Breezy chronicle of life with a hardworking Russian family headed by an obsessive matriarch with a “dirt phobia.”
Award-winning Israeli writer Shalev’s (Beginnings: Reflections on the Bible's Intriguing Firsts, 2010, etc.) delightful family memoir focuses on a joyful boyhood spent with his grandparents Aharon and Tonia through the decades following their migration to Palestine in the 1920s (both elders hailed from small Ukrainian villages). The author’s grandmother, Tonia, a practical, tightly-wound cleaning sensation, had always been a woman who methodically carried a dust rag on her shoulder, but the gift of a powerful General Electric vacuum sent from Shalev’s uncle was completely unexpected. The present both surprised and irritated Tonia and Aharon. Tonia was used to doing her own housekeeping unassisted by mechanical intervention, and Aharon felt it was a offering from a relative who’d swapped their adopted Zionistic beliefs for “American capitalism” by emigrating to Los Angeles, changing his name and becoming a businessman who reaped more self-satisfied rewards than the rest of the family. The author gleefully describes his hardworking grandmother’s eccentricities with affectionate amusement and without mockery. As a young boy, to help prepare for the family Seder, Shalev was allowed access to Tonia’s forbidden rooms, where he discovered abandoned furniture draped in “old-sheet shrouds,” as well as inside the typically locked, second bathroom, where the vacuum cleaner (her “svieeperrr”) sat, unused, for fear that it would become soiled if operated. The author unveils Tonia’s stringent unwillingness to allow visitors to traipse through the clean, carefully segregated house, preferring to entertain outside, and her startlingly outspoken declaration that “a young man should change girls like he does socks.” Rife with colloquialisms and native dialects, Shalev’s personal reflections of quirky uncles, family squabbles, the rich history of his Jewish heritage and the legacy of the omnipresent American vacuum touch the heart and tickle the funny bone.
An unconventional and quite hilarious family scrapbook.