Israeli writer to tell tales of pioneer ancestors

Like his homeland, Israeli author Meir Shalev turns 55 this year.

"We're the same age, but I look better," he quips.

Apart from that coincidental connection, Shalev's bonds to the Jewish state stretch back almost a century and have heavily influenced his work.

Though not autobiographical, his books, particularly one entitled "The Blue Mountain," draw on a proud family story starting in 1905. That's the year his young grandparents abandoned a life imperiled by poverty and pogroms in Ukraine to become pioneers and farmers in pre-state Israel.

Ardent Zionists and socialists, Aaron and Tonya Ben-Barak worked as farmhands and later helped found the historic cooperative village of Nahalal in the western Jezreel Valley.

"They were the people who created the state of Israel, themselves and their comrades," said Shalev in a phone interview from his home in Jerusalem.

Besides their place in Israel's history, Shalev's grandparents also were world-class storytellers. "I think they influenced me more than any great writer I read."

Shalev will give a sampling of those stories when he appears Monday evening at Stanford University to give a lecture presented by the Taube Center for Jewish Studies. The event is sponsored by the Jewish Community Endowment Fund.

Titled "My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner," his talk is based, not surprisingly, on a quirky but true family story.

He also plans to touch on themes from "The Blue Mountain," which tracks three generations of a family that moved to Israel from Russia and has "a lot of similarities" to his own history. Among Shalev's other books are "Esau," "The Loves of Judith" and a children's book, "My Father Always Embarrasses Me."

Shalev, who describes himself as left-leaning, also writes a political column for the Israeli daily Yediot Aharonot.

A former radio and television talk show host, Shalev abandoned that career to devote himself to something he considered more meaningful — writing.

"I don't write about my family," he said. But his relatives "have some presence" in his work. "They are hovering over my head when I write, making nasty remarks," he jokes.

As for the vacuum cleaner story, Shalev doesn't want to give away the punch line except to say that the machine was an enormous General Electric model that was shipped to his pioneer grandparents sometime in the 1930s by a great-uncle in Los Angeles.

That uncle had moved to California in the same year as Shalev's grandfather. "He wasn't a Zionist and wasn't a socialist," Shalev explained. "My grandfather refused to talk to him later because he considered him a traitor.

"The level of ideology was so high and so significant in those early families."

Ideology even was factored into the design of the village of Nahalal, which was also the childhood home of Moshe Dayan. The town was built in the shape of a circle so that all inhabitants lived equidistant from its center in a show of equality.

"The main drive was to change the Jewish character of exile into a productive, healthier character of a Jew," said Shalev. "What they wanted was every Jewish pioneer who comes to Palestine [to] be a farmer."

He said his grandparents were disdainful of early city-dwellers, referring to them as bourgeoisie.

"They were nonreligious on principle," added Shalev. They would proudly work on Saturday, for instance. "They blamed religion and the principle of waiting for the Messiah with the conditions of people living in the diaspora."

Shalev's grandparents lived until the 1960s and "fulfilled both of their main objectives: to become Jewish farmers in Israel, the land of their fathers, and to create the Jewish state."

Though born in Nahalal, Shalev moved to Jerusalem as a youngster because his father, poet Itzhak Shalev, missed the city.

But young Shalev pined for the family's farm and retreated there every summer during his teenage years. Four years ago, he purchased a quarter of an acre of land three miles from his old village.

He divides his time between his home in Jerusalem and the new place in the country, where he tends a garden of onions, garlic, parsley and wildflowers.

"I'm not a farmer," he concedes. But returning to the place of his family's roots, "for me, it's very moving and I'm very happy about it."