In some circles, Meir Shalev’s grandparents would be considered Zionist royalty: They were among the founders and first settlers of Israel’s earliest agricultural cooperative, or moshav, Nahalal, established in 1921. They lived simply and honorably and worked hard, sometimes in poverty, tending the land and their chickens.
The award-winning Israeli writer was born in 1948 on Nahalal. While he grew up mostly in Jerusalem, he visited the moshav regularly. His mother always reminded him of his pedigree, that he too was a son of Nahalal.
He was also “born into great material” for a writer, as friends of the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein would say upon meeting her family. His diminutive grandmother Tonia arrived in Israel in 1923 from Ukraine wearing braids and a high school uniform, soon married and joined her husband on Nahalal. She’s at the center of his new family memoir, “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” translated by Evan Fallenberg (Schocken).
Tonia ruled her spotless house as if it were her kingdom; her enemies were dirt, dust and mud, all of which were plentiful in the Jezreel Valley. She didn’t allow anyone through the front door but rather directed them to the back, she had family and guests shower outside so as not to mess up the bathroom, and kept her “furnishings” — as she referred to the sofa, armchairs, cupboard and table — wrapped in sheets and locked away in a spare room, to keep them clean. With a rag permanently planted on her shoulder for easy access, this pioneer Martha Stewart with a Russian accent was always ready for unexpected grime. To say that guests could eat off of her floors was an understatement — but she rarely allowed guests to eat inside the house.
Readers whose own mothers or grandmothers cleaned apartments in the Bronx or homes in the suburbs with similar zeal and high standards will recognize Tonia, and those readers who wouldn’t understand why a rag always covered a doorknob — to prevent fingerprints — will also be drawn into this family story, with its unanswered questions.
In the village, Tonia was different — distinctive, not easy, but not crazy. Imperious, funny and also freethinking, she was probably disappointed in the hardships of her life, but she was determined nonetheless to keep the household and farm running. Shalev remembers that his grandmother was saying, “You talkin’ to me” long before Robert DiNiro in “Taxi Driver,” in Hebrew.
She insisted that her daughters leave school early in order to help with the cleaning, which meant washing the floors daily on their hands and knees, wringing out the water in their rags wisely, as Tonia instructed. The job was done only when the bucket water was deemed “clean clean.” (Shalev’s mother later admitted that this was the way she still cleaned floors, away from the moshav).
The day the unexpected vacuum cleaner arrived — by ship, train and then horse-drawn wagon — the entire village gathered to watch the huge crate unloaded and unpacked. Seeing the English writing which most couldn’t read, they realized the package was from America, land of excess and frivolity. For Shalev’s grandfather Aharon, the gift from his brother Yeshayahu was another sign of his double betrayal, choosing America and capitalism over Zionism.
Nothing like this very large, powerful and modern “svieeperrr,” or sweeper, as Tonia called it, had ever before been seen in their “village, in the Jezreel Valley, or in all Palestine — nor has such an appliance been seen since.”
Tonia used this gift only a couple of times before packing it back up and locking it up in the bathroom she didn’t allow anyone to use. No one could even peek at the sweeper, and no one fully understood its banishment and ultimate fate.
“This is how it was,” was the beginning of any story Tonia told, and then the way other members of the family would also begin stories, imitating her accent and her turns of phrase. Tonia’s oldest daughter, the author’s mother and the teller of many stories herself, regarded facts as “nothing more than a small and boring obstacle that could be skipped over or made use of like a springboard.”
At times, Shalev, the author of “Blue Mountain” and, more recently, “A Pigeon and a Boy,” steps out of the story to tell of his family’s particular methods of storytelling and remember its past. In his family, “memory and imagination are two names for the same thing.”
Shalev’s sentences deserve to be read out loud. He says he’s sticking to the facts here, even though his storytelling can be circular, with stories within stories and different versions of the same story, and a love affair too. It’s a small canvas, but he finds room to shade in a chapter of Israel’s history.
He compares his family’s storytelling, ultimately, to Tonia’s cleaning, in the best sense; in order to get close to the truth, stories need to be examined “in the light, again and again, until they are as they should be — clear and truly, truly clean.”