Meir Shalev’s “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner”

Reviewed by Emma Garman

Image of Meir Shalev’s “My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner”

Back in the 1920s, Sigmund Freud was presenting his theories on Obsessive Compulsive Disorder—“unquestionably the most interesting” area of analytic research, in his opinion—little aware that in Palestine there lived a young Russian Jewish settler whose extreme aversion to dirt, and the complex routines she developed to cope with that aversion, would have made for a uniquely valuable case study. Happily for psychological posterity and for us, Tonia Ben-Barak and her never-ending battle against grime have been commemorated by her grandson, the acclaimed Israeli novelist Meir Shalev, in his unfailingly charming memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, out now in Evan Fallenberg’s nimble and sensitive translation from the Hebrew.

Needless to say, in those pioneer communities, draining the swamps, establishing the farms, and realizing the Zionist dream took precedence over diagnosing people with neuroses. From the looks of it, though, not even Freud himself would have dared question how the formidable Tonia ran her household, lest she heap upon him one of her favorite threats: “I’ll take chunks out of you!” Whatever unconscious conflicts may have triggered Tonia’s phobia of dirt, it’s not hard to see how a cleaning obsession might take hold as a response to the sheer trauma of being transplanted from a village in the Ukraine to the nascent rural settlements of Palestine; on her arrival there was no electricity, only huts to live in and, as Shalev describes one rainy winter: “Marshy sludge filled the yards and the cows and the farmers waded knee-deep in it.” Tonia was just eighteen when she arrived by ship in 1923 and married her late sister’s widower, Aharon, whom she bore five children including the author’s mother, Batya. All the siblings, Shalev says, possess “a talent for storytelling,” and throughout his life have regaled him with the elaborate, competing, and sometimes apocryphal family tales entertainingly weaved together in this book.

The Ben-Baraks lived in the Jezreel Valley, at Nahalal, Palestine’s first moshav (a collective agricultural settlement made up of individual farms). Eventually they moved into a proper house with electricity, where on a daily basis Tonia was faced with stiff and almost insurmountable challenges: keeping her house completely spotless at the same time as running a farm with chickens, cows, vegetable patches and, inevitably, lots of mud in winter and lots of dust in summer.­­­

Not the type of woman to back down from a challenge, Tonia embraced the pioneer spirit and contributed to the blossoming of the Jewish homeland. She was a disciplined worker who expected everyone else to make the same kind of effort, from her children—whom she woke hours before school started so they could “stop stinking up the bed!” and help her clean—to the farm animals. A chicken who laid too few eggs  would be accused of “not trying hard enough” and risked appearing on the menu for Shabbat dinner. Her husband Aharon, on the other hand, was clearly unsuited “to a backbreaking life in agriculture.” An intellectual and a talented writer who published articles and wrote satirical song lyrics, his life might have been very different had he immigrated to America like his brother Yeshayahu. As Shalev poignantly imagines, “Instead of funny songs for the Passover Seders he led at Nahalal, perhaps my grandfather would have written musical comedies for Broadway and become a rich man.”

Alas, it wasn’t to be: Tonia, in her daughter Batya’s words, was “determined to hang on to the farm by the skin of her teeth, and she sank those teeth into the earth and into the house and into us and into him. And since every person needs an enemy, her enemy was dirt.”

In retaliation against that mortal enemy, Tonia hatched all kinds of strategies. Rags were placed on doorknobs and drawer handles as a shield against finger marks. Visitors were not invited inside but entertained on the porch, and the family ate outside or in the kitchen. Boys were sent to “water the special citrus tree” instead of using the bathroom. Floors and walls were washed every day with precise techniques never to be varied—floors were not considered clean until the rag being used wrung crystal clear water, while for the oil-painted walls the strict instructions were: “First with wet, then soap, again with wet, finish with dry.” And, vitally, all manner of refuse had to be constantly banished: “Grandma Tonia could not stand dirt anywhere inside or near the house, even if it had already been collected and bagged and thrown into the trash bin, whose very purpose was to contain it.”

By the time Shalev was born, the family home had been extended into a much larger property, but one “wing” was deemed completely out-of-bounds, including two rooms housing furniture only used on very special occasions, and “the old bathroom,” which hid, Shalev learned as a child, a wondrous object that enjoyed mythical status in the family: Grandma Tonia’s “svieeperrr,” a shiny, top-of-the-range, General Electric vacuum cleaner sent by Uncle Yeshayahu from Los Angeles but, for uncertain reasons, never brought out and used.

Each time we visited Grandma Tonia and were permitted to enter the house and draw near the locked doors of the forbidden rooms my mother would repeat what she always said: “Behind this door is my mother’s furniture.” And in front of the bathroom door, “And behind this one is her sweeper."

It was utterly baffling: surely nothing would be more appealing to Grandma Tonia than a state-of-the-art cleaning machine? How the vacuum cleaner came to be permanently sequestered in its box, “sentenced to life imprisonment in her bathroom with its locked and bolted door guarded by a revolving sword in the shape of a rag placed on the handle,” is the major unsolved mystery of the family.  

Uncle Yeshayahu, reportedly, assumed that Tonia’s hurtful rejection of his gift was connected to the main source of contention between himself and his brother Aharon: the clash of values born of Yeshayahu’s traitorous defection to America, with its Capitalist creed and bourgeois pleasures, and Aharon’s beloved Socialist and Zionist ideals. It’s true that the moshavniks repudiated, according to their proletarian principles, all manifestations of frivolity and luxury. The greatest disparagement, the final condemnation that could pass someone’s lips, was: “They say she gets manicures, too,” which, Shalev explains, “expresses a baseness, an absence of values, an ideological and spiritual downfall.” But unlike out-of-touch Uncle Yeshayahu, we recognize that no belief system could possibly be closer to Tonia’s heart than her devotion to cleaning.

The real explanation, then, lies elsewhere. Various controversial theories abound, and Shalev’s pursuit of the truth forms the central, intriguing thread running through his lively and frequently hilarious narrative, which is at once a mystery story, a fascinating glimpse into what life was like for the Labor Zionists of the early twentieth century, a moving family memoir and, above all, a vivid, affectionate tribute to Grandma Tonia, who must now take her rightful place as one of history’s most redoubtable matriarchs.