After the dust has settled

In a hilarious volume that is part memoir,part social critique, Meir Shalev paints an affectionate portrait of the country’s early immigrants.

Kibbutz Nahalal 521 (photo credit:
Kibbutz Nahalal 521
(photo credit:
Meir Shalev’s office in downtown Jerusalem has a comfortable, lived-in air. Grainy black-andwhite photographs on the wall, books scattered across the room, a panama hat thrown carelessly on an easy chair. The inhabitant matches the room’s casual ambience, dressed in short sleeves, shorts and sandals. I peer surreptitiously to see if his toenails are painted brightly; to my disappointment, it appears not.
That last sentence will only make sense if you’ve read My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, Shalev’s 2009 memoir, published recently in English. Warm, poignant and hilarious in equal parts, the book is an affectionate – albeit gently critical – portrait of a bygone age. It is a story taken from the annals of Israel’s pre-independence history; it is a consideration of the place that Nahalal – the village of Shalev’s birth – played in the shaping of the country’s character. And above all, it is the story of Tonia, the author’s formidable Russian grandmother, and her ceaseless battle against her greatest enemy in her new homeland: dirt.
Situated in the Jezreel Valley, Nahalal was the first explicitly Zionist moshav (as opposed to kibbutz) in the country, founded in 1921 by immigrants from the Second Aliya. Other distinguished members of the moshav include Hannah Szenes, members of the Dayan family and Yehonatan Geffen. Over the years, it nurtured a fierce, self contained independence from the rest of the country, a state of mind that some – including its residents – might have considered a sense of superiority.
Shalev points to one of the pictures on the wall: “This is the village we are talking about.” An aerial shot of the moshav, it shows the village’s layout in the form of concentric circles, farmland stretching away from the outer perimeter. He points out his grandparents’ home, just beyond the 6 o’clock mark on the outer circle.
“These are the farmers,” he says, pointing to the outside circle, “and these” – he points to the inner circle – “are the houses of what you might call the civil servants – teachers, the carpenter, the doctor.”
In the center lies the school, swimming pool, water tower. “The idea is that everybody is equal: The distance from the center is always the same.”
But one also notes that the moshav, surrounded as it is by farming land, is – visually, at least – hermetically sealed from the outside. Self-sufficient, selfreliant, communitarian.
In the book, the tensions between the values of the moshav and the wider world are succinctly distilled in the person of Tonia, who migrated to Israel from the Pale of Settlement – then Russia, now modern day Ukraine – in 1923. In Shalev’s lucid description, she emerges as independent, autocratic and somewhat eccentric. Her use of the Hebrew language was often inspired; her husband, Aharon, frequently ran away to maintain his sanity, only to be pursued and returned to the fold by his wife.
Her defiance of established order on the moshav – like, for example, keeping her daughters (Shalev’s mother and her sister) at home to clean instead of going to school – was nothing short of heroic. On one occasion, Tonia arrived in the middle of a class to retrieve her daughter so she could complete unfinished tasks at home. The teacher protested; “I have to help her,” the daughter replied. Writes Shalev: “[She said this] not by way of asking permission but as an explanation, and even perhaps a statement of fact about the way the world works.”
Through this emerges Tonia’s most distinctive trait: her obsession with cleanliness. With a cloth perpetually draped over one shoulder, she was forever sweeping, wiping, polishing. Whenever possible, guests were encouraged to commune with nature rather than use the indoor facilities; she could not abide even the thought of dirt, much less its actual presence. It’s hard not to reflect that the life of a pioneer – with the hardships and privations that this entailed – was not quite the one for her.
Shalev observes that she did not immigrate to Israel out of any pioneering zeal, but from practical considerations.
“She was not really a Zionist,” he says. “She came to Palestine because her older brothers had come here a few years before. She came to be together with her family.”
Life in Nahalal was no picnic, as the memoir makes clear. A second picture on the wall of the author’s office – of his grandfather standing in the middle of a swamp – illustrates the void into which the pioneers moved in the 1920s. How much more difficult would it have been for someone who did not wish to be there?
The book came about almost by chance. Some years ago, Shalev was on a speaking tour in the United States, a series of lectures structured around the Bible and its effect on his writing.
“Someone asked me a question about my family,” he recalls. “About my parents, who they were and so on. So I started to tell them, then I started to talk about Grandmother Tonia, and I realized that people were much more interested in this kind of lecture, listening and laughing and very involved with my stories.” He chuckles at the thought. “So I gradually changed my lecture from a very learned and biblical literature to stories about my family, mainly about Grandmother Tonia. The title of the book was the title of the lecture.”
Which brings us to the American vacuum cleaner. The back story: While Shalev’s grandfather, filled with socialist and Zionist zeal, decided to immigrate to Israel, his brother Yeshayahu instead entered the decadent capitalist embrace of Los Angeles. Yeshayahu – appreciating the privations that his brother and family were experiencing in Mandate-era Palestine – regularly sent money to assist the family. Aharon, a proud man and an ideologue, turned down all disbursements, considering them an insult to his pride and his sense of self-sufficiency.
But eventually Yeshayahu struck upon the perfect way of getting one over his brother. Informed by his sister-in-law’s obsession with cleanliness, he sent a special gift all the way from the United States: a gleaming, shiny vacuum cleaner.
The vacuum cleaner epitomized the difference between Nahalal and Los Angeles. Of the illustration on the cover of the shipping case – an attractive woman about to put the machinery to work – Shalev writes that “every detail of the image attests to the pampering and the coquetry and frivolity and hedonism and the sanctity of individualism.” Nahalal was a collective, with an emphasis on hard work and sacrifice. The vacuum cleaner stood for everything that Nahalal was not.
The gift was controversial; worse yet, unlike the other gifts, which had been returned disdainfully, this could not be returned because of the exorbitant cost of doing so. The vacuum cleaner was there to stay.
Reading My Russian Grandmother, one cannot but wonder whether Tonia’s obsession with cleanliness was symptomatic of emotional disturbance. Shalev concurs.
“Maybe the whole obsession with cleanliness was not simply what we would refer to as obsessive compulsive disorder,” he says. Her actions, he speculates, were connected to a fundamental discontent with her surroundings. “I think this is the way she outlined her territory, by cleaning: ‘This area, which is clean, is mine, and the rest, which is dirty, is for anyone else.’”
It was an expression of rebellion against the conformity and constrictions of the time, he proposes. “I think that she was threatened by the collectiveness of the village, by the principles and ideology. Tonia was an individualist in a very collective age, and she suffered for it.”
The author himself was born in Nahalal in 1948, the son of the noted poet Yitzhak Shalev, and was brought up there and in Jerusalem. Even after relocating permanently to Jerusalem, he spent many childhood holidays with his maternal family in the village. Reading between the lines of the book, one easily discerns something of the moshav’s sense of pride and selfreliance – and Shalev’s connection with this.
“When we returned to Jerusalem, to the cinder grey blocks of our tenement, to the city’s mad and blind and orphaned, everything seemed gloomy and sick and depressed,” he writes, “after the green gold days in the village, days of sun and nature, of bodies exposed to fresh air, of bare feet on hot earth....”
Despite this eloquent exposition of life in the Jezreel Valley – replete with memorable characters and events – the author insists that he is not romantic about days past.
“People say that when they read this, they think that I am a nostalgic person. No! Because if I had to live in the same period, I would suffer as much as my grandmother did, because I am also an individualist,” he declares. “I would prefer to write than to milk the cows, I would prefer to think about my next story than to plan the future of the Zionist state.”
Certainly, the Nahalal that he remembers and talks about is a more complicated construct. “Like many other old moshavim and kibbutzim, Nahalal educates the young children to go to the best units and to serve the country. It became a kind of colony of farmer warriors.”
Naturally the price for this sacrifice was high; compared to similar villages, Nahalal suffered a higher percentage of war fatalities. Public expressions of grief were frowned upon in the community; stoicism was key. “One was expected to be reserved, strong,” he says. “You did not show your sorrow, you were expected to wake up a day later and go to milk your cow, keep up with your work.”
Shalev has mixed views about this. He himself served the country with distinction, incurring serious injuries during the Six Day War in 1967.
“It was the right thing to do, and I still think now that it was the right thing to do then,” he asserts. He is no pacifist, he tells me, acknowledging the need for a strong army given the country’s unique circumstances. Still, he is sharply critical of an unthinking and unreflective acceptance of how defense of the country has morphed over time into a duty that – as he puts it – was imposed on the army by politicians, “serving the political interests of a very well-defined group of people.”
Despite these strong views, it is worth noting that his fiction consciously shies away from overt political ideology, instead allowing human stories to reveal a richer, fuller picture of the land. After studying psychology at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, he worked in television and radio as a presenter and producer before publishing his first book, The Blue Mountain, in 1988. He has since written five other novels – including the National Jewish Book Award-winning A Pigeon and a Boy in 2007 – as well as several books for children.
“I don’t like didactic books,” he says. “I always preferred the stories of the Brothers Grimm to Aesop’s Fables... in the Bible, I prefer Ecclesiastes to the book of Proverbs.”
As far as writing is concerned, his ambitions are modest: “The books that have stayed with me for a long time are those with a good story, interesting characters and a special way of writing. And that is something that I try to achieve myself.”
What matters, he says, is what the story reveals rather than tells. “I’m also interested in local stories. When I read a story in which a writer is telling me about his village in Italy, America, England, I learn more about these places than a political story written by a famous journalist or politician.”
Nahalal, to some extent, represents a rigidity of thinking that Shalev questions. He remarks that year after year, the local paper proclaims the moshav’s continuing contribution to the country through the number of young men who join elite army units after high school.
“I was speaking with the head of the regional council, and I asked, is this your source of pride? I have never heard you talking about the number of graduates from your schools that have graduated from the mathematics or physics department at the university, or from the Weizmann Institute. This should be your source of pride, not more and more fighters,” he states. Yet the evident warmth with which he writes about his background – and the country – makes it clear that this is intended as constructive criticism.
“I really value these people, not just Nahalal but also Kfar Yehoshua, Deganya, Ein Harod… the old kibbutzim and moshavim of Israel,” he says. “They really gave everything they have to the Jewish people, for the creation of the State of Israel. They worked very hard, they went to the most difficult army units, they sacrificed their personal lives.”
But times have changed; the value of this sacrifice is not disdained, but at the same time, it has become possible to appreciate other contributions.
“I think Nahalal has gone through some very good changes in the last 20 years,” he reflects. “It has softened a bit, the nose is a bit lower.”
How has this translated into everyday life? “When I was a boy, they had no tolerance for people who were different,” the author explains. “Everyone had to be of the same pattern of production, suitable for farming, fighting, Zionism. Now, they are far more open-minded.”
He pauses for a moment. “When I was a boy, we were not allowed to polish our nails, but today, every young girl in Nahalal wears make-up.”
And some veteran citizens, too. Nahalal, today, is a happy place for Shalev. And one senses that it would be a happier place for Grandmother Tonia as well.