The Way We Love Now: Meir Shalev
When we talk about love, it’s part of an international conspiracy: Writers know something about love that readers do not. The same way rabbis and priests and imams know things about morality and faith that simple believers do not. The same way we believe that psychoanalysts know something about the human soul that we patients do not. This is not true. The only thing writers know better is how to tell a story, a love story; how to phrase it, build it, put it in a way that will make the reader think differently about love. But we do not know about love more than you do. Right now, I can see at least twenty faces of men who have more experience and knowledge in love than I have, and at least ten women and three men with whom I have no chance. So I have to be modest in speaking about love. I write in Hebrew, which I can proudly say is one of the oldest languages still written in the same way, and is the language in which the very old love stories were written—Adam and Eve, Jacob and Rachel, David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, all stories that can be read by Hebrew readers of today in the text of three thousand years ago.
So we write love stories for three thousand years and we still have no solution. We can just describe more and more love stories. We have no ideas, no clear understanding of love, and on the other hand, all of us know exactly what love and passion and desire and longing are until we are asked to describe love in words. But we know when we are in love. We know when we do not love anymore. We know when we feel lust, or longing. It is only the writing or expressing or the verbal part of love that is difficult.
I want to tell you the story of how my parents met for the first time because this is the story that created the way I understand love: It all takes place in 1946. My father was a young teacher and poet in Jerusalem. My mother was a young country girl from a village in the north of Israel. She came to Jerusalem with a group of other young high-school graduates to complete some courses at the university. She was eighteen, and there was a young man in this group who was after her, and they were walking together in the center of Jerusalem in Jaffa Street, one winter afternoon. Suddenly, a terrible, heavy, very strong, rare kind of rain poured down from heaven. They got soaked to their skins and this young man said, “My cousin lives very close by. Let’s run away and find a shelter in his room.”
They ran to the room, 200 meters away. The young man was my father. For years he believed that this rain came down just for him. He even wrote a poem called “What Would Have Happened If This Cloud Did Not Come Over Jerusalem?” When I was about seven or eight and my sister was four, he used to sit with us at the table and we’d say, “Tell us the story,” and he’d say, “Now, children, what would have happened if this rain had not come down on Jerusalem? I wouldn’t have met your mother, and you wouldn’t have been born.” This is a sort of cruel story to tell children. I felt a little dizzy. And then he said, “Or, you would have been born to other people and then you would not have been yourselves.” This is the conception of love I grew up on: something completely random. Most of us meet our future partners from a limited sample of the population. Statistically speaking, the best way to find your ideal match is to stay home and never leave, because the one who is looking for you knows where you are.
I want to read a short piece from my book The Loves of Judith, a story about a woman who comes to work in a village in the valley of Jezreel, where three men fall in love with her. Ten years later, she gives birth to a child who resembles all three men. Nobody knows who the father is. All three men claim the mother’s love and the fatherhood of the child. One of them is Jacob Sheinfeld, a chicken grower. His hobby is canary birds. He talks to the little boy, who may be his son, and who narrates the novel:
“You don’t need big things to be friends. And to hate, too, very little reason is enough, and even to love.”
Jacob’s voice cracked a moment. “You don’t need big reasons to love a woman. And the size of the love has nothing to do with the size of the reason. Sometimes one word she says is enough. Sometimes only the line of the hip, like a poppy stem. And sometimes it’s how her lips look when she says ‘seven’ or ‘thirteen.’ Look and see, with ‘seven’ the lips are starting out like with a kiss. Then you see the teeth are touching the lips a moment to make the ‘v.’ And then the mouth is opening a little . . . like this . . . se-ven. See? And with ‘thirteen,’ the tip of the tongue is peeping out for the ‘th.’ Then the mouth is opening and the tongue is touching the top of the mouth at the end.”
He stared at me as if he wanted to see if I caught the meaning of his words.
“To understand that thing, hours I stood looking at the mirror. I stood there and I said all those numbers real slow, and I watched real careful how every number looks on the mouth. And once I even said to her, Tell me, Judith, how much is three and four? just to see the seven on her mouth. But she probably thought I’m nuts. And sometimes, listen, Zayde, just the eyebrows, just the eyebrows of a woman can grab a man for a whole life. . . . You can love a whole woman for a whole life just because of one terrific little thing she’s got. Just remember that women don’t know that, and you shouldn’t tell them.”