Gila Svirsky: A Personal Website

A Brief Bio

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Some information for the curious
(and old friends I lost touch with)

I started life as Gilda Schwartz.  But first…

 

My parents

My father was born in 1903 in a shtetl [small town] called Swir in the district of Vilna.  Today this village is in Byelorus.  My father, given the name Yisroel Velle Schwartzgor, came from a deeply religious family and studied Talmud under his father, but had no formal secular education.  Nevertheless, he was self-taught and became active in the literary and cultural life of the Jewish community – as a writer, actor, and Zionist activist.  With anti-Semitism rising in eastern Europe, he escaped to the US in 1927, where his brothers and sisters had fled before him.  Even his deeply Orthodox parents moved to the US where they spent a brief year of discomfort among their now-secular children, and then fled to Jerusalem, where they spent their last years.  My father's parents are both buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

 

Meanwhile my father, now known as Walter Schwartz, began life in America as a chicken farmer in New Jersey.  That was a profession that the US authorities would allow in under its strict immigration laws.  After 20 years of chickens in Iselin, New Jersey, my father built a store (in Rahway) and started a business of juvenile furniture and toys.  He did not return to writing until his retirement, when he wrote Roots and Leaves,  a beautiful evocation of Jewish life in eastern Europe.  I plan to put this book on this website as soon as I have the energy to type it all in.  My father died in 1995, at peace at last after renewing his sense of self by his last years of writing.

 

My mother was born in 1914 in the shtetl of Constantinove not far from my father's village.  Named Haya Sarah Swirski, she was involved in the fervent Zionism of that era, like most of the Jewish young people desperate to get out of Europe and become pioneers in Palestine.  My mother attended prestigious Hebrew-language schools in Vilna (first Tarbut and then Dr. Charno’s Gymnazium), and became a passionate Zionist with the militant Beitar movement.  In 1935, she received one of the rare immigration certificates to Palestine.  Upon arrival, she took a room in Jerusalem with a nice old couple - my father's parents, who were cousins - but eventually she left them, as they were shooing away suitors in hopes of saving her for their son in America.

 

My parents began corresponding (he in Yiddish and she in Hebrew) and the relationship became serious over the course of a year.  By 1936, my father put his chickens into the care of one of his brothers and set sail to meet this 21-year-old woman in Palestine, and incidentally also see his parents.  They were married five days after his arrival.  They spent their honeymoon journeying to see family and friends in Byelorus, who were still unable to leave Europe – a last visit before almost all of them perished in the Holocaust.  From there, to America.  Caught between three worlds – her family in Europe, the materialistic life in the US, and her longing for Zion – my mother captures this in her memoirs, A Life in Three Continents, before her death in 2001.  Another book for this website.

 

chickens.jpg
Some of my childhood friends...

Growing up in the US

 

I was born in 1946, the third and last child, with two older brothers, Eli and Paul.  I spent my first 5 years among the chickens in Iselin.

 

When I reached school age, my parents moved to Elizabeth, New Jersey so I could attend a yeshiva (Jewish religious school), where my brothers were already studying (thanks to a daily train commute).  Although my parents were not strictly observant, they wanted us to have an Orthodox Jewish education.  The school and synagogue were called the Jewish Educational Center, and they were founded by Rabbi Pinchas Teitz, who created an empire of Orthodox Jewish synagogues and schools in Elizabeth that were passed on like property through the family dynasty.  In those years, the yeshiva was focused on yiddishkeit – Jewishness – keeping kosher and observing the Jewish commandments.  Today, however, it is avidly Zionist, and many graduates (including my former classmates) can be found in Orthodox Jewish settlements scattered throughout the Palestinian Occupied Territories.

 

When I was ready for 7th grade, the yeshiva ran out of school for girls, so I began my first public school classes in Hamilton Junior High.  Coming from such a sheltered community, it was a shock for me to be talking to non-Jews.  Initially I felt shy and nervous, but over time the discomfort faded, as all the kids generally came from similar (white) middle class homes.  The academic level was high, and there were many Jews in my homeroom, a class of achievers and over-achievers.

 

Battin High School was a much greater shock.  It was an all-girls’ school, separated from Jefferson High, the boys’ school in Elizabeth.  (Rumors were that a girl had become pregnant in the 1920s, and so they separated the schools by gender by the time I studied there.)  Battin was a mixed crowd, and I was exposed for the first time not just to non-Jews, but to girls of all races, ethnicity, class, and academic levels.  Elizabeth was a community of immigrants, and the school was a mix of ambitious first-generation Americans, girls with no expectations of themselves, and petty criminals.  Knives were numerous, yes, at this girls' school.  "Did you have a nice weekend?" I politely asked my classmate on the first Monday of school.  "Shit, girl, my boyfriend and me got busted holding up a bar."  I learned slang, tough talk, and getting along with others, simply to avoid getting beat up.  I was stunned at first, then well educated.

 

I want to mention my high school friend Linda LaPolla, of an Italian family, who was my close friend at Battin.  It was not easy to suddenly become close with a non-Jew, but I loved and admired Linda.  She was smart and tall, like me, and the first one of her family to go to college.  We did the NY Times crossword puzzle together every morning, and had to fill in every square before we could enter the classroom.  I never visited Linda’s home, nor did she visit mine – my parents would say that I could be friends with non-Jews “between 9 and 5”, but not socialize with them after hours.  Today, I deeply regret this.  I also regret having lost touch with Linda after high school.  It was only in 2005 that I discovered how to connect with her again, a few months after she died of cancer.  I desperately miss the talk we could have had now as grownups.

 

One of the most formative experiences of my teen years was the summer camp I attended for 6 years:  Camp Massad, a Hebrew-speaking, Orthodox, Zionist summer camp.  For 8 weeks every summer, we were immersed in a quasi-Israeli environment in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania.  Half sports camp, half school, it was there that I learned to love Israel and developed an intense desire to live there.  It was also at camp that I had my best theological conversations about God, and why I am an atheist.

 

I attended Brandeis University, majoring in philosophy after a brief, foolish stab at physics.  Brandeis was good for me because it had a kosher kitchen and also a radical campus.  This was the sixties, and the heart of the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War period.  It was also a time in my life that I spent long weekends at the home of the Bostoner Rebbe, a Hassidic "grand rabbi" in Brookline.  I loved the Rebbe's family, and returned to Orthodox practice as a result of his nurturing.  To quote the Rebbe, "You don't have to believe in God to be religious."  In recent years, I saw Brandeis abandon much of its radical tradition, and this is sad.  I graduated in 1968.  Two months later, I moved to Israel.

 

 

Life in Israel Israel was not new to me.  Not only had I visited it in 1963, and spent my junior year in Jerusalem in 1966-67, but I was by then pretty good in Hebrew, thanks to my summer camp. 

I attended Hebrew University and completed an M.A. in communications.  This is also when I married Shimon Brand, and we had two daughters together, Mieka and Denna.  Although I began writing my Ph.D. dissertation (on some ethical aspects of mass media), I soon gave it up to spend full time as a mother because Denna was born with a physical disability (erb's palsy) and needed intense physical therapy for several years.  I really enjoyed being a mother, and cherished those years at home.  Soon after Denna was born, I also gave up Orthodox practice.  It was hard to sustain without a theology behind it. 

Soon after Shimon and I separated, I was offered the position of Director in Israel of the New Israel Fund, then a small foundation.  Over my six years at NIF, it grew considerably, thanks primarily to the development skills of Jonathan Jacoby, and became the premier funder of liberal causes in Israel.  It was in NIF that I really began my education about the fundamental moral issues in Israel – inequality (ethnic and gender), economic injustice, religious discrimination against the non-Orthodox, etc.  I would travel around the country visiting grassroots organizations that addressed these issues, and come away dismayed, educated, and ultimately encouraged by their efforts.  My friendship with Miri Sager during this period was also another source of education for me, for which I am grateful. 

Thus I embarked upon the activist part of my life. 

Political Activism
 

Here are some of my “political” activities over the years.  I’ll write them in chronological order:

The New Israel Fund.  For 6 years (1985-1991), I was director in Israel of this foundation that gives support to Israeli organizations working for justice, pluralism, coexistence, and civil rights.  I gave up the job out of a desire to actually engage in the work of some of the organizations that we were funding. When I left the New Israel Fund, I took up translating in order to support myself, and became a volunteer in three areas of my interest:  Adam Institute, which educates for democracy and peace; Kol Ha-Isha, a group of us founded this feminist center in Jerusalem; and B’Tselem, working for human rights in the occupied territories. 

Bat Shalom.  From 1997, I served for 2 years as director of this national organization that works with Israeli and Palestinian women to promote peace and human rights.  Bat Shalom is the Israeli side of The Jerusalem Link, while the parallel Palestinian organization is the Jerusalem Center for Women.  It is here that I first met Sumaya Farhat-Naser, a Palestinian professor of botany at Bir Zeit University, who had taken leave of academia to work as director of the Jerusalem Center for Women.  I have deep respect for Sumaya and her work, and ours has become a lifelong partnership for peace.

Coalition of Women for Peace: In 2000, after the outbreak of the second intifada, I co-founded (together with Hannah Safran) this broad-based national coalition that brings together 9 women's peace organizations. Through the hard work of many women, the Coalition has become one of Israel's leading feminist voices for peace. I left the Coalition in 2007, and today disagree with some of its activities, which seem to me to reflect an international strategy and giving up on the attempt to convince other Israelis. 
 

B'Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories
.  Today I am most active in B’Tselem, where I served as chair and co-chair over the course of many years. I am very proud of B’Tselem’s exceptional work on behalf of human rights for Palestinians, and take special note of the fact that the word b’tselem in Hebrew means “in the image of”, reminding us that we are all created in the image of God.

Ecumenical Accompaniment Program in Palestine and Israel.
I have been active since 2004 and am a member of the "core reference group". This organization, sponsored by the World Council of Churches, brings people of all faiths from other countries to accompany Palestinians and Israelis in their nonviolent actions to end the occupation.

Women in Black.  Well, since 1988, I have been standing on the Jerusalem vigil – every week for one hour – holding a sign that says “End the Occupation”.  It was 24 years in 2012.  I hope we don’t make it to 25. 

I have also been privileged to play a small role in other organizations:  the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (Board 2000-2001); Safe Homes for Children and Youth (Board, 1996-present); Israel Women’s Network (Advisory Council, 1995-1997); Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI) (member of the Jerusalem/Brussels Project, studying the applicability of the Brussels coexistence model for Jerusalem, 1995-96). 

Full disclosure:  While in the New Israel Fund, I recommended against funding the Public Committee Against Torture in Israel in the belief that this was an extremist organization, and that torture by Israel's security forces was random, not routine and systematic. Following the publication of groundbreaking research by Stanley Cohen and Daphna Golan, I came to regret my previous position. In 1999, the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed torture in Israel, a great achievement produced by the combined forces of 7 human rights organizations.

Without sufficient humility, I also note that I was the recipient of 3 awards that I hope to tell my grandchildren about some day:

The Solidarity Prize of Bremen, together with Sumaya Farhat-Naser, in 2003.

The Hermann-Kesten-Medal, also together with Sumaya Farhat-Naser, awarded by the P.E.N. Association of Writers in Germany in 2002.

In 2004, I was honored by the New Israel Fund, my former employer, for my "contribution to strengthening Israeli democracy". These awards are some consolation for no longer being able to bring home basketball trophies.  J  
 

 

Why don't Jews drink?  It interferes with their suffering.  - Henny Youngman