My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoirby Meir Shalev
From the author of the acclaimed novel A Pigeon and a Boy comes a charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what/i>
From the author of the acclaimed novel A Pigeon and a Boy comes a charming tale of family ties, over-the-top housekeeping, and the sport of storytelling in Nahalal, the village of Meir Shalev’s birth. Here we meet Shalev’s amazing Grandma Tonia, who arrived in Palestine by boat from Russia in 1923 and lived in a constant state of battle with what she viewed as the family’s biggest enemy in their new land: dirt.
Grandma Tonia was never seen without a cleaning rag over her shoulder. She received visitors outdoors. She allowed only the most privileged guests to enter her spotless house. Hilarious and touching, Grandma Tonia and her regulations come richly to life in a narrative that circles around the arrival into the family’s dusty agricultural midst of the big, shiny American sweeper sent as a gift by Great-uncle Yeshayahu (he who had shockingly emigrated to the sinful capitalist heaven of Los Angeles!). America, to little Meir and to his forebears, was a land of hedonism and enchanting progress; of tempting luxuries, dangerous music, and degenerate gum-chewing; and of women with painted fingernails. The sweeper, a stealth weapon from Grandpa Aharon’s American brother meant to beguile the hardworking socialist household with a bit of American ease, was symbolic of the conflicts and visions of the family in every respect.
The fate of Tonia’s “svieeperrr”—hidden away for decades in a spotless closed-off bathroom after its initial use—is a family mystery that Shalev determines to solve. The result, in this cheerful translation by Evan Fallenberg, is pure delight, as Shalev brings to life the obsessive but loving Tonia, the pioneers who gave his childhood its spirit of wonder, and the grit and humor of people building ever-new lives.
Breezy chronicle of life with a hardworking Russian family headed by an obsessive matriarch with a "dirt phobia."
Award-winning Israeli writer Shalev's (Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts, 2010, etc.) delightful family memoir focuses on a joyful boyhood spent with his grandparents Aharon and Tonia through the decades following their migration to Palestine in the 1920s (both elders hailed from small Ukrainian villages). The author's grandmother, Tonia, a practical, tightly-wound cleaning sensation, had always been a woman who methodically carried a dust rag on her shoulder, but the gift of a powerful General Electric vacuum sent from Shalev's uncle was completely unexpected. The present both surprised and irritated Tonia and Aharon. Tonia was used to doing her own housekeeping unassisted by mechanical intervention, and Aharon felt it was a offering from a relative who'd swapped their adopted Zionistic beliefs for "American capitalism" by emigrating to Los Angeles, changing his name and becoming a businessman who reaped more self-satisfied rewards than the rest of the family. The author gleefully describes his hardworking grandmother's eccentricities with affectionate amusement and without mockery. As a young boy, to help prepare for the family Seder, Shalev was allowed access to Tonia's forbidden rooms, where he discovered abandoned furniture draped in "old-sheet shrouds," as well as inside the typically locked, second bathroom, where the vacuum cleaner (her "svieeperrr") sat, unused, for fear that it would become soiled if operated. The author unveils Tonia's stringent unwillingness to allow visitors to traipse through the clean, carefully segregated house, preferring to entertain outside, and her startlingly outspoken declaration that "a young man should change girls like he does socks." Rife with colloquialisms and native dialects, Shalev's personal reflections of quirky uncles, family squabbles, the rich history of his Jewish heritage and the legacy of the omnipresent American vacuum touch the heart and tickle the funny bone.
An unconventional and quite hilarious family scrapbook.
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Read an Excerpt
This is how it was: Several years ago, on a hot summer day, I rose from a pleasant afternoon nap and made a cup of coffee for myself, and while I stood sipping from the mug I noticed that everyone was looking strangely at me and holding back their laughter. When I bent down to put my sandals on I discovered the reason: my toenails, all ten of them, had been painted with shiny red nail polish.
“What is this?” I cried. “Who painted my toenails?”
From the other side of the porch door, which stood ajar, came the sound of giggling that I recognized at once from previous incidents.
“I know who did this,” I said, raising my voice. “I’ll find you and I’ll catch you and I’ll paint your noses and your ears with the very same shiny red polish you used on my toes, and I’ll manage to do it all before my coffee turns cold!”
The giggles became laughter that confirmed my suspicions. While I lay sleeping, my brother’s two little daughters, Roni and Naomi, had stolen in and painted my toenails. Later they would tell me that the younger of the two had done four nails while her older sister had done the other six. They had hoped I would not notice and that I would walk out in public, only to be scorned and ridiculed. But now that their scheme had been unmasked they burst into the room and pleaded: “Don’t take it off, don’t, it’s really pretty.”
I told them that I, too, thought it was really pretty, but that there was a problem: I had been invited to “an important event” where I was expected to speak, but I could not appear before the crowd with painted nails, since it was summer and in summer I wear sandals.
The girls said that they were familiar with both matters—the important event and my custom of wearing sandals—and that this was precisely the reason they had done what they did.
I told them that I would go to any other important event with shiny red toenails but not to this important event. And that was because of the crowd that would gather there, a crowd no sane man would appear before with painted toenails—and red ones, no less.
The event we were talking about was the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, a Jewish paramilitary organization that operated in Palestine during the British Mandate. The cache had been built on a farm in the village of Nahalal and disguised to look like a cowshed cesspool. In my novel The Blue Mountain I had described an arms cache that never existed in a village that never existed in the Jezreel Valley, but my arms cache was also built and disguised exactly the same way. After the book was published, readers began to show up on the real farm in the real village, asking to see the real cache.
Rumor passed by word of mouth, the number of visitors grew and became a nuisance, and the owners of the property were smart enough to make the best of their situation. They renovated the cache, set up a small visitors’ center, and thus added a new stream of income to their farm. That day, when my brother’s two young daughters painted my toenails with red polish, was the day the renovated arms cache was being inaugurated, and I had been invited as one of the speakers at the ceremony.
“Now bring some nail polish remover and get this pretty stuff off me,” I told Roni and Naomi. “And please hurry up because I have to get going already!”
The two refused. “Go like that!” they said.
I sat down and explained to them that this was a particularly manly event, that there would be generations of fighters from the Jezreel Valley in attendance, elders from the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Palmach. Men of the sword and the plowshare, men who had bent spears into pruning shears and vice versa. In short, girls, these were people who would not react favorably to men with red polish on their toenails.
But Naomi and Roni paid no attention to my pleas. “What do you care?” they cried. “You said yourself it’s pretty.”
“If you don’t take it off I’ll wear shoes!” I threatened. “Nobody will see your red nail polish, and that’ll be that!”
“You’re afraid!” they exclaimed. “You’re afraid what they’ll say about you in the village.”
Those words took effect at once. Without knowing it the two little girls had hit a soft underbelly. Anyone familiar with members of the old-time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field. All the more so in places whose pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s. Here, the standards are more stringent, and anyone who leaves the path of the straight and narrow, who veers left or right, up or down—even a single mistake made in one’s childhood—is not forgotten. Especially someone considered odd, eccentric, meshugah, or an underachiever, which is the complete opposite of mutzlach, one of the loftiest expressions of excellence the village bestows upon its most fortunate sons and daughters, those blessed with wisdom, industriousness, leadership qualities, and community spirit.
But after many years in the city the combination of the words “what” and “they’ll say about you” and “in the village” had lost some of their power and threat. So I reconsidered and decided to take up the gauntlet or, more accurately, the sandals. I put them on, thrust the notes for the speech I had prepared into my pocket, and set out for the inauguration of the old arms cache with my red-painted toenails exposed. The entire household eyed me—some with mirth, others with regret, some with schadenfreude, others with suspicion: Would I return to be reunited with my home and family? And in what condition?
Here I must admit and confess that despite my display of courage upon leaving the house, I became more and more anxious the closer I got to the event. By the time I arrived at the site I was absolutely beside myself. I silently prayed that no one would notice my toes, and my prayers were answered. No one made a single comment, nobody said a thing. On the contrary, everyone was warm and cordial. My hand was crushed by bold handshakes, my shoulder bent by manly slaps on the back. Even my short speech went off well and pleased the crowd—or so it seemed to me.
Naturally, I made metaphorical use of the arms cache as an image of memory and what is hidden in the depths of a person’s soul. In the manner of writers, I prattled on about that which is above the surface and that which is below, that which the eye sees and that which it does not, and from there it was a short road to the tried-and-true literary merchandise of “reality” and the “relationship between truth and fiction in belles letters” and a lot of other fodder that writers blithely use to sell their wares.
After I had finished speaking and descended from the small stage and was able to breathe in relief, one of the daughters of the family on whose property the arms cache had been built approached and asked to exchange a few words with me in private. She thanked me for my speech and said it had been just fine, but then, almost as an afterthought, she added that she wished to know which nail polish was my favorite. She said she very much liked the shade of red I used, as did two friends of hers sitting in the audience who had asked her to find out.
And as that same shade of red flushed across my cheeks, the young woman hastened to add that she herself had no problem with it, that she even found it rather nice, something she had always felt was missing in the village and could be a happy harbinger of things to come. However, to others in the audience my appearance at the event had raised some reservations.
“I thought no one had noticed,” I said.
“Not noticed? It’s all anyone’s been talking about,” she said. “But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised. I even heard someone say, ‘What do you want from the guy? He got it from Tonia. She was crazy in just the same way. That’s the way it is in their family.’ ”
Meet the Author
One of Israel’s most celebrated novelists, Meir Shalev was born in 1948 on Nahalal, Israel’s first moshav. His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages and have been best sellers in Israel, Holland, and Germany. Honors he has received include the National Jewish Book Award and the Brenner Prize, one of Israel’s top literary awards, for A Pigeon and a Boy. A columnist for the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, he lives in Jerusalem and in the north of Israel.
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"My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner" by Meir Shalev, tells the story of his obsessive-compulsive grandmother Tonia, life in Israel, and growing up in a household so encompassed with cleaning that bathrooms are not used (Tonia prefers everyone to do their business outside) and cleaning products like a vacuum cleaner are locked up for fear of dirt contamination. Visitors are told to come to the house from the back, rather than the front door. And Meir's mother and her sisters are late to school because their mother deems cleaning the house more important. That's precisely the kind of atmosphere that we find the author in-whose portrayal of his grandmother Tonya (the one referred to in the title) both critical and loving. His stories are funny but sentimental at the same time. The time described in this book is one of innocence and scarcity. America is seen as a dreamy faraway land (even though Meir's uncle moved there and is seen as the traitor of the family, despite sending the well-intentioned vacuum, cleaner mentioned in the title). Technology is very rare, as most of the work in the country and the house is done exclusively by physical labor. And the overall philosophy is reminiscent of the Cold War communism versus capitalism dynamic. The author has a hilarious way of telling stories, and the writing is inundated with that. Even though this was the first time I read Meir Shalev, I came away with the feeling that I somehow know the author personally. His family stories felt very open, with a certain rawness of truth behind them. It's the kind of book where you laugh, you cry, and you reflect on your own family. I look forward to checking out Shalev's other books. Recommended for fans of poignant yet funny memoirs.
This is one of the best books I've ever read. Funny, sweet, charming descriptions of unusual and extremely imaginative individuals and their relationships with one another, the stories they tell. Gorgeous descriptions of nature--flora and fauna. Chock full of everything one could wish for in a book. Such an upbeat and really profound "record." And all remarkably organized around a "sveepair" from America, itself "alive."
This is warm hearted often amusing memoir of the author's grandparents. Aharon and Tonia left Russia in the early 1920s to move to the Holy Land. They planned to become farmers in Palestine. At the same time, Aharon's brother Yeshayahu relocated in Los Angeles to become a businessman. Whereas Aharon and Tonia lived in poverty while supporting a Zionist state for Jews around the world to come home after centuries of the diaspora, Yeshayahu becomes rich. Tonia obsesses over keeping their house clean from dust, but refuses to use the vacuum svieeperrr sent by her brother-in-law because she feels strongly she must do the job by hand and rag and cannot allow the General Electric machine to become dirty. Aharon loathes the gizmo that represents in his mind his sibling worshipping the god of capitalism instead of helping the Zionists movement. This and much more like Tonia's Jewish grandmotherly words of wisdom on changing socks and girls make for a wonderful insightful memoir as Meir Shalev pays homage to his grandparents who he visited as a young boy. Harriet Klausner