A peek inside the literary world of a leading Israeli writer

Locked down? Open up to… Meir Shalev

In the first in a series of articles aimed to widen cultural horizons within our virus-narrowed constraints, Mitch Ginsburg extols Meir Shalev’s new memoir as a breath of fresh air

Mitch Ginsburg is the former Times of Israel military correspondent.

'Rock star' writer Meir Shalev at 2012 International Writer's Festival in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)
'Rock star' writer Meir Shalev at 2012 International Writer's Festival in Jerusalem (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash 90)

Here at the Times of Israel we figure that many of you readers are trapped at home and hankering for the comfort of a good song, an indelible poem, a story that drops the blinds on the world around you. During the coronavirus crisis, we’ll offer little tastes of the artists we’re reading and listening to, gazing at and binging on.

A fine place to start, in this, the spring of our containment, is a newly released book by Meir Shalev: “My Wild Garden.” It’s insightful, funny, and ideal for those, like me, who prefer reading about a writer’s dogged efforts to cultivate his garden to actually kneeling in the earth, among Israel’s many nettles and thorns, and ripping out weeds.

The book has nearly 50 chapters. As a reader, you’re free to roam and browse. There’s no true chronology. Yet you come away from the garden memoir with a clear sense of the author — his concerns, his surroundings, his loves — and a string of reverberating questions. Why, for example, as Shalev notes, are so few flowers mentioned in the Bible? What does that say about us as a people? And why do the poppies sway — even when the air is still?

The book is full of wisdom. There’s an ode to the wheelbarrow — “its ingenuity harbored in the simplicity of its shape” — and a nod to the Swiss army knife, which outperforms the plier-equipped Leatherman because the former, with its corkscrew, “recognizes that man was born not just to labor.” (My quotes here are free translations from the Hebrew original, however, the new English translation by Joanna Chen was published on March 31.)

Cover of ‘My Wild Garden’ by Meir Shalev (courtesy)

The lovely and modest cyclamen, we’re told, has few demands and, unlike people, gets ever more lovely with each passing year. Its heart-shaped leaves are unique; each bulb produces leaves with its own singular pattern. They are the snowflakes of the forest.

The sea squill, a tall thin white flower that rises up, as Naomi Shemer wrote, like a candle amid the scorched earth and brittle thorns of late summer, produces five new rings of flowers every day. The new petals ascend around the spike as the old flowers wilt.

Shalev witnesses a kindergarten class sitting around his garden taking in this bit of information, lovingly conveyed by the kindergarten teacher. The children, he muses, may grow up and thrive without this knowledge. They may get good jobs and be law abiding citizens. They may even develop a new app that will save the human race. “But children who learn this at the age of four will be better people at the age of six,” he says, and that is not to be easily dismissed.

The sea squill from ‘My Wild Garden’ by Meir Shalev (Illustration by Refealla Shir, Courtesy of Schocken Books)

Nor is his recipe for limoncello. He writes that it’s the best in the world and he’s happy to share it. He claims that people line up outside his home to “beg and threaten” him for a bottle. And since times are tough and there’s no clear end in sight, I’ll include it here: Peel 12 lemons with a vegetable peeler, not a knife (so as to avoid the bitter pith), and place them in a sealable jar with a 750ml bottle of 192-proof alcohol. Seal it, leave it in the dark, come back in three weeks. Strain the liquid, give the peels to an uncle or aunt who knows how to bake, boil five cups water to three cups of sugar, mix, cool, so that the alcohol is not burnt off when the syrup’s added in, and then take five parts syrup to every three parts alcohol. Try it once, tinker as needed.

Finally, if you must know, the flowers in Claude Monet’s “Poppies” sway not because they are being caressed by the breeze, as Shalev initially thought, but because beetles are drawn into the bud of petals for the pollen and they stay there not just for the food, but rather, he sees upon closer inspection, for what is “not just a restaurant but also a room in the sort of hotel that specializes in this sort of rental.”

Cyclamen from ‘My Wild Garden’ by Meir Shalev (Illustration by Refealla Shir, Courtesy of Schocken Books)

Another great Shalev title:

Meir Shalev's "Beginnings" (Courtesy)
Meir Shalev’s ‘Beginnings’ (Courtesy)

If all this has you craving for more from Shalev, I’d recommend, in advance of Passover, “Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible’s Intriguing Firsts.” There he delves into the Bible’s first kiss, first love, first laugh; and if you’re looking for something related to the Exodus from Egypt, he touches on the first time that words are expressly stated as written in the Bible — the Ten Commandments. (The first act of reading comes later, with Joshua.)

Most compelling, for this reader, was his commentary on the final commandment, the one that cannot possibly be observed: Thou Shalt Not Covet. Is it the “zenith of totalitarianism,” he wonders, the governing of one’s mind? Or is it, rather, he suggests, the sly insertion of a commandment that cannot be fulfilled; the last of the ten commandments being the one that underscores to the faithful that, try as they might, the will of the Divine shall never be fully satisfied.

And one more for the road:

Cover of ‘Two She-Bears’ by Meir Shalev (courtesy)

A final option for today is “Two She-Bears,” Shalev’s most recent novel. The title is taken from 2 Kings 2, in which Elisha the prophet encounters a group of boys, who laugh at his baldness. In perhaps the strangest and cruelest revenge in the holy book, Elisha nonchalantly curses the children and a pair of she-bears emerges from the woods and tears 42 of them to bits. Here, too, we get a ripping yarn of blood-lust and revenge, an unapologetic look into some of the soul’s darkest corners.

“I don’t think that literature is supposed to educate its readers toward morality,” Shalev said several years ago in a conversation with Maj.-Gen. (res) Noam Tibon. “It has to force them to face moral situations like a mirror that one cannot avoid.”

If that mirror robs you of your ability to sleep, go back to the garden book and read a chapter. I went to sleep every night with the smell of fresh figs and lemons and the sound of birdsong in my ears and the image of Shalev’s beloved black cat, Kramer, the hero of many of his Hebrew children’s stories, sleeping the day away beneath the buckthorn tree.

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