Shulamith Shahar’s book “Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages” continues to serve as a basic text in gender studies and medieval history courses at universities.No phrase evokes the idea of stodginess more than the title of “professor of history,” and the addition of “Israel Prize laureate” hardly helps, but at the age of “74 and a half,” Prof. Shulamith Shahar is a bit too young. That is, for the prize and in general. But that’s probably
because history isn’t what it used to be and because Shahar turned it into something different.
“Excuse the terrible banality, but it’s said that the person is politics and politics is the person,” she remarks, “but even though it’s a
cliche, in my case it’s completely true. I always preferred to study things that interest me personally. To produce good writing one needs genuine emotion, and there can be no such emotion if the writer does not identify deeply with the subject of the writing.” And her writing is certainly good.
Shahar, who will be awarded the Israel Prize for her life’s work in general history on Independence Day (May 7), accomplished something that to refugees of academic institutions appears little short of miraculous: Even though she rose higher and higher through the ranks of the academic world, and even though she produced extremely important research, she writes
in superb Hebrew and here and there even shows flashes of humor and a knack for literary description. As one reads her works, it’s easy to remember that the word “history” incorporates the word “story” and, in this case, even
In 1981 Shahar published her study “Fourth Estate: A History of Women in the Middle Ages.” This research, which appeared in book form in
1983 (a new paperback edition in English is scheduled to be published next month in the United States), was the first historical work that dealt with the history and way of life of women in an era that was always told from a
male perspective. Twenty years later, when waves of similar studies are being published in the wake of her groundbreaking study, it may be difficult to grasp the scope of the innovation, but Shahar’s book in fact continues to serve as a basic text in gender studies and medieval history courses at universities. Indeed, her contribution to these subjects can be likened to
the contribution Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex” made to the feminist movement.
Shahar thus became not only one of the best-known historians in the world, but also a feminist role model – despite the fact that if there is one thing that she takes no interest in, or at least is less interested in that other subjects, it is the theory of feminism.
“True, it’s important,” she notes, “but I have to tell you that in the general context of the collapse of the Israeli society, it seems
least urgent to me just now.” This is because for Shahar, the beauty of history lies in the details; that is, not only in the major processes but also in the daily lives of the people in particular periods.
“I was always interested in the outcasts, the people on the margins, the heretics and the minorities,” she says.
Shahar also researched how children were raised in the Middle Ages and later wrote about old age in medieval times as well. (Shahar:
“Because the subjects of my research always overlap the subjects that interest me personally at the same time, when my mother began to age – and she truly started to age when she was 90 – I developed a deep interest in the subject of old age in the medieval period.”) Her books “Childhood and the Middle Ages” (1990) and “Growing Old in the Middle Ages: Winter Clothes Us in Shadow and Pain” (1995) – both of which were also published in English editions – proved highly popular in Israel as books of general education even among non-historians.
Shahar’s activity as a historian is not confined to her books alone. She has published dozens of learned articles in Hebrew, English and
French, and generations of students have had the benefit of her teaching. Many of them called to congratulate her on being named a recipient of the Israel Prize. Shahar is most moved by the many calls she is getting from people who were her students 40 and 50 years ago when she supported herself – and her husband, the writer David Shahar – as a high-school teacher.
Shahar lives in Jerusalem, in the same handsome though modest apartment where she has resided for the past 42 years. She has two children from her marriage (it was her second) to the late David Shahar. She met Shahar (1926-1997) in 1954 at a Purim party at the Artists’ House in Jerusalem. He was already a writer with several published stories; she was a young divorcee with a child, a rarity in the Jerusalem of that period, and also a star student at the university and an adored teacher in high school. They lived together without marrying for two years.
“The fact that we lived together like that didn’t bother my mother at all,” Shahar recalls. “What did bother her was the type of husband I had come up with. `A writer? What kind of profession is that? What will you live on?’ she would ask.
This week marks the sixth anniversary of David’s death. Madeleine Neige, who became his close friend, looked after him while he was
ill. Both she and Shulamith accompanied him to the hospital where he died.
“When I was told about the Israel Prize, I immediately thought of David,” Shahar says. “I also thought about my mother and my father. My
father, who was killed in a road accident, died many years ago, but mother lived to a ripe old age – she died at 101 – and was a very difficult woman, but I think about her a lot. It’s so strange to discover who we miss. It must look pretty pathetic: a 74-year-old woman who misses her father and mother.”
“I try not to think about it, and as for myself, I have no fears. There are two great advantages to old age. One is that I have
wonderful, lovely granddaughters, who both chatter away in Hebrew and Chinese. The second advantage is that I no longer have any fear about
myself. After all, I won’t die young and what can happen to me already? But when it comes to the children, of course, I have anxieties. I go crazy if they are a half hour late, and of course I try not to show it, but I go out
of my mind.
Her authentic Hebrew does not give away the fact that Shulamith Shahar is a veteran new immigrant. She was born in Latvia, the youngest of three daughters, in 1928. “But there was some confusion about my date of birth, so for years I thought I was half a year younger than I actually was.” Her father, Moshe Weinstock, was a “quite well-to-do and successful” industrialist; her mother, Devorah, “didn’t work one minute in her whole life, and you couldn’t say she exerted herself doing housework,
either. We always had a maid, and in Latvia we weren’t really raised by Mother but by a nanny.”
The family immigrated to Palestine in 1933, when she was four and a half: “My sister Naomi was already able to read and write Russian, while I was still little, so I only spoke Russian.” The family lived in Haifa, “where for my father the well-known saying came true: `How
do you accumulate a little capital in Israel? You come with a lot of capital.’
As a student in high school, Shulamith was active in the Haganah (the pre-state defense force), “and I was very proud of being in
charge of an arms depot.” She spent some time on a kibbutz and then went to Jerusalem to study history at Hebrew University. At the age of 19 she married Yitzhak Cohen, and after Evyatar’s birth, and following the completion of her bachelor’s studies, “in a jiff, I have no idea why it took me so little time,” they moved to Kibbutz Shfayim, north of Tel Aviv, where
Naomi and Meir Zorea were living. Shulamith and Yitzhak were divorced when Evyatar was two years old. Shortly afterward, she went back to Jerusalem to take her second degree. “Something terribly strange happened to me. I completed my B.A. and my doctorate in a flash, but the M.A. dragged out for the longest time.”
She wrote her Ph.D. thesis in Paris – “simply
because I was able to get a scholarship to the Sorbonne, and the idea of going to Paris very much appealed to David and to me. When we came back to Israel, I started working at Tel Aviv University,” where Shahar had a splendid career as a teacher and head of department until retiring at age 64 in order to start a second career: in social work.
In addition to writing historical studies, Shahar also translates masterworks from Latin into Hebrew. She translated “The Letters of Abelard and Heloise,” and more recently published a translation dealing with matters of belief and consisting of two 12th-century
autobiographies, one of a monk and the other of Jew who documented the process of his conversion to Christianity. She has a deep interest in
literature and in the development of human thought overall. Her historical studies make use of material from literature and also display a
“Once, when I was in Paris, people suggested that I undergo psychoanalysis, which was very fashionable at the time. I went to a psychoanalyst and I saw that he had pictures by Chagall on the walls – some of Chagall’s more repulsive things, as it happened – and that got me upset, and I decided I understood what it was all about. I think Freud was an intellectual giant, even though he wrote a lot of rubbish about women. His whole insistence on vaginal orgasm made a lot of women uptight, because they
suddenly thought the orgasm they were experiencing, which was clitoral, wasn’t actually the right orgasm, but after all, we both know that actually there is no such thing as vaginal orgasm.”
It is easy to see her attempt to give historical expression to groups who had been ignored as a reflection of her deep sense
of justice. She has always been a socialist in her approach and from childhood dreamed of becoming a social worker. So she launched a second career at the age of 64 as a volunteer at a home for battered wives in Jerusalem. At first she worked twice a week, “and the fact that I know Russian helped me a great deal, because they needed an interpreter.” She is now the chair of “Woman to Woman,” a non-profit association that manages the home. She is also continuing her research and translations.
“It could be that the thing with social justice was also the driving force of my research,” she says. “It certainly motivated me when I was doing the studies that had to do with groups of heretical sects What interested me there was not so much the theological side, though of course I familiarized myself with that, too, but mainly the willingness of a
minority to pay such a high price for its self-identity and its faith. On the other hand, I was intrigued by the recurring phenomenon throughout
history of hatred for its own sake.”