How to celebrate Israel’s 75th? Read Meir Shalev
Meir Shalev, who died last week, was born in Nahalal in the Jezreel Valley in July 1948, likely making him the first major Israeli novelist to come into being in the new country. Although Shalev’s family moved to Jerusalem when he was a boy, he heard stories from his mother, grandparents, aunts and uncles of the nascent Jewish agricultural villages that, like Nahalal, formed the backbone of the young nation and these served as the launching pad for much of his fiction.
Shalev’s people are their own breed of pioneer; hard-working, individualistic farmers who are part of tight, gossipy communities dotted with outcasts and oddballs. They are neither kibbutz collectivists with their utopian socialist dreams of the Zionist songbook, nor the bookish intellectuals and shopkeepers of the city who never get their hands dirty and couldn’t survive the droughts and blights and floods that farmers endure.
His characters, like the author, are on intimate terms with the seasons, the weather, the quality of soil, crop rotation, the habits of birds, of jackals, donkeys, and the cows and chickens they raise. You feel the earth of Eretz Yisrael in every sentence. Every tree, every stone – and certainly every beast – even the magical ones – get their moment.
They are practical folks who can build a house, a cow pen or a chicken coop, or cook a gourmet meal out of simple ingredients. And they are half mad with frustrated passions, devising elaborate self-defeating programs to keep old traumas at bay or achieve long-denied romance. Their longings, their stories, and their occasional forays beyond the natural world stretch back to their hardscrabble Jewish farming origins in the Ukraine and Russia before they came to Palestine.
Shalev’s fiction is part One Hundred Years of Solitude, part Design for Living. If he brought magic realism to Hebrew literature, he’s also the purveyor of the “love quadrangle.” I don’t mean the triangle of frustrated unreciprocated infatuation in which every lover is in love with the wrong person, or the mismatched couples of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but the love of a trio of men for the same woman – a woman doles out her affections in different degrees and frequency in each novel.
Shalev’s characters are formed and deformed by their obsessions and psychic turmoil, but as an author, he’s not interested in psychological cause and effect. He’s telling us mythic tales about archetypes, sharing his infatuation with the iconic characters who people the Hebrew bible while mixing biblical verses with street slang.
In his marvelous memoir, My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner, Shalev describes his grandmother Tonia’s extreme cleanliness mania amidst the dirt and dust of Nahalal, telling how she hung a rag on every doorknob to wipe it off immediately after touching it, and about her love-hate for the state-of-the-art cleaning apparatus shipped to her – fully loaded with mixed motives – by her bourgeoise brother-in-law in Los Angeles. Most contemporary writers would diminish a character like Tonia with an OCD label, but Shalev depicts her grand romantic struggle to remain true to her obscure internal ideals with affection, annoyance and wonder.
Shalev tells his stories sideways. He reveals major plot points as digressions, then retells the critical moments again and again, each time from a slightly different perspective, as he fills in another dimension of his tale.
Nahalal, where Shalev lived as a young boy, is designed in the form of a great circle subdivided into plots of land owned by different families like the spokes of a wagon wheel, with communal services at the hub in the center. (We used to draw Nahalal when I was in Young Judaea.) Reading a Shalev novel is a bit like getting hypnotized as the Nahalal wheel spins, as Shalev circles and circles, putting the reader in a trance. A lot happens plot-wise, and emotions are overflowing, but sans cliffhangers, you have to read him slowly to absorb it all and connect the dots.
It would be easy to get caught up in the anti-nostalgic nostalgia of his small epics to miss how subversive Shalev’s novels actually are, challenging, for example, conventional gender identities and conceptions of marriage; in one novel, a widowed dairy farmer whose physical strength exceeds everyone’s in his village and who is perpetually longing for his dead wife, longs even more for the severed braid of his own hair from when his mother raised him to be a girl; a gay prisoner of war becomes a temporary surrogate wife in an asexual but sensual relationship, as he teaches the farmer gourmet cooking and how to be both the man and the woman in dancing the tango.
Shalev celebrates and parodies the myths of the founding generations, mocking their pretensions to create a classless society, their thirst for recognition, and their evolving nostalgia for their own past, while also celebrating their uniqueness as a generation of dreamers and practical madmen with his comic genius. The narrator of one of his novels takes the land he inherits on his moshav and turns it into a private cemetery where only bonafide participants in the Second Aliya can be buried. Sure enough elderly halutzim or their descendants compete for his overpriced plots, to lie in eternity next to the giants who established the state.
A year ago, I was privileged to meet Meir Shalev, when the organization I direct, the Israel Center for Educational Innovation, granted him a Lifetime Achievement Award for Contributions to Children’s Literature in Hebrew. Shalev’s books for kids are the works of a master storyteller, surprising, touching, and laced with humor. He understands children well, never patronizing them or dumbing things down. At the ICEI Young Writers Competition Finale last May, Shalev advised 500 ICEI young writers from grades 3-6 to carry a writer’s notebook around at all times and set a regular time to write in it, at least a few times a week, like a job, and not to write only when feeling inspired, and to take their writing seriously. He spoke to them eye to eye, writer to writer.
Like this country, whose lifespan Shalev paralleled until last week, Shalev’s oeuvre is diverse, rooted in our people’s history and our texts, and was constantly renewing itself. More than any other contemporary Israeli writer, Shalev desacralizes and deromanticizes the founders of Israel. At the same time, by writing about them with affection, and with insight into their extraordinary extremes of behavior and feeling, he re-romanticizes them, consecrating them as cornerstones of Hebrew literature. I can think of few better ways to celebrate Israel’s 75th anniversary in these tumultuous days than by reading Meir Shalev.