Just before Israel marked seventy-five years of independence, it lost two literary giants who defined in their work and in their lives the best of modern Zionism. Meir Shalev and YehonatanGeffen, both born in the legendary cooperative village (moshav shitufi – מושב שיתופי) of Nahalal shortly before Ben-Gurion declared the founding of a Jewish state in Palestine, exemplified the hopes and the distresses of their generation of “new” Jews. Secular, socialist, and critics of the rise of messianic Zionism, their death in the days in which democratic Zionism is fighting back, reminds us that the values of the founding generation of Israel are alive and kicking.
Zionism began as a secular movement. Whereas religious Jews put their faith in the Torah and its teachings, the small cadre of young women and men who founded the movement believed that G-d demonstrated again and again that he is not coming to save the Jews from their torments in the diaspora. The rabbis urged Jews to pray and do mitzvot while waiting for the Messiah, but Zionists declared that Jews can’t wait any longer; the lethal tide of European antisemitism did not afford the Jews that luxury. The siddur may have taught us that we were exiled for our sins (“ מפני חטאינו גלינו “), and pleaded with G-d to renew our days as of old (“חדש ימינו כקדם“), but passivity threatened the physical existence of the Jews of Europe. And so, a few very young women and men, infused with the age-appropriate fantasy that they could remake a secular pluralist and just Jewish society in our ancestral homeland, did not stay in the shtetel or migrate to America, but chose to settle in the challenging and often hostile Palestine.
A labor dispute between a group of young Russian agricultural workers and their manager led to founding of the experiment in communal living by the Kinneret. But life on the early kibbutzim was not for everyone. The conditions were harsh, the diet composed of mostly lentils, malaria a frequent visitor, and social tensions were rampant. For many it was too much and they left. A few decided to form a hybrid of socialism and capitalism, a cooperative village and founded Nahalal in the center of the Jezreel valley. The village is associated with the who’s who of early Zionism and its cemetery, where both Shalev and Geffen were buried last month, is the final resting place for some of the most legendary Zionists, from the Dayan family to the late astronaut Ilan Ramon who died aboard the space shuttle Columbia in 2003.
The death of Meir Shalev, following that of Amos Oz in 2018 and A.B. Yehoshua in 2022, symbolizes the end of the era star authors. (David Grossman, may he live to 120, is the last remaining star of Hebrew literature). Shalev was a master craftsman of the Hebrew language. Reading his books was a linguistic delight. He wrote for adults and wrote for kids. (My favorite children’s book by Shalev is אבא עושה בושות – Daddy is an Embarrassment). He wrote fiction and non-fiction. And he penned a weekly newspaper column for decades.
Shalev understood the psychology of early Zionists, had encyclopedic knowledge of the Hebrew Bible, loved for the flora of Eretz Yisrael, and incorporated all three in his wonderful fiction. His debut novel, The Blue Mountain (published in Hebrew as רומן רוסי in 1988) is a must read for anyone seeking to understand the strange utopians who gave birth to the state of Israel. A persistent pessimism about the barren outcome of the Jewish experiment in self-determination defines his novels. His characters are often childless, somewhat mad, sometimes end up abroad, and often fall short of the expectations the founders placed upon the sabra natives of Eretz Yisrael.
Yehonatan Geffen, a year older than Shalev, was a star poet. (In Israel poets can sometime achieve broad cultural appeal.) The nephew of the legendary general Moshe Dayan, Geffen firstdid what was expected of him. He joined the army, became an officer, and fought in both the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. During the latter, however, he experienced traumatic events that scarred him with profound PTSD. He broke with his family’s legacy, moved to Tel Aviv, and turned to poetry.
Geffen was a serious writer and reader of poetry. He would recite from memory lines from some of the leading Hebrew and English poets. His poetry is sophisticated and nuanced, yet engaging in beautiful, accessible Hebrew. Many of his poems were put to music that became the sound track of modern Hebrew culture. Like Shalev, he wrote for adults and he wrote for children. (His 1975 album הכבש השישה עשר –The Sixteenth Lamb, remains the most beloved children’s music album in Israel’s history.) He wrote fiction, non-fiction, and even dared to engage in critical autobiography. (I highly recommend reading his book אישה יקרה – Dear Woman – in which he tries to come to terms with his mother’s suicide when he was nineteen.) Geffen also wrote a weekly newspaper column for decades.
Geffen and Shalev criticized the religious, militarist, and nationalist turn Israel took following its triumph in 1967. Both were secular humanists who refused to ignore Palestinian sufferings. Both chronicled how the utopian dream of secular, socialist, pluralist Zionism gave birth to a materialistic market society that placed national redemption above individual rights. Both despised the cynicism of Prime-Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who, not coincidently, issued but a terse statement following Shalev’s death and said nothing after Geffen’s. But the spirit of Shalev and Geffen lives on. It shows its beautiful head proudly in the streets of cities and towns where hundreds of thousands of demonstrators protest the efforts of the current coalition to turn Israel into an isolated, exclusionary, religious illiberal democracy. Geffen’s daughter, film maker Shira, showed that the values of secular Zionism have not been silenced yet when she showed up to her father’s funeral wearing a t-shirt featuring the statement אין דמוקרטיה עם כיבוש – There’s No Democracy with Occupation. Shalev and her father often expressed similar sentiments. May the protests of the last months revive the great legacy of Meir Shalev and Yehonatan Geffen. Amen.