Book Review: 'Two She-Bears'

Meir Shalev’s latest novel, now translated into English, offers an emotionally surprising story unfolding on a moshav.

Meir Shalev (photo credit: DAN PORGES)
Meir Shalev
(photo credit: DAN PORGES)
Saviors sometimes show up where we least expect to find them.
They arrive unannounced and change the dynamics of a failing family.
Such is the case in Meir Shalev’s devastatingly engrossing novel Two She-Bears.
At first glance, the book appears to be a story about an old woman named Ruta Tavori, who is attempting to recount her life story to a young graduate student researcher named Varda who acts as a repository for Ruta’s still palpable grief.
Many decades ago, Ruta tragically lost her beloved six-year-old son, Neta. He died from a snakebite wound he suffered on a camping trip with his father, Eitan, near their home on a moshav of the Baron de Rothschild in British Palestine.
But that isn’t what this book is really about. It’s only a smokescreen for the emotionally surprising story that resonates beneath it.
It is really a tale about the mysteries and magic of the friendship that evolved after the tragedy, between Ruta’s husband Eitan and her grandfather Ze’ev; a relationship that saved her husband’s life.
Ruta explains to Varda in a searing first-person narration how this closeness evolved. But she first tells us about Eitan, whom she married after her brother Dovik brought him home to meet her. Eitan was not an intellectual man – which bothered her a bit – but there was an aura that enveloped him. Ruta’s father had died when she was young, and her mother had deserted the family, leaving Grandpa Ze’ev to raise her and Dovik.
Ze’ev was a violent and ill-tempered man, gossiped about in the moshav for once killing a man who impregnated his wife and then allowed the baby to starve to death. Ze’ev returned to his wife who soon bore him two sons – one of them was Ruta’s now deceased father. The Tavori family ran a plant nursery business.
Ruta was attracted to Eitan immediately, but unaware their marriage would blossom into something so wondrous.
She would read poetry to him in bed, and was charmed when he seized upon a phrase in a Hayim Nahman Bialik poem that said simply “Be for me.”
This became their mantra during lovemaking.
When she showed him pictures of famous paintings, she would delight in his responses. Looking at the Mona Lisa, he was struck by her beauty but turned off by her coldness. Examining a picture of Botticelli’s Venus, he thought the head to be striking, but believed the legs looked sad.
He told Ruta that what he thought more magnificent than either work was the naked beauty “of wonderful pomegranate, but not cut open on a white plate, but pomegranate seeds in a silver cup, and not in the sun but between the sun and the shadow.”
Eitan’s magnetism drew customers to their family business. He was clever at negotiating with suppliers and adept at finding customers precisely what they needed. He could be silly too; entertaining the local children by imitating animal sounds and gestures. One day, he somehow managed to put together an imitation of a desk with chicken soup spilled on top of it that had everyone in stitches. Ruta describes him to Varda as “a dancing sunbeam, a darting hornet, a butterfly in the breeze.” She was madly in love with him.
But when their son dies, Eitan’s spirit dies too. Grandpa Ze’ev is the only one able to reach him. Ruta tries to explain their bond: “Eitan got down to the soft layers of Grandpa Ze’ev, under his armor and flinty exterior, and Grandpa Ze’ev got down to the hard granite layers of Eitan, under his weightless, radiant wing, and maybe they also discovered a common darkness in each other... they had a friendship that men want and few have.”
Ruta recognizes her utter powerlessness to help her husband. They find it too painful to even look at each other with a direct gaze. But Ze’ev instinctively grasps how to help Eitan and insists he spends hours a day in backbreaking labor so he can fall exhausted into sleep at night.
Right after the funeral, he grabs Eitan off the floor, admonishes him for screaming, and then gently takes him to a shower where he undresses him and bathes him while reassuring him in a whispered voice that all will be all right. Ruta looks on feebly recognizing that she has not only lost her son but her husband as well. He will no longer even address her.
Shalev has created a masterful work that explores with great insight the mysteries that surround male closeness and its strange and confusing configurations.
He shows us how men often need to grieve and love and trust in a mutually agreed-upon silence. He demonstrates the comfort some men feel only in the presence of other men with whom they do not feel pressured to conceal their more primitive urges, angers and cruelties.
They find relief with one another away from the critical gaze of female expectations and obligations. Shalev shows us their empathy, but it is a quiet, almost existential empathy, often communicated telepathically. Ruta recognizes that “What men really want are other men.
That’s what they lack. True friendship, real friends. What women have a surplus of, they have a deficit, and that deficit is the basis of everything for them.”
It is almost impossible to read this book and not detect within its pages Meir Shalev’s own longings for a certain masculine intimacy that continues to elude him. He has spoken sadly in interviews about his recent divorce and the male friends he lost due to this rupture.
He has written in the past about his often fractured relationship with his own father, the now deceased poet Yitzhak Shalev, with whom he spent many years disagreeing about politics.
Meir Shalev served valiantly in the Six Day War and was grievously wounded, but when he returned from his service and recovery, he told his Right-leaning father that he believed Israel had bitten off more than it could chew. His father and he had a horrific fight that set the template for many decades of disagreements.
Shalev claims that before his father’s death they had rectified their relationship and stopped talking politics, but one senses that he wishes they could have been closer.
Meir Shalev has written several novels including A Pigeon and a Boy, The Blue Mountain and Four Meals, and his work has been translated into more than 26 languages. He was born in 1948 in Nahalal, Israel’s first moshav. His maternal grandparents came from Russia, fueled by the Zionist dream. He also spent huge chunks of his childhood in Jerusalem where his father preferred to live.
But Shalev, now 68, has returned for major portions of the year to a new home near where he grew up in the Jezreel Valley, where he tends his own garden and collects wildflower seeds and makes limoncello from the lemon tree that grows in his yard. This new work explores novel territory for him: anger and vengeance and violence, but it also examines the exquisite healing powers of an unexpected intimacy; the one between Eitan and Ze’ev; the one we sense Shalev is still looking for.