A Zionist in Spite of Herself

Zionism was in her genes but not her head when, almost by accident, a young woman from Winnipeg found herself en route to the newly established State of Israel in 1949. Her two-week trip there turned into a lifetime. Judy Shotten has seen it all from the beginning: Israel’s early socialism and contemporary corruption; the rise and fall of the kibbutz and the nascent cosmopolitanism of Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem; seven wars and the tentative pursuit of an elusive peace; the frauds of “egalitarianism” and the birth of Israeli feminism; the never-ending push-pull between the Jewish past and a more universal future. Social worker, psychologist and sex therapist, volunteer museum guide and Machsom (border checkpoint) Watcher, avid gardener and international backpacker with a long list of professional “firsts” to her credit, Judy Shotten is our own personal Israel archive, ever editing, changing, adding to what’s been known and done. Now she tells Lilith reporter Barbara Gingold about her six decades of passionate engagement in and with the Jewish state.

Barbara Gingold: Judy, let’s pretend that we haven’t been friends for many years, that I don’t know that you recently celebrated your 85th birthday and your 60th year in Israel, that I never heard that you were the country’s first qualified social worker, its first sex therapist, and one of the founders of its first clinic for feminist psychotherapy. Or that you just came home from an international conference and three weeks’ touring in South America, followed by a week in a straw hut on a Sinai beach, then a national conference and weekend with friends on a kibbutz up north.

In front of me is an elegant woman of boundless energy who would look at home anywhere in the world, at a cocktail party for diplomats or studying tribal dances in the jungle — and, unlike me, is not in the least bit wilted by a 100-degree heat wave in Jerusalem in mid-October. What I’d like to know first is this: Whatever brought you to Israel?

Judy Shotten: I was brought up in a family whose total focus was Zionism. My father was born on the Baron de Hirsch colony in Saskatchewan [where Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe were sent to settle]. My mother was born in the Ukraine. When she was young, her family moved to Philadelphia, where they had wealthy relatives with ten sons. My mother became their “adopted” daughter, and they taught her the ways of the rich and elegant — which she would never have picked up in Galicia!

At the time, Winnipeg was one of the most dynamic Jewish communities in North America: ten percent of its 200,000 residents were Jewish. My mother’s brothers left Philadelphia, put packs on their backs, peddled their way to Canada, and eventually brought my mother and the rest of the family there.

Meanwhile my father — like most of the poor Jews stuck on that agricultural settlement in the Canadian prairie with absolutely no knowledge of farming — left Saskatchewan for the thriving Jewish community of St. Paul, Minnesota. When he finished college, Winnipeg was considered the Jewish place to be. He moved there, became a successful businessman, and married my mother, who made it quite clear that she had no intention of living in the city’s crowded Jewish neighborhood. So they bought a house on the other side of town, where there were virtually no other Jews.

It was a bit ironic: my parents chose this Judenrein neighborhood, and they sent me to schools where I was the only Jew in my class, while they made it clear — though they never actually said it — that my non-Jewish classmates were not to be my social buddies. When I was 12, my mother — by then a very active and successful member of WIZO [the Women’s International Zionist Organization]— pulled together a few other Jewish girls scattered through our part of town and organized a club for us: the “Pink Buds of Hadassah”!

It was kind of a schizoid existence: I had no idea that there was this incredibly vibrant Jewish community a streetcar away. (The streetcar was slow, and there was a lot of snow!) But at home in our totally non-Jewish neighborhood, we were having Zionism for breakfast and dinner. My father served as president of many local Jewish organizations. My grandmother ran our household. My mother, who was beautiful and bright, gifted and charismatic, wouldn’t go to work, God forbid! It just wasn’t done in her circles. So, with my father’s admiration and support, she got into the charity world, rapidly rising through the ranks to become the national president of WIZO. Till then, all the organization’s power had been concentrated in Montreal; she was its first president from “the boonies,” and the job was conditional on her spending two weeks a month at the WIZO office in Montreal — which she did. And every winter, both my parents would go off to warmer climes for at least a month while my brother and I were mostly left to the care of family maids. We didn’t see much of our parents.

Gingold: Given this family history, it sounds like you could have taken a road opposite from your parents’ Zionism.

Shotten: Yes. In retrospect: I resented my parents’ busy lives and their unavailability. By the time I went to college, Zionism was coming out of my ears, and I’d had it with Winnipeg. But Canada was already at war in 1939, and it was unthinkable to leave home. There were only three fields open to girls at that time: teaching, social work, or nursing. So I got my degree in social work at a local college, where I joined the Fabian Society and discovered socialism, universalism, and all that. I became interested in what was going on in the world politically. Winnipeg was dull. I was restless. Finally, I went off to Montreal for an M.S.W. at McGill University. I was 19 and in the big city — it was large, cosmopolitan, French-speaking, and I loved it! And my studies, too. My field work was in a psychiatric hospital, where I learned a bit about real life, probably not enough. By the time I graduated, I knew a lot more about leftism, anti-nationalism, and antiimperialism. The British were leaving India, the Belgians were leaving the Congo, the whole world was changing — and immersed in that, I somehow didn’t even notice the excitement surrounding the birth of Israel.

Gingold: This doesn’t exactly sound like a superhighway to the new Jewish state.

Shotten: It wasn’t. In 1949 I was wondering what to do with my life, and my mother invited me to go with her to Israel since my father couldn’t take off two or three months for the trip. Part of the deal was a visit to London and Paris, so I agreed. When we got to Marseilles and boarded the immigrant ship S.S. Kedma to Haifa in December, I was planning to spend just two weeks in Israel. But the weather was bad and the trip there took more than a week. There was lots of time to talk to people on the boat, mostly olim (new immigrants) from Morocco. My world suddenly opened up. I felt very, very humble, and guilty about my privileged life. That was my mood as we arrived in Israel.

Then my mother and I started visiting WIZO beneficiaries: hospitals, daycare centers, the ma’abarot [camps of tents and tin shacks that provided housing for new immigrants]. That winter was very hard — there was snow even in Tel Aviv and Beersheba, and those poor people living in the ma’abarot had no heating. My mother’s WIZO colleagues — the only people I met — politely asked me what I do in Canada. When they heard that I had a degree and experience in social work, they said, “You can’t leave! We need you.”

When you’re 23 years old, that’s a wonderful thing to hear. And just before my mother left Israel, I met a guy, a kibbutznik. I introduced him to her and announced that I was staying in Israel.

Gingold: Your mother was a major figure in the Canadian Zionist movement, but you were her only daughter. How did she feel about your staying in Israel?

Shotten: She was thrilled. I was living her dream! She would have stayed here herself, but my father wouldn’t leave Canada. And my new boyfriend was from New York, the son of a Hadassah lady. He’d served in the War of Independence. What more could she want?!!!

Gingold: Being here in 1949 must have been an astounding adventure for a protected young woman from western Canada. What was it like?

Shotten: Well, I’d never even been in a youth movement. When I met him, my future husband, Elhanan, was living in a packing crate on his kibbutz near Gedera. There was no private property. No books. No art. Even your clothes weren’t your own: you took whatever came out of the communal laundry on Fridays. I had no intention of spending my life on a kibbutz. I went to an ulpan in Jerusalem to learn Hebrew, where I was one of the only North Americans; almost all the students were Mizrachi [Middle Eastern] men from the ma’abarot. After six months at the ulpan, I married Elhanan. He’d founded a factory on the kibbutz so they didn’t want him to leave, but he used me as his excuse and we moved to Haifa.

There was a housing shortage, no place to live in the city. But my mother knew someone, a developer, with an apartment on the Carmel. He’d left the country suddenly, and we stayed there. It was a huge, four-room flat in the most elegant part of the city — totally bizarre and inappropriate! So we brought a colleague of mine, just out of Bratislava, to share the flat. Then one day some people knocked on our door claiming to be relatives of mine. I had no idea who they were, but we moved them into another room, and felt better about our living arrangements.

Gingold: Were you working then? Where did you start your working life in Israel?

Shotten: Youth Aliyah. An impossible and stupendous job. They were bringing in boatloads of kids every week, mostly from North Africa, but also from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Persia. Their parents were supposed to come later. The kids were put into reception centers for serveral months. They were taught 100 words of Hebrew, checked out medically, and placed into groups to go live on kibbutzim. Youth Aliyah had marvelous educational staff, but no social workers or psychologists. Someone had to help examine those kids, so they contracted a British psychologist in Jerusalem to find field workers. We were responsible for all the Youth Aliyah kids on kibbutzim from Rosh Hanikra down to Afikim and Pardes Hana. In our lousy Hebrew, we had to answer every S.O.S., administer non-verbal tests, and make our evaluations. An impossible job, but there was no one else to do it.

My marriage ended after four or five years, and I moved to Tel Aviv. It was the year of the polio epidemic, the winter of ‘56 – ’57. I found work at Tel Hashomer Hospital, where they’d never had a social worker before. I was the only non-medical person taking care of three children’s pavilions, dealing with kids in iron lungs and their parents. After a year there, I found another job. Israel’s health care system was run by the Histadrut, the Workers’ Federation, and they asked me to help create the country’s first mental health clinic. The staff consisted of two social workers, one psychologist, and one psychotherapist — the only ones in the country! I had a marvelous boss, and loved the job. In fact, I love working and have loved almost all my jobs.

Gingold: That was an era — the 1950s and ’60s — when most middle class women in North America didn’t wor for pay. In those early days, what struck you about Israeli women?

Shotten: When I came here, I was so proud of what I thought of as equality: everyone had nothing. In the kibbutzim, women were working! Compared to what I’d seen in middle-class Jewish Canada, this was incredible equality. Israel was a wonderful place to me because I identified with its socialist ideals, the whole value system. And there was also hope. All my anti-nationalism and universalism went out the window.

Today, society here has been turned around, and like many others I feel sad, very sad, without much hope for the future. It’s a great sense of disappointment. But in those days, our innocence was unbelievable. We didn’t ask questions. What did I know about Arab society? And if I’d had questions, who would I have asked? And then we had Golda Meir. We made fun of her, we knew she did nothing for women, but she was a woman who’d made it to the top.

Gingold: When did you start asking questions?

Shotten: Some time after the Six-Day War. The Women’s Movement started here around 1973. A women’s bookstore was opened in Jerusalem. And consciousness-raising groups. People talked about lesbianism openly and freely for the first time. We’d heard about all this before, but it was very exciting when it first came here. I remember seeing Betty Friedan in Jerusalem at one of the first feminist women’s conferences [in 1984]. She and Alice Shalvi led a big public protest in front of the King David Hotel, demanding that Israel’s [male] political leaders recognize women’s rights. It was such a unifiying, watershed moment for Israeli women, and it marked the beginning of the Israel Women’s Network.

Gingold: What were the major achievements of the women’s organizations in those days?

Shotten: Oy! A whole ten years after that women’s protest, when we were establishing the Counseling Center for Women — the country’s pioneering feminist therapy clinic — the word ‘feminism’ was still a no-no. Lots of hostility and anger were being directed at feminists. We spent a whole year at CCW debating whether or not to use the ‘f-word’ in our first brochure!

Gingold: What was it in Israel that made feminism particularly threatening?

Shotten: In the beginning, the kind of thinking we were programmed with as we grew up made it hard for American women to stomach feminism, and I think it was the same for Israelis. In those years, women in Israel were serving in the army and going out to work. We thought that that meant we already had an egalitarian society. I blame this on the Histadrut, the Labor Federation, which managed to sell this story to the whole nation. Women didn’t grasp the fact that they weren’t getting the good jobs, equal salaries, equal perks, and so on. In the ’50s and ’60s, Israelis were convincing themselves that they were superior to North America — and maybe in some ways, in our poverty, we were.

Gingold: In addition to its egalitarian image, Israel had a reputation in those days as a land of free love. When I got here in the late ’60s, though, after college and the sexual revolution in the U.S., I got the impression that Israeli women were more puritanical than their American sisters.

Shotten: Quite right. The Jewish tradition of early marriage was still very strong in Israel in the ’50s and ’60s; most young people were married by 21 or 22. The sexual revolution only arrived in the ’70s, along with feminism. By then all my “Anglo-Saxon” friends in Jerusalem, like their Israeli contemporaries, had been married for years.

Gingold: But you were divorced in the mid-’50s, and had been living the single life for about two decades. What was that like in such a totally married society?

Shotten: Very difficult! For some years after my divorce I was depressed, and desperate most of the time to find a partner and have kids. Divorce has become so common since the ’60s and ’70s, but in the 1950s, no one else in my peer group in Winnipeg was divorced. I’m sure my mother was ashamed of me. Not that she ever discussed it with me. She was busy.

Divorce made me feel different, a failure. I sensed that I’d made a bad decision: I hadn’t recognized the person my husband really was.

I don’t know why I didn’t remarry sooner. There were guys available in Israel, and I’d date them for a few months, but they never seemed appropriate to marry. Maybe because they usually weren’t North Americans, and we had cultural differences.

I’m sorry I had no children, of course. It would have made for a totally different life, much richer in human relationships. But at the time, the possibility of being a single mother never came up. There were no Israeli models of single mothers. If you became pregnant and weren’t married, you had an abortion.

Gingold: What led you to become a sex therapist?

Shotten: For about a decade in the ’50s and ’60s, I trained at the Israel Institute of Freudian Psychoanalysis in Jerusalem. In 1970, I was asked to help set up the Hebrew University’s first psychology clinic. It was meant just for overseas students, but in 1973, everyone was so stressed by the Yom Kippur War that we opened it to all students. I adored my job.

I’d also been in private practice for a long time, mostly women clients. Many of the women I treated brought their sex problems to me. But my training had been psychoanalytic, and I didn’t have the skills to help them. Sex therapy was a new field, still totally unknown in Israel. So in 1975 I decided to go study it at Berkeley.

Gingold: What did you bring back with you from the West Coast?

Shotten: I think I’d always known there was a feminist approach to pscyhology, but as a woman I’d never had any confirmation of the things I was experiencing sexually. I sensed there was another way [than the strictly psychoanalytic], but didn’t have the confidence to say: “This is how to deal psychologically with these issues — sexual arousal, orgasm, and so forth. How to understand them physiologically, inter-personally, and socially. How to understand lesbianism differently.” That’s what it was all about at Berkeley.

When I got back to Hebrew University, I told my boss I’d learned about all these new things — women’s groups, consciousness- raising, etc. He told me, “Forget it — Israeli women aren’t going to come to a group to talk about their sex lives!” I said, “Let’s try it.”

Our first groups were called “Non-Orgasmic Women’s Groups,” and women flocked to them! They were so exciting that I started doing them privately, too. I also started doing couple therapy, working with a male psychologist. He treated the men, I treated the women.

Since I was the first to do anything like this in Israel, I got a lot of publicity — they put me on radio and TV, I was written up in the newspapers. I became known as a fighter for women’s sexual rights, and that’s how the collective of women who were starting the nonprofit Counseling Center for Women found me. When it was established in the ‘80s, C.C.W. was the only clinic in Israel offering feminist therapy, and much of it was subsidized so that low-income women could afford it. There were many other groups like this being established in the U.S. and England at the time, but today C.C.W. is one of the very few left that’s still functioning — and thriving.

I also met my husband, Aaron in Berkeley, and when I came back to Israel in ‘75 he came with me.

Gingold: You’d been single for a long time by then. Did that affect your relationship?

Shotten: No, I was lucky. Aaron was a man who’d also been alone for a long time after his divorce. He needed his space and I needed mine, so it was a happy arrangement. If either of us had found a partner who was dependent, it would’ve created difficulties. Though we had shared cultural and intellectual interests, we also had our own pathways. I was working at the University; he spent his time going to every class and lecture he could find in English on Judaism.

Gingold: Speaking of Judaism, were you ever involved in organized religion here?

Shotten: Aaron was raised in a Jewish home in Far Rockaway, New York. He pretty much left his Jewishness behind when he served in the U.S. army and then went to U.C.L.A. for his Ph.D. He lived in a very non-Jewish environment for a long time, but he had a Jewish soul and was starved for Judaism. I had no connection to religion in Israel, and we never joined a synagogue. We tried to establish a Jewish Humanism Society in Jerusalem, but it never really took off.

When Aaron died about 12 years ago, I couldn’t deal with my head. I sought something more reflective than organized Judaism, and found meditation and Buddhism. I belong to a meditaton group and go to meditation retreats here and in India. Buddhism keeps repeating all the time: “Be aware, be centered in the now, because you can’t do anything about the past and don’t know what will be in the future.” It has added enormously to my life.

Gingold: You seem to have had just about everything that most women of your generation merely dreamt about — adventure, romance, professional success. Is there anything you’ve missed?

Shotten: You forgot to mention that I also had cancer. My first surgery, a mastectomy, was 23 years ago.

Gingold: Every woman’s nightmare. As always, you turned that experience into something positive: you helped found another Israeli non-profit, One in Nine, to serve women with cancer. But how did the mastectomy affect you personally?

Shotten: I had to work on myself to feel good about my body — there were no “body people” in Jerusalem then. People helped me — my husband, of course, first of all — and I had all these adventures. My first hiking experience was about two months after my surgery. Aaron and I had gone to Berkeley, as we did every summer, and his cousin, a real sportswoman, invited us on a hike. At the edge of a deserted lake, we put up our tent, and this cousin announced that we’d all go swimming at dawn. Well, in the middle of the night a group of Boy Scouts showed up, and there they were at the edge of the lake when we woke up. We had no bathing suits. I hesitated, then decided to dive in anyway. That was when I realized that the mastectomy made no difference. When you’re a hiker, living rough — you realize that it [your missing breast] is not relevant any more, you just put your pack on your back and go. That really helped me.

Gingold: You recently had another mastectomy — more than twenty years after the first. Was it as difficult the second time?

Shotten: It’s actually amazing — it’s now six months since my last surgery, and it’s liberating — without breasts you can wear these gorgeous strapless dresses. I’ve totally forgotten I ever had breasts. They’re just gone. Gone! And I’ve written a funny story about a one-breasted adventuress.

Gingold: Judy, you must know that you’re a powerful role model for me and many of our friends. You have endless intelligence, curiosity, humor, openness, commitment, energy, gumption. How can we foster your traits in ourselves and in our children? In other words — how can we be like you?!!!

Shotten: I was lucky. I always had enough energy — I inherited it from my mother — and money to see the world. The rest of those traits — I just think they’re inborn. I’m very aware, all the time, of how grateful I am. It took many years and some living to get to this point, to recognize my good fortune. And I was lucky for another reason: to satisfy my innate curiosity about everything, my excitement at new and different experiences, there’s no place like Israel that could have made all this possible!