By DEENA YELLIN
You might say that Lihi Lapid is a woman of contradictions:
She is on a mission to tell women it’s okay if they cannot do everything for themselves and everyone else. Yet she is an outspoken feminist, a newspaper columnist and novelist, and the mother of three — including a special-needs daughter — and she is prepared to be further drawn into the whirlwind of high-level Israeli politics as she sticks by her husband and his reformist vision of that country’s future.
Lapid, who will be speaking at a conference of Russian Jews Saturday at the Sheraton Parsippany Hotel, is married to the Israeli Finance Minister, Yair Lapid, a charismatic politician who some say could mount a serious challenge to become prime minister. Although she supports her husband’s agenda as the head of the rising Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party, she declines to play an active role in his political life — and refuses to be pigeonholed as anyone’s wife.
“I’m not involved politically,” she said. “I do my own thing.”
Lapid, 45, has enjoyed a successful career as a photojournalist, a columnist for Israel’s largest newspaper and most recently as a bestselling novelist. But she opposes the notion that the only way to be a successful woman is to work harder and achieve more in a career.
“Today’s woman is expected to be a wonderful wife, mother, career woman, self actualized human being and to do it all while smiling and looking great,” she says. “We can’t do everything perfect. It’s affecting us emotionally. I’m trying to say, whatever we do is wonderful.”
That is the premise of her novel, “Woman of Valor,” which was recently translated into English (Gefen 2013). She will discuss her book as well as critique the notion that women can do it all when she addresses the conference in Parsippany called Limmud FSU (Former Soviet Union); this is the largest gathering of Russian Jews in North America. The event features lectures devoted to Jewish culture.
Though she doesn’t express it openly in her heavily accented English, as part of her book tour Lapid also promotes a different face of Israel, one that deals with the universal minutiae of working couples, raising children, and the challenges of keeping the family together. Many of the feelings expressed in her columns, books and lectures are universal, and women of various backgrounds find her words resonating.
While here, she also will participate in Autism Speaks. She and her husband have a teenaged autistic daughter, in addition to a teenaged son and a son in his 20s. And having a special-needs child was what motivated her to pen her novel, which is partially autobiographical. The experience rekindled her interest in feminism and led her question its failure to address the realities of modern motherhood.
“Being the mother of a special needs child gave me another perspective,” she said, adding she realized women need more mutual support and understanding of their choices.
Lapid’s book describes the travails and triumphs of a career-minded family woman, including raising a special-needs child, a bitter conflict and separation between husband and wife and, ultimately, reconciliation. It became an overnight hit, pleasing and surprising Lapid, who had expected readers to be limited to new mothers and young women.
“It touched so many people; older, younger, Orthodox, secular — everyone who read it thought it was about them,” she said.
A message she conveys is that instead of climbing further up the corporate ladder while caring for their husbands and children, women need to consider how to treat themselves better, she says. “…between investing our energies at work and with our families, we’ve forgotten ourselves.”
Julie Fisher, wife of Dan Shapiro, U.S. ambassador to Israel, observed “Lihi has written eloquently about the challenging balancing act of being a mother, a spouse and having a career. She brings to light a universal struggle for women — that of our changing roles in our lives. She does this with empathy, wisdom, and kindness.”
Though Lapid has taken pains to remain at arm’s length from her husband’s political battles, Lapid says she’s on the same page philosophically as Yair Lapid, whose Yesh Atid party — pledging a balanced society and fiscal reforms — was a spoiler in the 2013 election, winning 19 seats in the 120-seat Knesset. “I agree with him 110 percent,” she said.
She’s proud of her husband — “my best friend” — but adds that it’s taken her time to get acclimated to his new status as a political hotshot. Yair Lapid was formerly a journalist, news TV host and talk show host before establishing Yesh Atid in 2012. When Lapid heard that the party came in second in the general election — far better than polls had predicted — she was so happy, she jumped up and down, unusual for a demure woman who’s generally so quietly self assured and speaks in calm tones.
“I’m still getting adjusted to the fact that my husband is finance minister. It’s made a big difference in our lives,” she said, noting she’s learned to speak slowly and measure her words even more carefully so she’s not misinterpreted.
Among issues on the Yesh Atid agenda are a two-state solution with Palestinians, overhauling the educational system, and creating a more-equitable system of military service. Tensions boiled over, with mass protests, on the latter issue when the Knesset passed a law this month phasing out exemptions from compulsory military duties for many ultra-Orthodox seminary students.
Yesh Atid — comprised of secular and Orthodox party members — helped push for that change. Most secular and many modern Orthodox Israelis perform military service. However the Ultra Orthodox, who make up roughly 10 percent of Israel’s eight million citizens, have until now avoided military service to pursue religious studies, which they argue is spiritual duty for the country.
Lapid agrees that the ultra-Orthodox should not isolate themselves from the rest of society — “Yesh Atid is about gathering everyone in society together and not being extreme in any way, and trying to live and work together. I’m a true believer of that,” she said.
And for a moment, she sounded like a traditional wife, standing by her man: “I’m a true believer in his [Yair’s] way. I think it’s crucial that Israel changes in this way”