Book Chat: Meir Shalev’s Family Memoir

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.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2116/book-chat-meir-shalevs-family-memoir

Introduction

My first post was an article in the blog, The Jew and the Carrot, (which has over 100,000 readers worldwide): http://jcarrot.org/welcoming-the-stranger-a-sukkot-meditation

My refugee family lived in a village in the minority Chin state in western Myanmar, on the border with India.  The military junta was conscripting all the men and boys for heavy labor, transporting weaponry within the country.  Their father died on one of these forced marches two years ago.  The family fled that night and traveled into Thailand.  However, the youngest daughter, aged 11 at the time, was separated from them at the scrimmage at the bus station.  The promised Next Bus never arrived, so they lost touch with her and she ended up in a Christian Community House where she was able to attend a Chinese/Korean Christian school.  The mother and elder daughters got rounded up and sold into bondage to a rubber plantation in Malaysia.  They worked long days until a friend was able to post enough ransom money to free them.  Miraculously, they found their sister/daughter in church one Sunday!  The mother and elder daughters all worked in Malaysia (the youngest was enrolled in school) until their petition for Refugee Status was granted.  They do have relatives in America– their father’s brother lives in Chicago and an aunt lives in Maryland– but they ended up in Philadelphia because their refugee portfolio got awarded to HIAS here.

Based on oral testimony of the eldest daughter, without a translator

Start the HIAS Chronicles from the beginning here.

 

The Locavore Movement and the Religious Jew

My favorite non-fiction book in 2007 was Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, written with her biologist husband, Steven Hopp, and their two children about their experiment in growing all of their food on their own land in rural southwest Virginia.  It also powered the growth of the locavore movement.  I found the memoir fascinating in its intelligence, its honesty (mistakes were made!) and the family’s sense of humor. My favorite anecdote was when Kingsolver quipped to her friends that when you’re ranked as “number 74 (on a Doomsday author’s book about the dangers of 100 people who were destroying America), you try harder,” as she endeavored to eviscerate a turkey.

In Wednesday’s New York Times (its Dining section being the highlight of the week for me), readers learned what the family has been doing since their milestone year.  They wanted to expand the lessons learned to their blue-collar, Appalachian community.  First, they contemplated creating a year-round farmers’ market but the growing season is short.  So, Hopp decided that a restaurant would be more viable, one in which the produce, meat and cheese would be sourced locally.  As reported by Jane Black, “Coffee and tea would be allowed because they are dried, but they should be organic, fair trade or both.”

How has the Harvest Table, as Hopp’s restaurant is named, fared since it was launched in October 2007?   It’s been difficult, and they have yet to make a profit.  This isn’t a “progressive, urban enclave” such as exists in Brooklyn or Berkeley, so most of their neighbors have not even bothered to step in, thinking the meal would be too expensive.  As for attempts to reaching beyond the choir (of like-minded folks), you first have to get them in the door.  And the labels, “farm fresh,” “organic” and “local” do not muster the excitement they do in urban communities where entrepreneurs (food impresarios, I call them) charge up to $200 for a dinner served in the fields (as I heard reported on NPR last week).  So, they keep the prices low (comparable to Applebee’s though the reporter noted that the portions are larger in the chain restaurants) and the profile humble, the opposite of the marketer’s urge to scale up in sophistication.  Black gives an example: “What might be called “fennel pasta with pecans” in Brooklyn and served with a detailed description of the vegetable provenance, is “pasta primavera” here.

But Hopp’s quote that hit me personally was this: “We are always trying to figure out how to educate people more, but with the recognition that most people don’t want a lecture.”  I’ve just returned from a visit with my daughter in Chicago, where I stayed in the lovely home of a young couple found through the Airbnb lodging-rentals website.  My host was a New Zealander (with an American wife) and he’d never  met a religious Jew before.  He was curious about some tenets of the Jewish faith.  So, do we give the short, flippant answer or do we attempt the more thoughtful and accurate explanation but risk losing our audience?  My daughter has been through the cauldron of fire before when we transferred her from a religious high school to our local acclaimed public high school (the beloved alma mater of basketball star Koby Bryant) and it was during the social studies freshman unit on the Middle East and she was called upon to explain all of Jewish past, present, and future.  Trying to educate and defend Israeli politics is a challenge far beyond most 14-year-olds.  But, she did engage her peers and she’s matured into a thinking, articulate adult.

So, we found ourselves having a more engaged conversation about faith and ritual with our host than is encountered at the usual Shabbat table.  What struck me anew is that every Jew must conduct herself as a diplomat, a model representative of her people (forgive my use of the distaff (feminine) possessive pronoun).   The people you encounter may not have ever met another earnest, committed Jew before.  You may have this one opportunity to give them not only a positive impression of Yiddishkeit (Jewishness), but you may also have the privilege and challenge to un-do and clarify erroneous impressions conveyed by others, who were less careful, less knowledgeable, less sophisticated.  Would you pass your test?  This may have been our test for The Three Weeks of introspection as we Jews head towards Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar, which falls on August 8th this year.

Book Chat

As a Chinese-American, I am neither white nor black and I am privileged to observe the nuances of race relations in this country as a bystander (except when my own racial heritage is a source of grievance).  I wonder if an academic awareness of an issue allows one to appreciate the inherent complexities?

I read Kathryn Stockett’s The Help and I was riveted but very perturbed by its central issue of race relations.  Set in 1962 in Jackson, Mississippi, a young white woman interviews and edits the painful narratives of black maids about their relationships with their white employers.  I wanted to identify a black perspective.  A friend cautioned me that I cannot generalize to all blacks, as African immigrants and people with Caribbean roots do not share the same experience as those descended from slaves brought to America.  No, indeed, but I was sure that a black person would respond differently to the book.

I spoke with a black staffer at my local library, someone whom I’ve known for the 21 years that my family has lived in this community.  She did not enjoy the book as did the white readers who have praised The Help, launching it onto the bestseller lists.  She could forecast how the plot would go, and she skipped over parts.  Her niece was bored by it and never did finish the book.  I asked her if it would have been a better book if it had been written by a black author, but she demurred at that.

Could the difference lie in perspective?  Events resonate more when they become personal, as Jews are instructed to imagine that they themselves are leaving Egypt during the Passover seder.  Issues become more painful.  It took me a few years before I could follow a friend’s recommendation for Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, because the central character, a child, dies from an epileptic seizure and my child has the same disorder.

I’ve read that people like horror films because they find it cathartic, a vicarious experience that leaves them relieved to be safe and ordinary.  I wonder if readers of The Help become more understanding?  Are some readers smug that they are not racist and do not harbor any prejudicial intent?  Or do they have a renewed sensitivity to insults to human dignity?  Do they speak out in protest?  My Rabbi has noted that we do not feel pain to the same degree when a tragedy, a violation,  happens to someone else.  However, the challenge is in the striving to maintain sensitivity and that is a hallmark of a compassionate person.

I attended a book discussion along with my friend who grew up in the South.  She found the novel realistic, and told me later that the others (all white women) did not appreciate the fact that though the overt theme of the book was racism, the same kind of prejudice and peer control exist in other times, other places, including our own.  I attempted to point out that the new theory on bully-behavior management, is not to address the bully directly, but to educate the silent majority, that they can take control of a situation by speaking up.  The queen bee, Hilly, from the novel could not have continued in her role, if the others did not let her do so.  However, most people were too afraid, ignorant, or blind to the racial divide in a society in which they had a comfortable perch.  I wonder if readers would become more conscious and sensitive to injustice around them?  I made a reference to To Kill a Mockingbird, which is now a classic.  Did readers of the time immediately take to its message?

The film version, starring Emma Stone as the ingenue reporter, Eugenia ‘Skeeter’ Phelan, Viola Davis as her source, a black housekeeper named Aibileen Clark, and Bryce Dallas Howard as their nemesis, the controlling Hilly Holbrook, will open in the local cinemas on August 10th.