The Past Is Ever Present

In two departures from fiction, Meir Shalev examines beginnings: of his family, and of his people. His memoir looks at why his cleanliness-obsessed grandmother used her beloved ‘sweeper’ only once, and his foray into biblical exegesis shows us what the familiar stories look like when seen through a novelist’s eyes.

My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner:
A Family Memoir, by Meir Shalev ‏(translated from the Hebrew by Evan Fallenberg‏)
Schocken Books, 224 pages, $25.95
by Meir Shalev ‏(translated from the Hebrew by Stuart Schoffman‏). Harmony Books, 304 pages, $25

Imagine a young Russian woman “with her hair in braids” arriving in Palestine in the 1930s, heading north to help her Zionist husband found the future country’s first moshav. Imagine this woman’s hopes and dreams slowly sinking in the mud of the Jezreel Valley as she realizes that she is destined to spend her life in deprivation and hard labor, cultivating a resistant land. Imagine, too, that this woman suffers from a condition that in later decades would probably be diagnosed as obsessive-compulsive disorder − a case of cleanliness so excessive that she spends her days scrubbing and rescrubbing every inch of her home while steadfastly refusing to allow visitors to enter.

Now imagine that a package is sent to this unhappy woman by her brother-in-law in America. The entire moshav trails behind the donkey that delivers the crate to her home, like “some strange funeral procession” in order to see what’s inside. Her husband also follows suit, but as soon as he notices the English writing on the crate he freezes in place, fuming at his “double traitor” of a brother, “a non-Zionist and a non-Socialist,” who sought the riches of capitalism instead of heeding the pioneer call. Whatever luxury the package contained, her husband tried to tell himself, he would make his wife send it back. Little did he know that his cunning brother had sent her something she would never be able to relinquish: Inside a box bearing a picture of a manicured, lipsticked woman, which in itself would cause quite a stir among the moshavniks of Nahalal, was a brand-new General Electric vacuum cleaner. Or, as Tonia, the woman, called it in her spiced Hebrew − a “svieeperrr.”

Meir Shalev - Emil Salman - February 2012
Emil Salman

In “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner,” Meir Shalev − one of Israel’s most celebrated authors − sets out to solve a family mystery. He wishes to discover why his grandmother Tonia secreted away her beloved “sweeper” after using it only once. Through this narrow, whimsical framework, Shalev manages to unpack his family’s history − from his grandparents’ oversized disappointments and his mother’s rebellion to his own treasured childhood visits to Nahalal − and in doing so reveals the promise and glories of a country in its nascent years.

The state of being homesick

I started reading this short family memoir on an airplane, expecting that its light humor would at least provide diversion. What I hadn’t expected was that by the end of it I would have to steal my neighbor’s napkin to jab at some tears. I guarantee this was not Shalev’s intention when he decided to pen this lighthearted, almost stream-of-consciousness book. But I couldn’t help it. They say nostalgia is the state of being homesick, and there I was, in the words of Milan Kundera, “homesick for somewhere else.” That somewhere, I realized, was the Israeli north as it once existed, with its sweet scents of oranges and manure. When I was a child my mother used to sing us Natan Alterman’s Shir Ha’emek ‏(“Song of the Valley”‏) in which the land spreads before the poet “from Beit-Alfa to Nahalal,” and, unfamiliar with such vast expanses of undisturbed peace, my sister and I would make up stories about these strange and daunting places.

These places are for Shalev the essence of home. He remembers sneaking into his grandparents’ kitchen and filling a large jug with cream and cocoa after working in the cowshed ‏(“I was young and now I am old,” he writes, “but I have never tasted anything like that sweet treat again”‏), and how he and his cousin used to doze off on a hammock stretched between citrus trees ‏(“like Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn”‏). If this sounds saccharine, Shalev should be forgiven. Far from being sentimental, he tries to piece together a past that would amount to more than a faded snapshot. Here’s how he recalls being given the reins to his uncle’s donkey, at age 5: “Handing me the reins was more than just a game. It expressed an approach that is disappearing from the world, one that gave small children a feeling of worth, the feeling that they are being trusted.” In short, he writes about what childhood should be.

The lure of beginnings

If “My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Cleaner” expresses a yearning for a not-too-distant past, “Beginnings” − another captivating non-fiction work by Shalev recently translated into English about “the Bible’s intriguing firsts” − shows us that the past is ever present. Shalev, of course, is an acclaimed Bible buff. His first attempt to provide a secular reading to the stories he grew up loving resulted in the bestselling book “Bible Now,” which was published in 1985. That book catapulted Shalev to the forefront of the Hebrew literary scene, and had many a secular person adopting fatalistic terms when praising him for “reclaiming” the Scriptures. In a way, “Beginnings” can be seen as a sequel to “Bible Now,” and yet its premise − a musing on the biblical firsts − is somewhat more playful. The lure of the biblical beginnings, Shalev finds, is that they are “often surprising.”

“The first death in the Bible, for example, is not of natural causes. The first crying is not of a newborn baby or of a bereaved parent or an unrequited lover. ... The first kiss is not a lover’s kiss but a father’s test of his son, spurred by suspicion. And the first appearance in the Bible of the Hebrew word for ‘love’ is not about the love of a man for a woman, or a woman for a man, or a mother for her son. The first love was a father’s love.”

We all more or less remember the story of Jacob, who, wishing to avoid the wrath of his brother, flees his home, and sets out toward Haran. When night falls, Jacob lies down in an open field, and dreams a dream. In it, he sees a ladder kissing the sky, with angels traveling up and down its length. God appears before him, and promises not to forsake him. Jacob wakes up the next morning and makes a vow: “If God remains with me ... the Lord shall be my God.”
What we may not realize is that this is the first instance in the Bible of a Hebrew dream. ‏(It is not, however, the first dream ever mentioned in the Bible; that honor, it turns out, is reserved for Abimelech, a Philistine.‏) God, Shalev explains, reiterated in the dream the pledge he had already made to Abraham and Isaac about their inheritance of the land. Yet Jacob deviates from the obedient responses of his ancestors; he uses his dream, and God’s promise to him, to completely redefine man’s relationship to God. His “if” in the vow is Jacob offering God a deal, writes Shalev. If God keeps his side of the deal, he will have Jacob as a believer. And if he doesn’t? One can easily guess the conclusion.

Until this point in time, Shalev tells us, God had all kinds of believers ‏(“foolish,” like Adam and Eve, or “wicked,” like the residents of Sodom‏), yet now, all of a sudden, “comes this skeptical and demanding believer, a different mental type entirely, almost impudent, but so bold and original and interesting.”

Under Shalev’s bright light, not only do those beginnings cast a hitherto unfamiliar shadow, but so do the stories behind them − their layers of subtlety and complexity only emphasized in the process. So that, shortly after he tells us of the Hebrews’ first king, Saul, Shalev describes the battle between David and Goliath − yet its outcome is different from the one we think we know. Shalev contemplates Saul’s last words to David before the fight: “You cannot go against this Philistine and fight him, for you are just a boy, and he has been a warrior from his youth.” Saul was proven wrong. If anything, Shalev tells us, David triumphed precisely because he was “just a boy,” and lacked the professional experience that would have made his actions predictable. By slinging a stone directly into his opponent’s face, David showed that he was a quick-on-his-feet, gutsy thinker. The story ceases to be a cliche about an underdog defeating a giant. It should be read differently, Shalev suggests: “The smart one beat the dummy.”

As mentioned before, the first love in the Bible is a father’s love, of Abraham for Isaac; and it is said not by the lover himself, but rather by God, as an ultimate test. This is not the romantic term we have come to associate with the palpitations of the heart. It might come as a surprise to learn that the Garden of Eden − the bountiful heaven from which humanity originated − was loveless. Adam was ordered to rule over Eve, not to love her. Or, as Shalev infers, “Maybe love is unnecessary when there’s no other man or woman in the world.”

When love between a man and a woman is mentioned, in the next generation, the sequence of events is significant: Rebecca is first chosen by God, then Isaac brings her to the tent belonging to his late ‏(and, dare I say, beloved‏) mother, they are married, and only then is she described as being “loved.” The stress is on family and continuity, not on individual happiness.

This isn’t to say that the biblical author lacked the soul of the romantic. Through Shalev’s masterly eyes, we revisit the beauty and economy of the biblical verse, so simple and infused with meaning as to make a Tolstoy or a Flaubert blush. In the expulsion story of Hagar and Ishmael, for example, Abraham took bread and water and he “gave them to Hagar, and placed them over her shoulder.” We do not learn of his emotions at the time, because we don’t need to. “The reader,” Shalev writes, “can visualize how Abraham handed her the provisions, his eyes looking everywhere except into her eyes, and how she, frozen, aware of the cruel decree, refuses to take them, because to take them would mean participating in this evil plan that had been concocted against her and Ishmael.”

Yet perhaps my favorite beginning comes courtesy of the powerful story of Michal − the first and only loving wife mentioned as such in the Bible, whose love for David goes unreciprocated. David was the most beloved man in the Bible. Saul loved him, Michal loved him, all of Israel and Judah loved him. Jonathan − famously − loved him. All this love made David emotionally bankrupt, Shalev writes. ‏(Notice how, in the best-known elegy in Hebrew poetry, David described not his own love for Jonathan but that of the fallen Jonathan for him, which was “more wonderful than the love of women.”‏) And it is this one-way love, from everyone toward her husband, that makes Michal, one of King Saul’s daughters, such a tragic heroine.
One day, Michal watched from her window as David danced foolishly in the procession of the ark of God; “and she despised him in her heart,” the verse states unequivocally. The conflict that followed between them was anything but dated.

"How glorious was the king of Israel today,” Michal mockingly addressed her husband in the third person, “who uncovered himself today in the eyes of the maidservants of his servants, as one of the low fellows shamelessly uncovers himself!” These words, Shalev instructs, should be read at low volume, for they are most effective “when uttered with the whisper of the snake, not the roar of the lion.”

But Michal is not alone in her tragic fate. Shalev carefully brings to life another seemingly marginal character: Paltiel son of Laish, who married Michal after she had helped David escape her father’s palace. As the story has it, David ordered that Michal be brought back to him as his wife upon his crowning as future king, even though she was already married to Paltiel. Michal obeyed, we’re told, and went to him. But “her husband went with her, weeping as he walked behind her all the way to Bahurim. Then Abner said to him, ‘Go back home!’ So he went back.”

This description of Paltiel is brief, and we may have missed it entirely were it not for Shalev’s writerly intuition that this is where the true drama lies. “She does not see Paltiel stop,” he writes, “does not sense his final gaze, which quivers on her back like sunlight in a mirror, and does not turn her head when he turns around and walks away, toward their home. An entire novel is hidden here, compressed into a single biblical verse, which opens up and tells its tale to an empathetic reader.”
Ruth Margalit, a frequent contributor to Books, is on the editorial staff of The New Yorker.