Israeli Life: Landscape of a Literary Tribe
Can one family brimming with best-selling storytellers be evidence that good writing is a matter of pedigree?
In Meir Shalev’s recent novel, A Pigeon and a Boy, two children say “Hello, house” when they arrive home. If the house greets them in return, Shalev writes, it is truly a home.
The themes of building a house and coming home are central to the novel, which has been translated into English and will be published by Pantheon/Shocken in late 2007. It relates the story of a boy on a kibbutz and a girl from Tel Aviv who send homing pigeons with secret messages back and forth for the Palmah before the War of Independence. The young homing pigeon dispatchers fall in love, but as adults, they never manage to create a home of their own because the man is killed during the War of Independence.
The pigeon [is] an image of the love of home,” explains the boyish-looking 58-year-old Shalev. A master storyteller, Shalev is the best-selling author of six whimsical novels as well as many children’s books, all of which have become classics in Israel. His books have been translated into more than 20 languages and are particularly popular in the Netherlands and Germany. He also writes a weekly column for the Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
Shalev is not the only writer in his family; in fact, he is part of an extended clan of prolific, homegrown storytellers. His father, Yitzhak Shalev, was a nationalistic poet and novelist. His uncle, Mordehai Shalev, is a literary scholar who researches issues of diaspora and redemption, while Mordehai’s children, Zeruya Shalev and Aner Shalev, are also well-known writers. But each member of this unique literary family raised in the Zionist epoch has distinct literary styles, reflecting different periods and attitudes in Hebrew literature. Together, they represent the spectrum of Israeli literature.
Meir Shalev, however, is one of the best known of the family, at least in the United States. “He is one of the main Israeli writers, after S. Yizhar, whose work manifests deep feeling for the land,” says Ziva Shamir, professor of Hebrew literature at Tel Aviv University.
Most of his novels have examined legends of prestate Israel, though they actually demythologize Zionist beliefs with good-humored satire. This is especially true of his groundbreaking early novel, The Blue Mountain (HarperCollins), where the protagonist makes a fortune creating a cemetery for rich Israelis who left the moshav for America but come back to die in Israel; the book was one of the first to criticize Zionism, specifically the idealization of the early pioneers.
In general, Shalev depicts the difficulties of generations raised on old slogans to find their place in modern Israel. “He’s critical in a loving, playful way,” says Sara Maayan, a literature student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “There’s something joyful about his writing, his wordplay.”
Shalev insists that in spite of the criticism he is not post-Zionist. “I live here out of choice,” he says. “There are more beautiful places in the world. But this is home. And I had the fortune to be born at this historical time.”
According to Shamir, A Pigeon and a Boy is a continuation of Shalev’s exploration of Zionist mythology, a metaphor about building a collective home.
Sitting in the Jerusalem office of Yedioth Ahronoth, Shalev denies that he was talking metaphorically; he says he is writing about his own real experience in building a home.
In the novel, Yair Mendelsohn, a tour guide who is looking for a place to live, leaves his real estate tycoon wife in Tel Aviv to build a home for himself in the north. “When I was 50 I got tired of Jerusalem,” says the author, “and I went to build a new house in Emek Yizrael [an area in the north of the country]. My wife and I spend half the week in Jerusalem and half in Emek Yizrael. This house has given me new life. It is the first time I feel I am living in a place I love.”
It is no surprise that shalev decided to live in Emek Yizrael, a settlement developed by members of the Third Aliyah after World War I and to which he repeatedly returns in his novels.
Although he lived in Jerusalem most of his life, Shalev spent three years as a child in the moshav of Nahalal, near Migdal Ha’emek, where his mother’s family lived. He was closely connected to his grandmother, who was a big influence on his writing. “She was a temperamental woman,” Shalev recalls, “but she was a great storyteller. She was full of tales about the old days in the moshav.”
Shalev also inherited his father’s love of the Bible. At the same time, he is very critical of the political vision apparent in his father’s body of work. Yitzhak Shalev is the author of Songs of Jerusalem, a book of poetry in which he prophetically describes what it will be like “one day after Jerusalem is redeemed.”
“My father was exuberant over the Six-Day War victory,” Shalev says, “but I told him that we have taken too big a bite and we will choke on it.”
His father’s influences can be seen in Meir Shalev’s treatment of his protagonists, for whom he adopts a mythic, biblical tone rather than indulging in psychoanalysis.
“I leave psychology to my younger cousin Zeruya,” says Shalev.
Zeruya Shalev has written Love Life and Husband and Wife, both published in English by Grove Press and translated into 20 languages. Her most recent work of fiction, Tera (Keshet), became a 2005 Israeli best seller. “Writing talent might be genetic,” she concedes.
Her brother, Aner, has published the short-story collections Opus I and Sippurei Petihot, both published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad. His 2004 novel, Ha-Homer Ha’afel (Zmora Bitan), is now being translated into English, German and Italian. He initially rebelled against his family’s literary destiny by becoming a mathematician at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, but eventually he also turned to fiction.
Whatever the genetic component, the Shalev cousins grew up in homes imbued with literature and Tanakh, a rich sense of Hebrew language and culture. Mordehai Shalev would read S.Y. Agnon to the family, while his brother dramatically related Bible stories. Zeruya and Aner’s families through marriage are also filled with writers; Zeruya is married to the novelist Ayal Megged, son of Aharon Megged. Aner’s late mother-in-law was the writer Ariella Goldberg.
The half generation between Meir Shalev and his cousins is not inconsequential. Meir, who began writing children’s books at age 32 and novels at 40, came at the end of the generation of authors such as Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua. They rebelled against the establishment but could not be oblivious to what was happening in the public realm. Meir, too, distanced himself from the public realm through whimsy and imagination, yet could not ignore Zionist ideology.
Zeruya and Aner, on the other hand, started writing in the mid-1980’s, when Israelis sought a more personal literature. Zeruya, writing her first novel, Redadati, Amadeti (Keter) in the early 1990’s, expresses this new focus.
“All I seek in writing,” she explains in a joint interview with Aner, “is the opposite of the public domain. I want to capture the nuances of the inner life.” Nothing better indicates this than her own life. Almost three years ago, Zeruya was walking on Aza Street near her home in Jerusalem when a suicide bomber blew up a bus. She was wounded in the foot and underwent an operation and four months of rehabilitation. When she returned to writing, she did not write about the attack.
“There are no emotional nuances in such a terrible situation,” she says. “Perhaps in a few years I will process it into my inner world.”
Her last three novels can be seen as a trilogy, exploring a woman’s emotional and sexual landscape—a timeworn subject. Nevertheless, her writing has a particularly credible ring.
In Tera, Ella Miller, a 36-year-old archaeologist, decides to divorce her teddy-bearish archaeologist husband and devote herself to their 6-year-old son. Zeruya captures the reactions to domestic rupture in all their verisimilitude. “You are going to destroy a family, Ella, and you don’t even know for what,” her friend admonishes her; her husband cries out, “I can’t even use my keys to come into my own child’s home.” Eventually, Ella attempts to create a new family with someone she loves, slowly acknowledging the price she has paid and the fact that no relationship is ideal.
“People came up to me in the street and related that they were in the middle of a divorce and the book made them reconsider,” says Zeruya, who herself is twice divorced, has a daughter from her second marriage and a son with her current husband. “I understand the need for freedom, but I believe in family and taking responsibility.”
She feels this affirmation of home and family is very Israeli, very Jewish. “I do not find that my European friends see things through the prism of family as much as we do,” she says.
Aner also writes about fissures in the family, but his writing is darker, more abstract and ironic, as befits his mathematical mindset.
For example, in Ha-Homer Ha’afel (Dark Matter), Adam, a married Israeli diplomat, has an affair with Eva, a Russian physics student. He invites her to New York for a clandestine meeting over Thanksgiving weekend. Emotionally muted, Adam floats through an initially comic but ultimately tragic world, as he attempts to create a physical connection to Eva while being oblivious to her inner world. The story is interspersed with confessional e-mails from Eva, which reach Adam too late.
“The e-mail expresses the spirit of our day,” says Aner. “But it is out of sync with life and creates tragic misunderstandings.” In astrophysics, he explains, there is a theory that the creation of galaxies are a consequence of the behavior of some dense mysterious “dark matter,” which emits particles that disappear into the cosmos and whose power of expulsion is greater than its power of attraction. In Aner’s novel, this impersonal cosmic perspective becomes the metaphor for the human condition—dark matter not only exists in space but also in the human inability to connect to each other.
In contrast, Zeruya’s Ella has a better outlook. She realizes humans must connect and take responsibility for their actions.
However, it is Meir’s description of the search for an earthly home in Israel in A Pigeon and a Boy that is the most positive: “I went to find a house that would encircle me, that would be somewhat of a shelter,” says Yair Mendelsohn. “I walked through the streets of small villages, speckled with light and shadow, and the voices of doves. I surveyed gardens that had become thorns and dust”—an apt description of the landscape abandoned by the grandchildren of the pioneers.
The Shalev family, however different their perspectives, are cultivating their own landscape—that of the literature and culture of their people.