Monday, April 16, 2012

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: a family memoir by Meir Shalev 2009 in Hebrew, 2011 in English

"Shalev’s sentences deserve to be read out loud. He says he’s sticking to the facts here, even though his storytelling can be circular, with stories within stories and different versions of the same story ..." from a review by Sandee Brawarsky in the Jewish Week, 11/22/2011

The Israeli writer, Meir Shalev, has written an entertaining and enlightening memoir whose setting is Nahalal, a moshav founded in 1921 in Palestine. His maternal grandparents were early settlers, having immigrated from Ukraine. Shalev, who was born in 1948 in Nahalal, but who later moved to Jerusalem, recreates the early difficult years of the moshav. The settlement’s development and survival depended upon backbreaking labor. But Shalev relates that his grandfather, who had the temperament and interests of a writer/poet, was not really cut out for that kind of life. He writes that it was his grandmother who kept the farm functioning, relying on the help of her children: five boys and two girls.

Shalev’s grandfather’s brother left Ukraine and decided to immigrate to America, a life decision his brother in Palestine completely disdained. Shalev uses the two brothers’ different life choices as the amusing pivot of his story, writing the tale in a tone meant to entertain its readers. He describes in detail his grandmother’s obsession for keeping her house clean, constantly dusting in a setting where dust whirled all the time. He then tells us that he learned that many years ago his grandfather’s brother in California had sent his grandmother a new-fangled vacuum cleaner from America. But all he knew about the unseen vacuum cleaner was that she had locked it up and did not use it. The locked-up vacuum cleaner became a family legend and Shalev spins out various contradictory versions of its fate - stories told to him by various family members.

As the tale surrounding the mystery of the unused vacuum cleaner unwinds, we also learn about early settler ideology and day to day life on the moshav. This is a lovingly, but clear-sighted, look at the life of a large Israeli farm family whose roots in Israel go back to the difficult life of early pioneers.

Note: It's too bad that the Hebrew title of this memoir was not translated and used as its title in English. Ha'Davar Haya Kakha  means This is How It Was which conveys the importance of storytelling, both to his grandmother whose stories started with that phrase and of course to the author, a gifted storyteller, who carries on the tradition. He opens the memoir with that phrase.


To watch and listen to Meir Shalev give a talk and answer questions about this memoir at the 6th and I Historic Synagogue in Washington D.C. click here.

People
Mordechai Zvi Pekker – married ?; 2nd marriage to Batya
    Shoshanna Pekker – daughter of Mordechai Zvi and ?; married Aharon Ben-Barak (see below)
    Moshe Pekker – son of Mordechai Zvi and Batya
    Yitzhak Pekker – son of Mordechai Zvi and Batya
    Yaacov Pekker – son of Mordechai Zvi and Batya
    Tonia Pekker – daughter of Mordechai Zvi and Batya; married Aharon Ben-Barak (see below)

    Yeshayahu (Sam) (brother of Aharon)
    Aharon Ben-Barak – married  Shoshanna Pekker; married 2nd wife Tonia Pekker
        Itamar Ben-Barak – son of Aharon and Shoshanna
        Benyamin Ben-Barak – son of Aharon and Shoshanna
        Micha Ben-Barak – son of Aharon and Tonia; married to Tzafira
        Batya Ben-Barak – daughter of Aharon and Tonia
            Meir Shalev – son of Batya and Yitzhak Shalev; author
            Rafaela Shalev – daughter of Yitzhak and Batya
            Zur Shalev – son of Yitzhak and Batya
                Roni and Naomi Shalev – daughters of Zur

        Menachem Ben-Barak – son of Aharon and Tonia; married Penina
            Zohar and Gila Ben-Barak – children of Menachem and Penina
        Batsheva Ben-Barak (twin of Menachem) – daughter of Aharon and Tonia; married Arik
            Nadal – son of Batsheva and Arik
        Yair Ben-Barak – son of Aharon and Tonia; married Tzilla
    Sarah Ben-Barak – sister of Yeshayahu (Sam) and Aharon

Meir Shalev – married Zipporah
    Yitzhak Shalev – son of Meir and Zippora; married Batya Ben-Barak (see above)
        Meir Shalev – son of Yitzhak and Batya; author (see above)
    Mordechai Shalev – son of Meir and Zippora; married Rika

Friends and Acquaintances
Shmuel Pinneles
David Shahar
Penina Gary
Thelma Yellin
Ze’ev Smilansky
Haim Shorer
Motke Habinsky
Yitzhak Ben Yaakov
Nahum Sneh

Places
Makarov, Ukraine
Rokitno, Ukraine
Nahalal, Israel
Los Angeles, California
Kibbutz Ginosar, Israel
Kfar Yehoshua, Israel
Herzliya, Israel
Kibbutz Hanita, Israel
K’far Chabad, Israel
Kfar Monash, Israel
Kiryat Haim, Israel

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