Real Israel: Sabra-style chores

There’s an art to washing the floor, folding laundry and making an Israeli salad.

Cleaning 521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Cleaning 521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/ The Jerusalem Post)
Iam definitely Israeli, but I will never be a Sabra. It’s not just that a Sabra is by definition someone born in Israel; I lack at least three essential skills of Sabraness.
A casual conversation recently reinforced the first required talent with which I am not innately blessed. By chance, I met someone who turned out to be married to the former kibbutznikit who taught me how to do sponja, that utterly Israeli way of washing the floor.
“Give her my regards,” I said in parting, “although I doubt she’ll remember me.”
“Believe me, if she had to teach you how to do sponja, she won’t have forgotten you,” came the reply, which instantly reminded me how I felt more than 30 years ago.
When I arrived in the late 1970s, going from the British capital to a religious kibbutz in the Negev – so traditional the children still slept in children’s houses and not in their parents’ homes – I wasn’t the only one to experience culture shock, it seems. It was mutual.
The kibbutznikim could not understand how somebody could reach the age of 18 without knowing how to clean the floor in the proper way. This involves sweeping with what looks like a witch’s broom before sloshing down water with little regard for the level of the Kinneret, then swooshing the water out of the room/building using a special implement called a magav – a stick with a rubber squeegee appliance at the end. Finally there came the trickiest part of the whole operation: wiping the remaining water with a floor rag (known as a smartut) that was somehow tied to the bottom of the magav. If you’re Israeli-born, you’ll know how to do it without becoming untied.
Me? I always tied myself up in knots but still failed to produce a polished act.
I think the kibbutz members were more than a little concerned that somebody just about to undergo weapons training in the IDF had such difficulty handling a magav. My kibbutz peers were astounded that I had got this far in life without ever having swooshed, sloshed and washed a stone floor. In vain I tried to explain that I had not had servants (the image of all British, courtesy of the hit TV series Upstairs, Downstairs). My home in London, however, had had wall-to-wall carpeting, which lent itself to vacuum cleaning. My Sabra counterparts had barely heard of a Hoover, and the idea of having carpets wall-to-wall, in those days, was literally a joke: a one-off line in a then-popular comedy sketch in which the newlywed bride states her desire for “wall-towall children.”
Not surprisingly, when I recently read Meir Shalev’s My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner, I was immediately sucked into his descriptions of this pioneer matriarch fighting the Jezreel Valley dust on Moshav Nahalal (without the use of the bourgeois “svieeperrr,” or “sweeper,” which lay untouched behind the locked doors of a bathroom nobody was ever allowed to enter).
Doing sponja used to wipe me out. Salvation came from an unlikely source. Years after my aliya, a European-born landlady made the lease on her apartment conditional on my never washing the floors Israeli-style, which she feared would destroy the wooden legs of the antique furniture that had somehow traveled across war-torn Europe to the Promised Land. Instead I was asked to only ever use a bucket and mop.
This worked well for me – until it became clear that the mop was going bald. One Friday I could not ignore it any longer. The head would need replacing. I went to a local hardware store and found myself at an uncharacteristic loss for words. I could think in Hebrew, dream in Hebrew, pun, joke, sing and curse in Hebrew (okay, I sometimes swear in Arabic, but that’s a very Israeli thing to do, too). The one noun I needed, however, escaped me just as surely as the rag had always slipped off the magav at the critical moment.
I tried to explain what I wanted in various creative ways, which included, as I recall with some embarrassment, graphically depicting the snake-laden head of the mythological Medusa.
It was at this point that the salesman suddenly looked at me with surprise and asked: “At mitkavenet le’mop? [Do you mean a ‘mop’?]” Well, of course I meant a “mop” – and looking back, it figures that there was no Hebrew word for the implement still derided by Sabras determined to make a clean sweep in their own inimitable style. For my part, instead of coming clean and confessing that I was sponja- challenged and needed something more foreign to clean my floors, I noted that my landlady preferred it.
The Hebrew acronym “MOP,” by the way, stands for R&D (mehkar upituah), so I like to think that my housecleaning habits have always been ahead of their times.
HERE IS a good point to confess another dirty secret – my closets are a disaster zone. All my Sabra friends seem to have the knack of folding laundry as if their lives depended on it – you can imagine each of them packing a parachute with the same skill and attention. They remove shirts, skirts and trousers from the line, and in one swift movement – which always seems to me a sleight of hand – they neatly fold the clothes into smart square shapes ready to be stacked away. It’s so natural to them that they don’t mind folding as we talk. Me? I can’t even neatly fold a dry floorcloth.
This makes my heart skip a beat at airport security. “Did you pack your suitcase yourself?” goes the standard question every Israeli knows to answer before it’s been asked. I’m always afraid a young Sabra security guard will ask me to open my bag and won’t believe me.
No matter how hard I try, my clothes do not look like they’ve been packed by someone who is part of the fold.
The third non-Sabra giveaway sign is my inability to make an Israeli salad, the famous salat Yisraeli which acts as an accompaniment for every meal from breakfast to supper. I can, of course, buy the correct ingredients. Even with the price of cucumbers rising to levels that could inspire another social protest à la last year’s Cottage Cheese Revolution, it’s rare to find my fridge entirely bereft of a few tomatoes and cukes. It’s when I get to the dicey business of chopping the vegetables that I come unstuck. Try as I might, I cannot create those tiny colorful cubes that are an essential part of an Israeli salad. I have used various knives, different techniques and several chopping boards, but I still cut a poor figure of an imitation Sabra.
“Just relax, let your mind go blank and act on instinct,” suggested a well-meaning Sabra friend one day. So I did. The result was not a perfectly diced tomato but a red, bleeding finger.
Not a small, neat cut either. I managed to make a mess even out of cutting my own digit.
As cool as the proverbial cucumber that seemed to be laughing at me from the countertop, I rinsed my finger under the tap, wrapped it in a gauze dressing, and painfully pointed out that I did things differently.
I don’t think my friend understood just how differently until she tried to locate a smartut to wipe the bloodstains from the floor, and I shook my head and pointed my bandaged finger at the mop.
To this day I wonder if I shouldn’t have exercised my acquired Israeli chutzpah and – using my injury as an excuse – asked her if she could, just this once, fold the laundry for me.
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