Book Chat: Meir Shalev’s Family Memoir

By Hannah Lee

Childhood memories strongly color our image of a place.  My husband, Eyal, fondly remembers petting the cats under his Saba Israel’s house in Tel Aviv.  Meir Shalev’s family memoir, My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir tells us about his birth and childhood into a pioneering family in Nahalal, a moshav in the Jezreel Valley, in northern Israel.  Founded in 1921, it was the first moshav ovdim, a workers’ cooperative settlement.  When Shalev’s larger-than-life, cantankerous Grandma Tonia was interviewed for national television and asked what is the difference between a moshav and a kibbutz, she unhesitatingly replied, “We went to a moshav because we wanted freedom and privacy.  A lot of people left the kibbutzim and went to moshavim.  Nobody left the moshav for a kibbutz.”

More after the jump.
Originally titled in Hebrew, Ha’Davar Haya Kakha (“This is How It Was”), Shalev’s memoir is a fascinating collection of stories his family tells about each other, complete with the appropriate accents and accentuations.  Foremost in the stories is his Grandma Tonia, who left the Ukraine at age 18 to become the wife of her widowed brother-in-law, Aharon Ben-Barak, and mother to his two young sons.  The family’s stories are a personal window into Palestine’s re-settlement by Jews and Israel’s early years of statehood.   Nahalal in 1923 boasted of “huts and cowsheds, and people received a little sugar and oil on credit from what was known as ‘the warehouse.’  In summer there was nowhere to hide from the blazing sun and in winter there was mud up to the knees.”

Grandpa Aharon had the soul of a writer and poet, but Grandma Tonia proved her strength and resilience in taming the land and wrangling from it a farm.  The most vivid stories are told of her fight with the pervasive mud, dust, dung, and dirt.  With a trusty rag always on duty on her left shoulder, she bullied her family and the very air around her into compliance.  The American vacuum cleaner (pronounced svieeperrr with a Russian rrr) of the book’s title is the unsolicited gift from her “double-traitor”– a non-Zionist and a non-Socialist–  brother-in-law, Yeshayahu, who’d made his fortune in Los Angeles, the land of capitalism, individualism, hedonism, and frivolity.  A land where the image of a woman, “her lips bright with red lipstick, a red polka-dot dress snug on her hips, an ample bosom, meaty buttocks” was used as advertisement. The final indictment of the American character was that “Her nails were painted with red nail polish.  It was clear to one and all: she has her hands manicured!”  No self-respecting Israeli pioneer–  and founding member of a nation– would be so frivolous.   As for her new svieeperr,  Grandma Tonia was appalled to learn that it collected dust, so it was rendered dirty, and required cleaning of its all its internal parts.  Complying with her request, her brother Yitzhak dissembled the machine, but a breeze blew the small collection of dirt all over her house.  Thus, her baleful decision was to quarantine the traitorous appliance in a forbidden, locked bathroom, never to be used again.

Painted nails become another leit-motif in Shalev’s memoir, when he shows up to Nahalal for the inauguration of the old arms cache used by the Haganah, the Jewish paramilitary organization operated in Palestine during the British Mandate, with his toe nails painted a shiny red.  His young nieces had polished his nails while he was asleep, it was too hot for any footwear other than sandals, and he had no time to remove the coloration.  His nieces challenged him, “You’re afraid!  You’re afraid of what they’ll say about you in the village.”  They were right.  “Anyone familiar with members of the old-time collective agricultural movement, anyone who has been upbraided by them, knows that in small villages eyes take everything in and comments are made with regularity and rumors take off and land like cranes in a sown field.  All the more so in places where pedigree is famed and illustrious, like Nahalal’s.”  Shalev gave his speech, is slapped on the back, and crushed by bold handshakes, but he does not escape scrutiny.  “Not noticed?  It’s all anyone’s been talking about.  But take consolation in the fact that no one was surprised… What do you want from the guy?  He got it from Tonia.  She was crazy in just the same way.  That’s the way it is in their family.”  However, Grandma Tonia was not crazy, not frivolous, not prone to painting her nails.  She was “distinctive.  She was what we call ‘a character.’  She was not an easy person, and that’s putting it mildly.”

Shalev’s father , Yitzhak, was already a noted poet, writer, and teacher, but his reputation was sealed in the moshav as one who could plant only ten cucumbers in two hours, from his initial days courting his wife, Batya.  A Jerusalemite, his politics were to the right of that of the moshavniks, but the people of Nahalal accepted him as a poet and a teacher of Bible, who taught his son Meir a real love for Tanach.  Batya, in turn, proudly instructed their son, to declare of himself, “I am the son of farmers from Nahalal!”  

During summer visits to his family’s farm, the teen Meir learned to pull his weight on the farm:  milking (by hand and by machine); the feeding of newborn calves; cleaning the cowshed; harvesting and gathering; milking semen from male turkeys and inseminating the females… and “also the skill that turns any old farmer’s son into a person of merit– driving a wagon with a plowshare in reverse, and more than that, backing up a wagon that has a plowshaft.”

My mother-in-law, Dr. Aviva Barzel, a retired professor of Hebrew literature, remarks that Shalev’s memoir was written with a sense of humor and a wink of the eye, detailing the family’s idiosyncrasies with a lot of love.  Drawing upon both his literary and pioneering heritages, Shalev has written a worthy homage to the land of his fathers — mothers and Grandmas! —  and it’s a fitting read for the 64th celebration of Yom Ha’Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day.

Theater Chat by Hannah Lee

Hissing snakes, leaping monkeys, and mooing cows.  No, not stage props, but animated decorations at the sumptuous dessert table at Theatre Ariel‘s theatrical salon, hosted by Susie and Marty Lautman at their Merion home last evening.  Susie knows how to put on an extravaganza, so in addition to the multitude of frogs in different guises brought out annually for Pesach (Passover), she added some additional wildlife.  Me, I thought I lost a year of my life, when not three feet away the huge snake started hissing, his eyes glowing red.

The event was a reading of four ten-minute plays on the theme of “A Stranger in our Midst.”  Founder of the 20-year-old Jewish company, Deborah Baer Mozes had invited playwrights to submit new compositions on this theme after last Pesach.  They received 63 submissions from around the world.  She and Theatre Ariel President, Adena Potok, selected the final minyan plus one (11) plays.  Last night was a reading of a sample of the new pieces, plus others already in the Jewish repertory canon, so to speak.

The original reading was: An Answer to their Prayers by Henry W. Kimmel about two disaffected single people, sitting in the back pew of a synagogue for Friday night services.  They were strangers in their own Jewish tradition.

The other plays that had been performed before are: From the Narrows by former Akiba student Lisa Silberman Brenner, who holds a Ph.D. in theater from Columbia University and now teaches at Drew University in Madison, NJ.  This is a modern midrash, re-imagining why we never hear from the Biblical Moses’s mother, Yocheved, after she’d given up her son, twice.  In this play, Yocheved choses not to leave Mitzrayim, ancient Egypt, with her family, because she doesn’t want to be a stranger in a new land.  Her story could be that of countless women who’ve had to choose between a war-torn homeland (even from servitude) and the bewildering unknown.  The actresses, Rene (pronounced “Reen”) Goodwin as Yocheved and Alana Gerlach, who teaches theater at Rowan University, as her daughter Miriam were superb in their roles, notably without sets, costumes, or makeup.

Ceasefire by Columbia-trained playwright, Ken Kaissar, is set on the Israeli-Lebanon border after the Second Lebanon War had ended in August, 2006.  The cast of characters are: Udi, a sarcastic, jaded Army veteran; Yossi, a nervous young soldier, fresh out of training, and the Arab “Ahmed” from the Lebanon border, who finally relates his real name.  The verbal interactions between Yossi and Ahmed succinctly highlight the historical context for fear and suspicion between these two peoples.  They are each strangers in each other’s narratives.

Wordplay by Rich Orloff is the relative classic, having been performed since 1999.  It is a hilarious, quick volley of words, as spoken by Yiddish-fluent Jews, and anyone else who attempts to learn them from a dictionary.  Here, the stranger is the goy, non-Jew, who joins a Jewish company of unspecified business.

Theatre Ariel plans to hold a reading of all 11 finalist plays in June at the Bristol Riverside Theatre in Bristol, PA.  

A Hyphenated Identity

— Hannah Lee

Schoolchildren of the early 19th century were punished for speaking any language other than English.  We’ve come a long way in our tolerance of differences.  (My mother-in-law says that someone who speaks English with an accent knows at least one other language, a dig at the monolingual Americans.)  We’ve changed our perspective in cultural assimilation and the iconic image is no longer of the melting pot, but the salad bowl, in which the ingredients are separate and distinct.

More after the jump.
A running series in the New York Times on racial identity in America highlights the growing comfort that young Americans have in declaring a multiracial background.  According to the Pew Research Center, one in seven new marriages is between spouses of different races or ethnicities.  The latest installment in the series looked at how different institutions tally racial data.  In contrast, I’ll ask the question from the other end: what does it mean when college student Michelle López-Mullins (right) identifies herself as being of “Peruvian, Chinese, Irish, Shawnee, and Cherokee” descent.  How does she honor each of these heritages?

My Rabbi said that Philadelphia’s new National Museum of American Jewish History is very good at depicting how successful Jews have become in America, but it fails at telling how Jews in America are Jewish.  A critic from the New York Times asked at the time of its opening, if this country needed another monument touting the success of Jews (which is better, I say, than another monument about the death of Jews).  So, my friend asked me, are there any U.S. museums that does what my Rabbi thinks the one in Philly should?  Well, the Yeshiva University Museum puts on exhibits that highlight aspects of Jewish history, but it’s an institution that’s not well-known outside of the Orthodox Jewish community.

At least once a year, I love to visit the Museum of the Chinese in America (MoCA) in a tenement building re-designed by Maya Lin, the Chinese-American architect who established her reputation while still at Yale with her design of the Vietnam War Memorial.  It has an extensive permanent display of notable Chinese-Americans, with more details and more personages than in any other setting or book.  There are other informative displays from American history, which are unsettling because of the prejudice the Chinese have faced.  There is also a replica of the historical Chinese store, which once served as a community center for its compatriots.  The current traveling exhibit is on Chinese puzzles-tangrams, linked rings, sliding block puzzles, and Burr puzzles (see www.ChinesePuzzles.org).  The museum succeeds in educating visitors regardless of their background.  The books available for purchase in the gift shop are of particular value to me, as these titles are not promoted in the mainstream media.  

The difference between MoCA and the National Museum of American Jewish History — or rather the difference between what the latter museum is and what it could be — may lie in the difference between ethnicity and religion.  The donors and board of trustees of the Jewish Museum chose to depict Jewishness as a cultural trait.  My Rabbi defines Jewishness as Yahadut, a religion.  Ergo, it’s a difficult balance to reach out to a wider audience.  My husband noted that the donor list of MoCA included corporate and government sponsors, who were comfortable with the idea of a cultural museum about the Chinese.  Similarly, it seems the sponsors of the new Jewish museum wanted to tell the cultural story of the Jews in America.  

Finally, what is the difference between a Jewish American and an American Jew?  It lies in the value the person places on the relative labels.  Someone who declares herself an American Jew says that being Jewish is more transcendent than being American.  And such as person identifies as a religious Jew.  So, the National Museum of American Jewish History needs to live up to its chosen name.  It needs to also educate the public about the religious history of Jews in America.