One of Israel’s best-known contemporary writers of fiction, drama and poetry, Shulamit Lapid was born in Tel Aviv in 1934. Her father, David Giladi (b. 1909), was one of the founders of the daily Ma’ariv newspaper. She studied Middle Eastern studies and English literature at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem from 1956 to 1957, but did not complete a degree. She is married to journalist Joseph (Tommy) Lapid (b. 1931), who from 1999 to 2005 was a member of Knesset (Israeli legislature). They have a daughter, Meirav, and a son, Yair, who is a journalist and a popular talk-show host. Their oldest daughter, Michal, was killed in a car accident in 1984.
After several collections of short stories, Lapid first gained readers’ attention with her popular novel, Gai oni, which was the first Israeli book to be labelled “feminist.” Its feminism is, however, displaced, the action taking place in Palestine of the 1890s, thereby establishing a precedent in Israeli fiction for masking feminist protest by historical distancing. Framed in a narrative about first-settlers struggling with a harsh motherland, in a culture that kept gender roles distinct and separate, Lapid’s heroine, Fania, stands out in her attempt to cross boundaries. She is both mother and merchant, venturing out on the road alone, even defending herself against armed Arab horsemen when attacked.
Yet at the end of a romance plot that borders on the melodramatic, Lapid does not allow Fania to go it alone, despite her “androgynous” qualities and her long training toward independence. This ambivalence about feminist liberation was also reflected at the time by the author’s public pronouncements: she did not consider herself a feminist, nor did she believe in “women writing” per se. At the same time, she has mostly limited herself to “women’s subjects.” Lapid modified her non-feminist position in 1987, when she participated in an international conference of women writers organized by the Israel Women’s Network and held in Jerusalem. Except for one historical novel, Ka-heres ha-nishbar [As a Broken Vessel], all Lapid’s subsequent work features female protagonists. Her first play, Rekhush natush [Abandoned Property], explored the psychological dynamics between mother and daughters in a broken family on the margins of the social system, while her second play, Rehem pundaki [Surrogate Mother], engaged the contemporary issue of surrogate mothering by deftly rewriting the biblical model (Abraham, Sarah and Hagar). By 1989, in an interview outside Israel, this “happily married mother” (by her own admission) described herself as “small, delicate, and becoming more and more aggressive” at her “ripe fifty-four.”
By the end of the decade, Lapid had “resolved” her ambivalence by shifting from the “canonic” historical narrative and the female euphoric text (the romantic betrothal plot) to a different genre—the spinster detective story. In a series of popular thrillers (1989–2000), all set in a contemporary provincial town (Beer Sheva), she has constructed a “New Israeli Woman,” a lower middle-class journalist whose first priority is work and for whom love is divorced from matrimony. Thirty-some years old and single, Lizzie Badihi, who is proud of her “professionalism” and work ethic, is not a descendant of the “New Hebrew Woman” of the Zionist revolution (Fania and her like); rather, she is a throwback to the turn-of-the-century spinster detective of English literature. In Lapid’s version of this genre, motherhood is rejected first hand (“I have seen my sisters,” Lizzie explains) and masculine autonomy is appropriated without any equivocation. The first novel’s final question, repeated twice, “What do you want, Lizzie?,” reads like a wry parody of Freud’s notorious question, “What does a woman want?” What this woman wants is apparently work and a new kind of romance (male-modeled, of course: no strings attached …). The latter makes its appearance only at the close of the story: a tawny, handsome, rich and worldly divorcé, whose timely offered “information” rescues Lizzie from the imminent danger of losing her job. It is hard to determine whether the simplicity with which sexual difference is overcome in these plots is an indicator of naive conceptualization, or of a projection of a collective fantasy. Whatever the case, it is clear that the feminist romance produced here is an essentialist mirror image of its masculinist counterpart.
The same holds good for some of Lapid’s later short stories in which romance is replaced by aggression. A straightforward reversal of roles in a violent rape scene, for example, is the subject of “Nehitat oness” (published in English as “The Bed,” but better rendered as “Forced Entry”). The painful experience of what one might call “counter rape” is focalized through the eyes of the victim—a young man whose bewildered incomprehension is utterly ignored by his female attacker. Gender difference is again turned upside down: here the female grotesquely “redeems” her alterity by donning the dark face of masculine subjectivity, aggression.
While her earlier stories (Mazal dagim [Pisces] in 1969 and five later collections) were much more traditional, her recent work is marked by both social and feminist consciousness, e.g. the plays mentioned above, and the 1998 novel Ezel Babou [Chez Babou], in which she tackles the painful topic, rarely addressed in Israeli literature, of the foreign, mostly illegal, laborers and the subhuman conditions of their work and life. Lapid has also published poems and children’s books.
In 2005 Lapid published Havat ha-almot (The Damsels’ Farm), a sequel to Gai oni, which has as its central character the daughter of Fania and Yehiel. The book deals with the Second Aliyah and the hardships its members encountered. Lapid introduces into her narrative some of the historical figures of the time. Among them are the feminist pioneers Hannah Maisel, Sarah Malkhin and Miriam Baratz.
From 1985 to 1987, Lapid served as the first woman elected to chair the Hebrew Writers’ Association. She has won both the Prime Minister’s Prize for Literature (1987) and the International Theater Institute Award (1988).
Mazal dagim [Pisces] (1969); Shalvat shotim [The Calm of Fools] (1974); Kadahat [Fever] (1979); Mah mesameah akavishim [Happy Spiders] (1990).
Gai oni (1982); Ka-heres ha-nishbar [As a Broken Vessel] (1984); Mekomon [Local Paper] (1989); Pitui [Bait] (1992); Hatakhshit [The Jewel] (1993); Hol ba-enayim [Sand in your Eyes] (1997); Ezel Babou [Chez Babou] (1998); Pilegesh ba-giv’ah [Concubine on the Hill] (1999); Havat ha-almot (2005).
Ha-Safsal [The Bench] (2000)
Shirei halon [Window Poems] (1988)
Rekhush natush [Abandoned Property] (1987) Rehem pundaki [Surrogate Mother] (1991); Mif’al hayyav [His Life’s Work] (1992); Haflagot [Sailings] (1994)
Shpiz (1971); Na’arat ha-halomot [The Girl of Dreams] (1985) Ha-tanin Mizrayyim [Egypt the Crocodile] (1987); Oded ha-melukhlakh [Dirty Oded] (1988); Oreah [The Visitor] (1988); Ha-semikhah Zehavah (Zehavah the Blanket] (1998).
Feldman; Yael S. No Room of Their Own: Gender and Nation in Israeli Women’s Fiction. New York: 1999 (Hebrew edition, Tel Aviv: 2001).
From Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century. Editor: Sorrel Kerbel. Copyright © 2003. Reproduced by permission of Routledge/Taylor and Francis Books, Inc.