The Arty Semite

The Author as Therapist for her Characters

By Liam Hoare

  • Print
  • Share Share

Literature is in Zeruya Shalev’s genes. Born in Kvutzat Kinneret in 1959 — a kibbutz by the shores of the Galilee where the songwriter Naomi Shemer was also born — Shalev grew up with a father who was a literary critic and an uncle who was a poet. Her cousin is the acclaimed novelist Meir Shalev, author of “The Blue Mountain” and “Four Meals.” Her husband, the writer Eyal Megged, is himself the scion of writers Eda Zoritte and Aharon Megged.

Writing, then, for Zeruya Shalev was practically predestined. “Encounters with pain and sorrow made me want to write. When I was 6, I was already writing sad poems about cats and dogs that had been killed and soldiers that were dying in war,” Shalev said at a recent event at London’s Jewish Book Week. “It’s in my DNA.” During the Six Day War, she composed poetry while cocooned in the bunker at Kvutzat Kinneret, verse that she still remembers to this day.

After failing in her training to be a therapist while conducting her military service, Shalev sees now that her career is to be “a therapist for literary figures. Normally the characters I create are busy in some sort of crisis and, as a literary therapist, it is my job to help them overcome it.”

Rather, the therapy is for the characters and also those who pick up her novels and read them. “The job of literature is to change the reader’s soul,” Shalev said. “I don’t want my readers just to enjoy themselves. I want them to go through some sort of experience that might change themselves.” Her previous novels — “Love Life,” “Husband and Wife” and “Thera” — have dealt with lust and romance, relationships, the trials and strains of marriage, and divorce.

Her latest novel “The Remains of Love,” published in the United States in December of last year, takes as its subject the prospect of death. Hemda Horowitz, nearing the end of her days, reflects upon her traumatic childhood on the kibbutz and the influence of her father who, invested in his work and the project of the kibbutz, had a parenting style that was stern and disciplined.

The narratives of her children, Dina and Avner, weave between Hemda’s. Dina, her eldest, born in tragic circumstances, became the child she believes she did not love enough, a mutual feeling that informs Dina’s relationship with her own daughter, Nitzan. Avner, a human rights lawyer and Hemda’s favoured child and only son, is also distant from his mother and unhappy in marriage.

While reviewers have sought to uncover or attribute themes in her book pertaining to the kibbutz or even the displacement of Palestinian Arabs during the War of Independence, Shalev says that the purpose of the book is to show how the impending passing of a family member causes one to be borne back into the past, ask whether it is possible to make a decent end, and consider whether is indeed possible to look upon one’s own death with a steady eye.

“At the time I began to think about writing this book, I was taking care of my own mother, and I started to become very interested in older people,” Shalev said. Spending time in care facilities and hospitals, she was drawn to “try and imagine what the older people were thinking about, what they wanted to leave behind, how they would summarize their lives, and whether it was too late to change anything.” Her imagined answers to these questions informed the character of Hemda.

“Writing is not therapy for me” Shalev insisted, referring specifically to a time in 2004 when, returning to her home in Jerusalem, she was injured by a bomb which exploded in a passing bus. Although she was confined to bed for six months, only when she recovered and returned to her desk did she write again, and even then not about the terror attack and its effects.

While “The Remains of Love” draws on the character and shape of the kibbutz, the curse of the Israeli novelist is to be continually examined through the lens of ha’matsav, or “the situation.” All novels must be about the conflict with the Palestinians, and when they aren’t, it is somehow an act of moral pusillanimity on the part of the author. “If I wrote a story about a mother, a father and their daughter,” Amos Oz has said, “a critic would say that the father represents the government, the mother, the old values, and the daughter the shattered economy.”

When your task as a novelist, Shalev said, is “creating an intimate drama in the midst of a larger, ongoing drama, you have to adapt to strange symbolic interpretations of your work, often simple interpretations.” Politics, she added, is “rude and vulgar” and not something suited to the novel in that way. “You can feel the extremeness of Israeli society and life in my books without it being explicit. I only look for the individual experienced and give a taste of the complexity of life in Israel.”

“Literature is too dear to me,” she concluded, “to make it dirty with politics.”


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Jewish Book Week, Books, Zeruya Shalev

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • “You will stomp us into the dirt,” is how her mother responded to Anya Ulinich’s new tragicomic graphic novel. Paul Berger has a more open view of ‘Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: Hundreds of protesters marched through lower Manhattan yesterday demanding an end to American support for Israel’s operation in #Gaza.
  • Does #Hamas have to lose for there to be peace? Read the latest analysis by J.J. Goldberg.
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.