Shalev's story of his irascible, difficult, beloved Russian Grandma Tonia and her great big shiny American vacuum cleaner is the framework for this warm and witty family history of Israel, from the first Zionist "pioneers" of the 1920s through the author's own childhood in the '50s and '60s.
Born in 1948 to the daughter of Jezreel Valley settlers and a Jerusalem poet whose effort to plant cucumbers inspires a family story to be passed down the generations, Shalev grew up in Jerusalem. But his treasured memories are the times he spent with Grandma Tonia in Nahalal, an early moshav (cooperative farming village) in the beautiful Jezreel Valley.
Tonia had come to Nahalal from rural Ukraine in 1923 at age 18. Her sister, an earlier settler, had recently died, leaving a husband, Aharon, and two sons. There are many stories of how they got together -- Shalev shares several -- but suffice to say the union did not get happier as the years passed.
Not that life on the moshav was about being happy. Not at all. It was about work and dedication to the causes of Zionism and socialism. Anything that distracted from these ideals was scorned, even scandalous, like a child with a mouthful of chewing gum, for instance, or a woman with a manicure.
As Grandpa Aharon pointed out: "Surely no one with manicured hands would agree to dirty her fingernails in the cowshed or in the field or chip them filling magazines with bullets. The only thing they were good for was coquetry, for being painted with red polish and shown off."
If Aharon was defined by his ideology, Tonia was defined by her dirt phobia. A fanatical housecleaner whose house was set in a dirt yard surrounded by fields, Tonia tied a rag to every doorhandle against fingerprints and carried another rag over her shoulder at all times. But her mission was hopeless. Nahalal is baked dust in summer and knee-deep mud in winter. She could never stop.
Tonia took to keeping people outdoors, entertaining on the concrete pad outside their back door and later on the covered porch. She didn't allow even family members to use the indoor bathroom, sending them to "water the citrus tree," or bathe in the "excellent shower" in the cowshed. As her children grew up and moved away, she began shutting off rooms of the house, locking away furniture and unused sets of dishes and linens. The famous vacuum cleaner lived in the second bathroom, the one with the full tub, which was never ever used.
Shalev grew up longing to see it. Grandma Tonia was indulgent with him, her first grandchild, and never made him help her clean. He especially loved the colorful stories she told, many from her girlhood in Ukraine, all beginning, "this is how it was...;."
But she wouldn't show him the vacuum cleaner and she wouldn't tell him how it came to reside in the bathroom. Shalev's mother, however, delighted in telling the tale of the vacuum cleaner, a colorful, adventurous story that changed a bit with every telling.
To begin with, we know only that the vacuum, or "sviepperrr" as Tonia called it, was a gift from Aharon's brother in California. Aharon disdained his brother and would have nothing to do with him because he chose America and Capitalism over Zionism and Socialism, an unforgivable choice.
Shalev circles the vacuum cleaner, digressing to other family stories and memories of his own, which bring to life the rhythms and hardships and personalities of the village until we finally have enough understanding of Tonia, Aharon, their relationship, and their place in village life to understand the enormity of the vacuum cleaner story.
Shalev's memoir meanders, moving naturally between extended family members and their versions of stories of holiday gatherings, ordinary workdays, famous squabbles and special moments. But he never loses sight of where he's going and the reader always has a sense of forward motion -- even suspense. It's a humorous, poignant, affectionate portrait of a family, and a fascinating picture of a place and time little known to American readers.
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Lynn Harnett (Lynn_Harnett)
I love to read, always have, and have been writing reviews for more years than I care to say. Early on, i realized there are more books than there is time to read, so I read only books I like and mostly … more
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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 ...