My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir

Phobia, love, coming of age, and a vacuum cleaner--they are all elements of this delightful book by Meir Shalev. My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner highlights the early history of Zionism in Israel and gives us an intimate glimpse into the background of one of Israel's most beloved writers. He is best known in this country for his book, A Pigeon and a Boy.

Grandma Tonia came to what was then Palestine in 1923 when she was just 18. Her future husband, Aharon, was the widower of her late sister. He was fourteen years her senior and the father of two young boys. Shalev's mother, perhaps in an attempt to understand and even forgive her, relates:

She arrived from Russia, ...a young woman with her hair in braids and wearing a high school girl's uniform,...and she came to the valley, to the dust and dirt and hard work and mud...She came here and discovered that all the promises of property owned by her father were untrue, that Grandpa Aharon, who had many virtues and talents, was no great farmer, and she sank into a life of labor and deprivation. And yet, she made up her mind not to be broken, not to return to Russia or desert to America or run off to Tel Aviv. We didn't have an easy time of it with her, but the entire family has her to thank for this farm. (p. 13)

In today's psychology-oriented society, Grandma Tonia would have been diagnosed as having an obsessive-compulsive disorder. And although Freud had presented his theories on this malady in the 1920's, there would have been little time for treatment for a moshavnik of that period--let alone for the formidable Tonia. A mother of five young children, not counting her two stepsons, she invariably turned her frustrations on the one tangible item of which there was plenty--dirt.

Grampa Aharon, unlike Grandma Tonia, was "inclined toward things other than agriculture (p. 13)." He wrote reports and articles for The Young Laborer" and edited a satirical bulletin for the moshav called, The Mosquito. He wrote riotously funny skits that were performed in the village hall after their individual Seders. Shalev muses that has he gone to Los Angeles like his brother, Yeshayahu, he might have become a successful screen writer.

Great Uncle Yeshayahu became a successful businessman in America. Aharon deeply resented his brother, calling him a "double traitor" for embracing Capitalism over Zionism and Socialism. This wealthy brother eventually sent the gift of a giant General Electric vacuum cleaner to Grandma Tonia--a gift that gained mythical importance in family lore.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner is a book that spans three generations of a family and of a country. It is a very human look at a renowned writer and a loving tribute to his colorful grandmother. Reading this book was sheer pleasure. Its ending, like most family endings, was touching and bittersweet.

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