because she has very strong convictions and sticks to them with great courage. I admire that”.

I shall conclude with the words of Rabbi Theodore Friedman z”l, who taught the Seminario Rabinico students at the Schechter Institute for many years. This is what he wrote in a wonderful sermon entitled “On Growing Young”, published back in 1965:

Every Friday night for many, many years now, I have recited the 92nd Psalm, “A Psalm, a song for the Sabbath Day.” I never understood its closing lines. I think I understand them now. That understanding, that truth, captures the whole message:

“The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree,

they shall thrive like a cedar in Lebanon…

In old age they still produce fruit,

they shall be full of sap and freshness,

to declare that the Lord is righteous…”

In a word: they shall be ever young. And only a righteous God could have created the possibility of eternal youth. (8)

Alice possesses a young soul, the secret of eternal youth, and of her we can say:

od yenuvun b’sevah, d’shenim v’ra’ananim yihiyu” —

“In old age they still produce fruit,

they are full of sap and freshness”.

We are thrilled that Alice came to the Schechter Institute six years ago in order to help us in so many ways. We are thankful to her for serving as Rector, Acting President, and Chair of the Va’ad. And we are happy that she will remain on the Board where we can continue to benefit from her wisdom and enthusiasm – ad me’ah v’esrim!

Notes

  1. Alter Druyanow, Sefer Habedihah V’hahidud, Vol. 1, Tel Aviv, 1963, no. 694.
  2. Levi Ginzberg, Peirushim V’hiddushim Bayerushalmi, Vol. 1, New York, 1941, Hebrew Introduction, p. 125 and English Introduction, p. lvii, which is based on the Jahrbuch der Judisch-Literarischen Gesellschaft 15 (1923) pp. 92-94. Also see Aviad Hacohen, Eleventh World Congress Of Jewish Studies, Division C, Vol. I, Jerusalem, 1994, Hebrew section, p. 216.
  3. Regarding Dr. Mattie Rotenberg, see Nessa Rapoport, The Jewish Women’s Archive II/1 (Spring 2000), pp. 1, 5-7 and Mattie Rotenberg, Sh’ma 23/442 (November 27, 1992), pp. 13, 15.
  4. Ed. Yarden, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 146.
  5. The Eternal Light, New York, 1966, p. 145.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Joseph Baron, A Treasury of Jewish Quotations, New York, 1956, p. 6.
  8. Theodore Friedman, Judgment and Destiny: Sermons for the Modern Jew, New York, 1965, p. 118 = David Golinkin, ed., Be’er Tuvia: From the Writings of Rabbi Theodore Friedman, Jerusalem, 1991, p. 246.

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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