Obituary'The world he created will remain on the shelf of our lives'

Meir Shalev, beloved writer of fiction and complicated Israeli lives, dies at 74

Renowned author of fiction, non-fiction, children’s books, melded Biblical narratives with modern Israeli life; Herzog: His books changed and enriched us

Jessica Steinberg, The Times of Israel's culture and lifestyles editor, covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center

Israeli author meir Shalev speaks at the 25th Jerusalem National Book Festival held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. February 22, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Israeli author meir Shalev speaks at the 25th Jerusalem National Book Festival held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem. February 22, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Renowned Israeli author Meir Shalev, whose works melded the power of biblical narratives with the complicated lives of modern Israelis, died Tuesday after struggling with cancer. He was 74.

Shalev began writing novels at the age of 40, and first wrote three children’s books before he even ventured into the world of adult fiction with his 1988 book, “The Blue Mountain” (“Roman Russi” in Hebrew), about pioneers in the Jezreel Valley.

The book was an immediate success with Israeli readers and turned Shalev into one of the country’s most popular contemporary authors.

Shalev’s masterful use of Hebrew helped bring to life the recurring themes of his works that included biblical associations and mythic concepts, and often featured women as a source of power behind the men in their complex lives.

Shalev’s first published works, however, were books for children and the volume “Bible Now,” a personal look at biblical episodes.

He also dabbled in fantasy, and humor was an ever-present thread throughout his books, which were translated into 26 languages.

Israeli writer Meir Shalev attends the Funeral of Israeli novelist A. B. Yehoshua, in Kibbutz Ein Carmel, on June 15, 2022. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

Shalev was born in 1948 in the historic farming community of Nahalal, the country’s first moshav, to poet Yitzhak and Batya Shalev, who moved the family to Jerusalem’s Kiryat Moshe neighborhood and later to the Sea of Galilee community of Ginosar.

At the time of his death, he lived in Moshav Alonei Aba, a 15-minute drive from Nahalal, and the site of a former German Templar community known as Waldheim that Shalev described in his 2002 novel “Fontanelle.”

Shalev served in the Golani Brigade and fought in the War of Attrition and the Six-Day War, and was injured in a friendly fire incident. He studied psychology at Hebrew University, and began his professional path as a journalist, presenting features on television and radio, including Channel One’s “Erev Shabbat” show.

Shalev told The Times of Israel in 2020 that the impetus to write children’s books came from his memories as an avid young reader, when each book offered a kind of magic and escape from reality.

“No novel for adults, even the best ones, moved me or excited me the way a good children’s book did when I was 5 or 6,” said Shalev, who waxed poetic about an original translation of Huckleberry Finn into biblical Hebrew. “A book is the creation of the writer and the reader, and there is this magic in children’s stories.”

Shalev wrote 14 children’s books, including the popular series about Kramer the cat (although his personal favorite was “How the Neanderthal Discovered the Kebab”).

Israeli author Meir Shalev speaks at the 25th Jerusalem National Book Festival held at the International Conference Center in Jerusalem, February 22, 2011. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Some were written for one of his children or grandchildren; others were drawn from an incident or conversation. He also wrote children’s books as a break from writer’s block.

“When I get stuck with a novel and hit my head against the wall, I leave it and write a children’s story and it changes my mood completely,” he said.

Shalev said he also enjoyed collaborating with the illustrator and reading the final product to kids, who, he said, are wonderful critics, knowing instinctively how to sense the story’s direction and whether the book is any good.

He won the Bernstein Prize, and the Brenner Prize and the National Jewish Book Award for “A Pigeon and a Boy.”

Shalev was awarded France’s Chevalier of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, along with Michal Govrin, in 2018.

His 1991 book “Esau,” a modern spin of the story of Jacob and Esau, was turned into a movie in 2020, starring Shira Haas, Harvey Keitel and Lior Ashkenazi.

Eulogizing Shalev, President Isaac Herzog lamented that the world would not be able to enjoy another one of his books, which have “changed our lives, making them richer and fuller.”

“How sad that we won’t be able to celebrate the upcoming Independence Day with Shalev, who was born in 1948,” Herzog wrote. “With the passing of Meir Shalev, the State of Israel and the Land of Israel are left without one of their greatest lovers. He was a man with a spirit, whose homeland and our history as a society, as a people and as a nation, pulsated in each of his words,” the president said.

“He made us all fall in love… with the Hebrew language, the Bible, and of course — us, the people of Israel. May his memory be a blessing.”

Opposition chair Yair Lapid tweeted, “Like any great writer, [Shalev’s] light created a world [in of itself]. He has left us, but the world he created will remain on the shelf of our lives.”

Culture Minister Miki Zohar wrote that Shalev was “a master of words and a writer of supreme grace.” He added: “His works and his many books are an integral part of the Israeli bookshelf and will forever be engraved in Israeli culture.”

Former prime minister Naftali Bennett tweeted, “I loved his books and the sense of Israeliness that he represented.”

“He loved the Bible, loved the paths of our country and was a literary giant,” Bennett added.

On Wednesday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that he was saddened to hear of Shalev’s death, adding. “Despite our differences of opinion, I appreciated his literary talents and his efforts to make the stories of the Bible accessible to Israel’s children. May his memory be a blessing.”

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