Perhaps things were easier in Mandatory Palestine. In those times, all a man needed to carve out a new life were “a rifle, a cow, a tree, and a woman.” Well, perhaps not, as we grow to understand in Meir Shalev’s “Two She-Bears,” which follows the life and circumstances of Ze’ev Tavori, who moved to a moshava with those four items in the late 1920s and ends up living a life of violence and tragedy. The story of Ze’ev Tavori is told by his granddaughter, Ruta, who narrates the history of her family’s three generations on the moshava, beginning with Ze’ev and and continuing to her own life in the present day.

Make no mistake – the stories are uncomfortable, and that’s probably an understatement. Children die. People are murdered. This is suicide and marital infidelity, and if anything events only get more cringe-worthy as you go along. But before you cluck at this book’s vulgar tendencies, don’t forget that the Bible in general, and the story of Elisha and the two she-bears in particular (verses 23 and 24, here), is absolutely and perhaps intentionally barbaric as well.

51N0HEMdGQL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_So buck up, maybe.

Ruta’s storytelling is sarcastic, at times hard to follow, but beyond her asides and her snide comments we are left with a sad and tragic story that she tells about the weakness and depravity of men. Those stories swirl around Ze’ev, the patriarch of the Tavori family, who, while he might end up as a beloved grandfather, is hard to really love due to the sins of his past. But don’t be too hard on yourself; after all, even Don Corleone died as a quasi-sympathetic figure.

Consider also the fate of Eitan Tavori, Ruth’s husband-that-took-her-name, who goes with their 6-year-old son on a desert hike and brings him back dead from a snakebite. The story of his tortured soul is also not for the faint of heart, and we must not forget about Ruta, who is also no angel, but one can’t think if she wasn’t cursed from the beginning. One thing’s for sure – there’s plenty of blame to go around for all of the Tavori sins and one wonders where they all came from. Ze’ev? Labor Zionism? Chauvinism? Misogyny? Cain and Abel? Your pick, and there are many more options.

It is easy to read this book as a family’s saga, or as an indictment of man’s baser instincts, but peel back a few more layers and there are definitely pathways you can explore about the evolution of Zionism and the implications of war and violence on Zionist and Israeli identity, but that’s my layer and you might not get there.

No matter how you slice it, though, this is a tough book to deal with and I read it with an ever-growing sense of dread and worry; I was glad to be done with it. Read it at your own risk.

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