Two she-bears in Thailand

Long live Meir Shalev; here’s hoping he gifts us with a new book each season.

Meir Shalev  (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Meir Shalev
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Lucky, lucky me. I recently had the privilege of spending 10 days in Thailand with Meir Shalev, Israel’s most magical writer. He’s a hypnotic traveling companion.
I snorkeled impatiently, waiting to be done with the fish, so I could race back to Shalev’s stories; my massages, which took me away from him, lasted way too long. I lay on the beach in the sun mesmerized by tales of love, and betrayal, and a brutality so mythological that it seems impossible to believe, though Shalev claims secret rumors attest to exactly such an event transpiring in a small moshava in early Israel.
OK, so I wasn’t really sharing a hotel room with one of Israel’s most beloved authors, but I was reading his recent book: Two She-Bears, which is the next best thing. I can’t say one word about this extraordinary novel; writing about Shalev’s writing seems to me like trying to compose a symphony in praise of Beethoven. Plus I don’t want to spoil the surprises, which will certainly make you laugh out loud, and cry as if your heart were breaking.
I wanted to jump into the story Mary Poppins style, and beg Ruta Tavori to be my best friend forever. Apart from the gut-gripping plot, and the characters who take over your dreams, there is the language that Shalev dishes out to us like ice-cream in a sharav (heat wave). Under the big carob tree in the wadi near the family home, for example, were a few rocks that “sat at its feet like petrified oxen, chewing a cud of lime and time …” should I write that out again? The whole reading process becomes a tussle – you want to skim fast to find out what the hell happened, and you want to stop and savor each image, and read pages over and over again, out loud. Rush to buy the book.
Shalev, who lives in a house that inspired the “Hello home” in A Pigeon and a Boy (if you missed that one, put it on top of your list), infuses his work with nature, children’s stories, history, wildflowers and matters of the heart and mind. His details are meticulous: researching the possibility of a method of insemination that beggars belief, he consulted Prof. Neri Laufer of Hadassah; the vet in the book is named Dr.
Laufer in gratitude. Once, on a quest to understand the nature of pain, Shalev joined a doctor friend’s consultations with patients describing aches that drilled and pains that stabbed. The next week the friend reported back that one patient had angrily demanded “the other doctor, the one that helped me more than you do.”
Of all the allusions in the books, the ones that resonate most in my blood are the thrilling references to the Bible, which Shalev knows inside-out. His father, Yitzhak Shalev, was a famous poet and Bible teacher who walked the land with students as he showed them where the stories unfolded all those millennia ago: the spots around which Jonah wandered in Jaffa, for example, or where Joshua brought down the walls of Jericho. Shalev has written best-sellers about the Bible: his The Bible Now is credited with renewing secular interest in our holiest of books.
The biblical legends flow seamlessly through Two She-Bears in perfect harmony with the plot. Just feast your nerve-endings on this: “Why did you wake up, Sara?” “Because of you. You’re making a ton of noise.”
“We’re getting ready for a hike.”
“What hike? You didn’t say anything about it.”
“A hike for guys. Me and Isaac.”
“Just the two of you? It’s not kind of dangerous?” “We’re not alone. We’ll also take two boys and a donkey, and also God will come.”
“Really?” “That’s what he said.”
“If I know him, he’ll show up only on the last day and say he forgot to bring food. You better bring some sacrifices.”
“And where are you going?” “‘To the place that I shall show thee.’” “To the place that who shall show thee?” “God. That’s what he said.”
Etc. More and more breath-stoppingly brilliant.
I thought to myself, as Shalev demonstrated his unique writing method to me (hundreds of small handwritten notes on scenes and vignettes strewn on the floor, which he then stirs with his Kenyan stick until he arranges them into a chronological order); I thought how empowering it is to regain ownership of our Bible, even if we drive on Shabbat. To incorporate and internalize the stories we grew up with, the history of all of our people – not only those who wait hours between meat and milk.
It’s a feeling of coming home.
At a recent family simha in London, davening away happily on Shabbat in a Finchley shul, I was struck again at the luxury of living in a land where religion is not inexorably tied up with exhausting political shenanigans. Theresa May does not wake up each morning wondering how to placate the religious in her coalition; any Jewish marriage in any kind of synagogue is recognized by English law. So religious ritual, freed from the everlasting drama of political power that it entails here in the Holy Land, can be so relaxing, so refreshing, so comforting, and such fun. Halevai aleinu (if only it could be like that for us!).
Long live Meir Shalev; here’s hoping he gifts us with a new book each season.
Shabbat shalom to us all.
The writer lectures at Beit Berl and the IDC.