Meir Shalev and me
Meir Shalev’s book Roman Russi (sold in English as The Blue Mountain), was not the first full-length book I’d read in Hebrew. It was the second. In some ways, the first led to the second. When I decided to graduate from the “pocket books” – short stories sold separately, in the bus stations and Steimatsky’s – I chose Tarnegol Kaparot by Eli Amir. I confess, the thin spine was its main selling factor.
When I casually mentioned to an Israeli-born friend that I was reading the book, hoping for some encouragement, I was told: “No! Don’t read that! Its anti-kibbutz! Read Roman Russi instead. When I finished Amir’s book, I found a copy of Roman Russi, prepared to plow through its much thicker pages.
To my delight, reading the book was not, in the least, a project in self-improvement. Instead, I found myself lingering over chapters, reading dialogue out loud to myself and hearing the characters speak.
And yet, when I got to the end, I was confused. Tarnegol Kapparot was the barely fictional memoir of a young man sent to kibbutz – the story of an outsider who initially wanted to belong, but found himself in a rigid society that rejected him, and which he ultimately rejected. The story was heartfelt, and the criticism, implied or otherwise, rang true to me. After all, the women who told him, in answer to his questions: “That’s just the way it’s done,” could have been the ones I worked under on my kibbutz ulpan who insisted on showing me the proper way to squeegee a floor or chop tomatoes for salad.
And Roman Russi, the “pro-kibbutz” story (which takes place in a moshav)? It did not seem to pull its punches in its outsized fictionalizations of the men and women who built the country. In the end, the young man who grew up in this small-town society — fled the premises. If Eli Amir’s protagonist had seemed almost wistful in his rejection, Shalev’s seemed savage.
Why was Amir anti-kibbutz while we loved Shalev? Amir was the archetypal outsider, reminding us to check our prejudices. Shalev was the typical insider, tearing down the myths upon which the entire structure was built.
The other person who had recommended Roman Russi to me was the inseminator who came several times a week to the dairy. He especially loved the chapters in which a young man slept with married women and announced it from the top of the water tower. One was the wife of the dairy farmer (whom he insisted was the inseminator, making me wonder what this said about him). Ok, I personally found that chapter less funny, but I did realize that Shalev’s sense of humor, which infused everything he said or wrote, was what made his books truly endearing. He would always poke fun at himself (a child of Israel’s founding settlers) first, before holding up the funhouse mirror to our society. He allowed us to giggle at ourselves and love ourselves, still. We could see ourselves in Shalev’s characters – especially for their flaws and cringeworthy acts.
And that is the lesson I take from Shalev: Don’t hold back, tear it apart, but do it with love and a few laughs.
His memory will surely be blessed.