My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir

by Meir Shalev, Evan Fallenberg

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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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780805242980
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 10/04/2011
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 580,494
File size: 5 MB

About 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.

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.’ ”

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My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 7 reviews.
Alla_S More than 1 year ago
"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.
BookAngel_a on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Meir Shalev was raised in Palestine, surrounded by a family of story tellers, and a grandma, Tonia, who had an extreme cleaning obsession¿to put it mildly.This memoir takes a unique approach, spinning the family history around a single story: how Grandma Tonia got her big, shiny, American vacuum sweeper (pronounced ¿svieeperrr¿) and what happened to it. Since everyone in his family likes to tell stories, there are several versions of each family story, and he incorporates those as well. Grandma Tonia is the star of this book, and though she may have been hard to live with at times, she is memorable and even lovable. This book is recommended for anyone who is interested in what life was like growing up in a Palestine village, and anyone who simply loves listening to story tellers.(I received this book through Amazon's Vine Program.)
Carolee888 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed 'My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Clear' a great deal. It does tend to meander a little. Sometimes the meandering just enriches the main story; sometimes I think it is actually material for a different book. Meir Shalev's grandmother is the star of this book. Grandmother Tonya was a "character". She was born in Russia and immigrated to Palestine. The author has told of Tonya¿s character, goals, likes and dislikes through many humorous stories, most of which are in some way or another connected with the vacuum cleaner made by General Electric.Tonya had certain phrases that she used often that became her trademark, like starting a family story with `This is how it was¿. What enchanted me the most about this book is that even though she had an entirely different background from my grandmother, there were some stunning similarities? Both came from farming families. Both had spouses who would just take off at times. Both refused to be idle. Both hated dirt violently. Both used the porch for snapping green beans and plucking chicken feathers off of the future star of the chicken soup. Both demanded that we do not enter through the front door but a different one. Both had their grandchildren be very economical in their trips inside and out. Tonya asked that the trash be taken out by the grandchild; my grandmother asked that the slop for the pigs be taken out. Coming back in, the grandchild, both asked the grandchild to bring eggs back.But what about the American Vacuum Cleaner? It was a gift to her out of spite for her husband from Uncle Yeshayahu, aka Uncle Sam who lived in Los Angeles. There is a long involved story connected to why this gift was made. You will need to read why was it kept locked up? What after she died, what became of it? Several more stories that explain that or maybe don¿t explain what happened to the vacuum cleaner.Meir Shalev, weaves the family stories about the main events in his grandmother¿s life. As he mentions, there are exaggerations as time goes on. But the stories will make you laugh out loud and set you to thinking. One of my favorites is the author wearing read nail polish on his feet, why this happened and the significance of this act.Meir Shalev is a superb storyteller. I believed that he learned this from his grandmother and his many relatives. Storytelling enriches and explains the family.Don¿t miss this book if you love family stories.I received this book from the Amazon Vine program but that in no way influenced my review.
brendajanefrank on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A pre-publication review from the Amazon Vine Program.The title and the cover picture are interesting and drew me in. Unfortunately, the text has little to do with ¿the American vacuum cleaner¿ and more to do with the author¿s neurotic, mean, obsessive grandmother and her kin. This short book was hard to read. The author seemed unable to follow any train of thought. It wandered, for no apparent reason, and read like a poor first draft.Tonia, the author¿s grandmother and protagonist, lived in Nahalal, Palestine, in a small house on a farm. The house essential became a museum. Rooms remained locked and unused to protect them from being soiled. The bathroom was out of bounds. People were sent to the outside shower in the cow barn. They used an outside trough for washing up. They urinated in an old outhouse or on a tree. Each doorknob was covered by a rag, to protect it from dirt. Tonia wore another rag over her shoulder to be able to pounce on any dust that dared to enter her residential sanctuary.Much of Tonia¿s furniture was locked up in the unused rooms. However, the chairs were brought out once a year for the Seder dinner, then washed and returned to the ¿furniture museum.¿Nobody was allowed to enter the house through the front door, to avoid dirt being tracked in. In fact, Tonia preferred to keep people entirely outside the house to keep it pristine. She entertained outside on the porch to prevent any soil inside the house. Much of the family¿s daily life took place outside on a cement slab, referred to as ¿the platform.¿ Tonia was so extreme that the wedding of her daughter was held in the mother-in-law¿s Jerusalem apartment. Since it was during the winter, Tonia didn¿t want them to use the house and the yard because the guests would ¿fill the house with mud!¿Tonia began each day at 5:30 a.m. or earlier by washing the floors with a rag and a bucket. Her daughters were usually assigned to this task. The rinse water had to be changed until the water squeezed from the rag was totally clean and clear. Then, she would scoop water from the bucket into her hand and view it in the light. If it was not clear enough, the girls had to wash the floor again, changing the water over and over. Each morning Tonia woke up her two daughters several hours before school so they could do the house cleaning, as well as the farm work. The girls arrived at school an hour late, exhausted from the chores. When reprimanded by the schoolteacher for neglecting her daughters¿ education, Tonia merely listened then left the meeting because she had work to do. On a Friday a few weeks later, Tonia appeared at her older daughter¿s classroom two hours before dismissal because it was the Sabbath and Batya had to go home and help her clean. Despite the admonition of the teacher, Batya dutifully gathered her belongings and followed Tonia out of the room, going home to clean the house.When the author was five years old, his mother deemed him old enough to visit his grandmother Tonia alone. This was good and bad. Unlike his parents, Tonia allowed Shalev to read in bed as late as he wished. However, at 5:30 a.m. she entered his room and yanked the mattress from beneath him. ¿While still asleep I would slam against the bedsprings and strips of metal, each time surprised, stunned anew.¿ If Shalev didn¿t get up fast enough, Grandma Tonia would say, ¿Up, up, enough stinking up the bed.¿Now, here¿s the story about the vacuum cleaner. It was a ¿gift¿ sent to Grandma Tonia and Grandpa Aharon and from America by Shalev¿s Uncle Yeshayahu. Aharon regarded his brother as a traitor for having committed the unforgivable sins of emigrating from his birthplace, a village in the Ukraine, to Los Angeles, California, changing his name to ¿Sam,¿ converting from Orthodox Judaism to Capitalism by starting a business and making money. Whereas, Aharon left the Ukraine to settle Palestine and build a country, converting from Orthodox Judaism to Socialism and Zionis
mak49 More than 1 year ago
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."
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
harstan More than 1 year ago
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