These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

Love and a Pigeon

Posted on April 1, 2013 by Naomi Bilmes

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From my blog:

Ten Characteristics of a Good Pigeon Handler:

  1. The pigeon handler is moderate in his disposition. A reckless pigeon handler frightens the pigeons.
  2. The pigeon handler is loyal and responsible and carries out his tasks in an orderly and punctual fashion.
  3. 0The pigeon handler is kindhearted and cares for each and every pigeon.
  4. The pigeon handler is patient and devoted.
  5. The pigeon handler is tidy and attentive to cleanliness.
  6. The pigeon handler is strong-willed and maintains discipline over the pigeons.
  7. The pigeon handler is sensitive in observing and discerning the character and condition of each and every pigeon.
  8. The pigeon handler is industrious. There is always work to be done in the pigeon loft.
  9. The pigeon handler is considerate of others.
  10. The pigeon handler is adept at learning and knows all there is to know with regard to the traits, eating habits, flying exercises and care of the pigeon. Further, it is incumbent upon him to know how to compose short, clear pigeongrams.

…the first nine characteristics of a good pigeon handler are important for all human beings, even those who do not raise pigeons, but the tenth characteristic is important only for pigeon handlers. (Shalev 116).

1As much as I loved A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev, from which the above quotation is taken, I have to disagree with the last sentence. The first nine characteristics are, indeed, important for all human beings – but so is the tenth. Simply substitute the word “friend” for “pigeon” and the tenth characteristic becomes a directive for how to be the best friend everyone wishes they had. Not sure what a “friendgram” is? Simple. Tell your friends you love them. And make it obvious.

In A Pigeon and a Boy, the young find it easy to express their emotions, but the old do not. A youthful pigeon handler and a Girl send pigeongrams to each other as often as they can when separated by the circumstance of the 1948 War of Independence: “Yes I love you, yes I miss you, yes I know and remember that you do, too…No I do not want anyone other than you and no I do not manage to sleep at night” (Shalev 192). When they are together, they are equally blunt. During the boy’s surprise visit to the pigeon loft on his way to combat, the Girl asks angrily, “So, you’ve come to say good-bye?”
“I’ve come to see you and touch you and talk to you,” the young pigeon handler responds. “And also to say good-bye. We had an hour, but because you’re arguing with me, we only have fifty-two minutes left” (207). The honesty of their words leads to a relationship in which they reach the highest potential of love: she knows he loves her, he knows she loves him, and each one’s love fills the other with a reason to live.

In contrast, the adults in the story find it hard to express their personal truths. When an Israeli tour guide and a building contractor romantically inaugurate the new rooms in their freshly-built house, the contractor rolls on her side, giggles and says,
“‘You love me.'”
“‘So?'” the tour guide roughly responds.
‘”You love me, I can feel it,'” she replies (270). Neither man nor woman confesses an “I love you”; instead, they must infer from the other’s riddles that the game is worth playing. The game takes many hours; they lose precious time.
In another instance, a sick man, close to death, reveals that he has demonstrated a similar restraint in the past. The doctor asks him, “‘What seems to be the problem?'” and the man replies, “‘In 1964, my wife, Raya, left me and my heart was stricken'” (224). Only now, at the end of his life, can he report the hurt of his wife’s departure. He could not tell her of his heart when it was stricken, nor could he count on her to pull him back into life.

Shalev seems to be telling us that true words are a risk worth taking. Tell her now. Tell him yesterday. Send a pigeongram that is short and clear. Yes, you risk the wholeness of your heart. But without those short, clear words, you also risk stifling your heart’s potential to expand and fly.


A Pigeon and a Boy, by Meir Shalev, was published in 2006 in Hebrew. In 2007, an English translation was released, allowing the English-speaking world to fall into the embrace of a beautiful novel of love, war and home. Shalev describes Israel with effortless accuracy: a specific sandwich shop in Tel Aviv; a certain neighborhood in Jerusalem; a bird-watching tour in the Golan Heights. In addition, anyone well-versed in the Bible will find allusions tucked within Shalev’s lyrical prose. God finds his way into the story, as do Adam, Eve, Abraham, Isaac, and of course, a dove looking for a home. Read this book; drink in the words. I will read it again and we will make a toast.