By Hannah Lee
Childhood memories strongly color our image of a place. My husband, Eyal, fondly remembers feeding the cats under his Saba Israel’s house in Tel Aviv. Meir Shalev’s family memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir tells us about his birth and childhood into a pioneering family in Nahalal, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley, in northern Israel. Founded in 1921, it was the first moshav ovdim, a workers’ cooperative settlement. When Shalev’s larger-than-life, cantankerous Grandma Tonia was interviewed for national television and asked what is the difference between a moshav and a kibbutz, she unhesitatingly replied, “We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy. A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim. Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz.”
Originally titled in Hebrew, Ha’Davar Haya Kakha (“This is How It Was”), Shalev’s memoir is a fascinating collection of stories his family tells about each other, complete with the appropriate accents and accentuations. Foremost in the stories is his Grandma Tonia, who left the Ukraine at age 18 to become the wife of her widowed brother-in-law, Aharon Ben-Barak, and mother to his two young sons. The family’s stories are a personal window into Palestine’s re-settlement by Jews and Israel’s early years of statehood. Nahalal in 1923 boasted of “huts and cowsheds, and people received a little sugar and oil on credit from what was known as ‘the warehouse.’ In summer there was nowhere to hide from the blazing sun and in winter there was mud up to the knees.”
Grandpa Aharon had the soul of a writer and poet, but Grandma Tonia proved her strength and resilience in taming the land and wrangling from it a farm. The most vivid stories are told of her fight with the pervasive mud, dust, dung, and dirt. With a trusty rag always on duty on her left shoulder, she bullied her family and the very air around her into compliance. The American vacuum cleaner (pronounced svieeperrr with a Russian rrr) of the book’s title is the unsolicited gift from her “double-traitor”– a non-Zionist and a non-Socialist– brother-in-law, Yeshayahu, who’d made his fortune in Los Angeles, the land of capitalism, individualism, hedonism, and frivolity. A land where the image of a woman, “her lips bright with red lipstick, a red polka-dot dress snug on her hips, an ample bosom, meaty buttocks” was used as advertisement. The final indictment of the American character was that “Her nails were painted with red nail polish. It was clear to one and all: she has her hands manicured!” No self-respecting Israeli pioneer– and founding member of a nation– would be so frivolous. As for her new svieeperr, Grandma Tonia was appalled to learn that it collected dust, so it was rendered dirty, and required cleaning of its all its internal parts. Complying with her request, her brother Yitzhak dissembled the machine, but a breeze blew the small collection of dirt all over her house. Thus, her baleful decision was to quarantine the traitorous appliance in a forbidden, locked bathroom, never to be used again.
Painted nails become another leit-motif in Shalev’s memoir, when he shows up to Nahalal for the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization operated in Palestine during the British Mandate, with his toe nails painted a shiny red. His young nieces had polished his nails while he was asleep, it was too hot for any footwear other than sandals, and he had no time to remove the coloration. His nieces challenged him, “You’re afraid! You’re afraid of what they’ll say about you in the village.” They were right. “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 where pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s.” Shalev gave his speech, is slapped on the back, and crushed by bold handshakes, but he does not escape scrutiny. “Not noticed? It’s all anyone’s been talking about. But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised… 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.” However, Grandma Tonia was not crazy, not frivolous, not prone to painting her nails. She was “distinctive. She was what we call ‘a character.’ She was not an easy person, and that’s putting it mildly.”
Shalev’s father , Yitzhak, was already a noted poet, writer, and teacher, but his reputation was sealed in the moshav as one who could plant only ten cucumbers in two hours, from his initial days courting his wife, Batya. A Jerusalemite, his politics were to the right of that of the moshavniks, but the people of Nahalal accepted him as a poet and a teacher of Bible, who taught his son Meir a real love for Tanach. Batya, in turn, proudly instructed their son, to declare of himself, “I am the son of farmers from Nahalal!”
During summer visits to his family’s farm, the teen Meir learned to pull his weight on the farm: milking (by hand and by machine); the feeding of newborn calves; cleaning the cowshed; harvesting and gathering; milking semen from male turkeys and inseminating the females… and “also the skill that turns any old farmer’s son into a person of merit– driving a wagon with a plowshare in reverse, and more than that, backing up a wagon that has a plowshaft.”
My mother-in-law, Dr. Aviva Barzel, a retired professor of Hebrew literature, remarks that Shalev’s memoir was written with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye, detailing the family’s idiosyncrasies with a lot of love. Drawing upon both his literary and pioneering heritages, Shalev has written a worthy homage to the land of his fathers — mothers and Grandmas! — and it’s a fitting read for the 64th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.