My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner a memoir

by Meir Shalev

Other authorsEvan Fallenberg
Book, 2011



Call number




New York : Schocken Books, c2011.


The author joyfully remembers those days he spent as a boy with his grandparents in the bucolic Jezreel Valley, and in this quirky tribute commemorates the spirit of an exacting, tireless character who was "the purified essence of us all, for better and worse."

User reviews

LibraryThing member brendajanefrank
A pre-publication review from the Amazon Vine Program.

The title and the cover picture are interesting and drew me in. Unfortunately, the text has little to do with “the American vacuum cleaner” and more to do with the author’s neurotic, mean, obsessive grandmother and her kin. This short book
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was hard to read. The author seemed unable to follow any train of thought. It wandered, for no apparent reason, and read like a poor first draft.

Tonia, the author’s grandmother and protagonist, lived in Nahalal, Palestine, in a small house on a farm. The house essential became a museum. Rooms remained locked and unused to protect them from being soiled. The bathroom was out of bounds. People were sent to the outside shower in the cow barn. They used an outside trough for washing up. They urinated in an old outhouse or on a tree. Each doorknob was covered by a rag, to protect it from dirt. Tonia wore another rag over her shoulder to be able to pounce on any dust that dared to enter her residential sanctuary.

Much of Tonia’s furniture was locked up in the unused rooms. However, the chairs were brought out once a year for the Seder dinner, then washed and returned to the “furniture museum.”

Nobody was allowed to enter the house through the front door, to avoid dirt being tracked in. In fact, Tonia preferred to keep people entirely outside the house to keep it pristine. She entertained outside on the porch to prevent any soil inside the house. Much of the family’s daily life took place outside on a cement slab, referred to as “the platform.” Tonia was so extreme that the wedding of her daughter was held in the mother-in-law’s Jerusalem apartment. Since it was during the winter, Tonia didn’t want them to use the house and the yard because the guests would “fill the house with mud!”

Tonia began each day at 5:30 a.m. or earlier by washing the floors with a rag and a bucket. Her daughters were usually assigned to this task. The rinse water had to be changed until the water squeezed from the rag was totally clean and clear. Then, she would scoop water from the bucket into her hand and view it in the light. If it was not clear enough, the girls had to wash the floor again, changing the water over and over.

Each morning Tonia woke up her two daughters several hours before school so they could do the house cleaning, as well as the farm work. The girls arrived at school an hour late, exhausted from the chores. When reprimanded by the schoolteacher for neglecting her daughters’ education, Tonia merely listened then left the meeting because she had work to do. On a Friday a few weeks later, Tonia appeared at her older daughter’s classroom two hours before dismissal because it was the Sabbath and Batya had to go home and help her clean. Despite the admonition of the teacher, Batya dutifully gathered her belongings and followed Tonia out of the room, going home to clean the house.

When the author was five years old, his mother deemed him old enough to visit his grandmother Tonia alone. This was good and bad. Unlike his parents, Tonia allowed Shalev to read in bed as late as he wished. However, at 5:30 a.m. she entered his room and yanked the mattress from beneath him. “While still asleep I would slam against the bedsprings and strips of metal, each time surprised, stunned anew.” If Shalev didn’t get up fast enough, Grandma Tonia would say, “Up, up, enough stinking up the bed.”

Now, here’s the story about the vacuum cleaner. It was a “gift” sent to Grandma Tonia and Grandpa Aharon and from America by Shalev’s Uncle Yeshayahu.

Aharon regarded his brother as a traitor for having committed the unforgivable sins of emigrating from his birthplace, a village in the Ukraine, to Los Angeles, California, changing his name to “Sam,” converting from Orthodox Judaism to Capitalism by starting a business and making money. Whereas, Aharon left the Ukraine to settle Palestine and build a country, converting from Orthodox Judaism to Socialism and Zionism.

Yeshayahu made the mistake of trying to send American dollars to Aharon and Tonia, having heard of the economic hardship suffered by Jewish farming communities in Palestine. At the time, conditions were abysmal. Labor was hard, income infinitesimal, the winter was cold without coats and boots for the children and the family was suffering true deprivation. Over Tonia’s protests, Aharon returned the tainted money to his traitor brother, rejecting handouts from rich men. When Yeshayahu mailed more money to the family, Aharon was so angry he returned the envelope unopened.

In revenge, Yeshayahu bought the biggest, heaviest electric vacuum cleaner he could find for Tonia, figuring that it would be impossible to return. Aharon could not afford to ship it back to America and Tonia wouldn’t let him.

Yeshayahu’s ploy worked, sort of. Tonia and the entire community were amazed by the new appliance, “as big as a cow but quiet as a cat.” She used it in the house and the floor met her cleanliness test. Yet, the wizardry of it all troubled her. Where was the dirt? If it was inside the sweeper, then the sweeper was dirty. You couldn’t have anything dirty inside the house. So, the sweeper was rewrapped and relegated to reside in the locked bathroom, forever unused and untouched, only revealed for display on rare occasions to selected individuals. What else would you expect from Grandma Tonia?
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LibraryThing member Carolee888
I enjoyed 'My Russian Grandmother and Her American Vacuum Clear' a great deal. It does tend to meander a little. Sometimes the meandering just enriches the main story; sometimes I think it is actually material for a different book. Meir Shalev's grandmother is the star of this book. Grandmother
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Tonya was a "character". She was born in Russia and immigrated to Palestine. The author has told of Tonya’s character, goals, likes and dislikes through many humorous stories, most of which are in some way or another connected with the vacuum cleaner made by General Electric.

Tonya had certain phrases that she used often that became her trademark, like starting a family story with ‘This is how it was”. What enchanted me the most about this book is that even though she had an entirely different background from my grandmother, there were some stunning similarities? Both came from farming families. Both had spouses who would just take off at times. Both refused to be idle. Both hated dirt violently. Both used the porch for snapping green beans and plucking chicken feathers off of the future star of the chicken soup. Both demanded that we do not enter through the front door but a different one. Both had their grandchildren be very economical in their trips inside and out. Tonya asked that the trash be taken out by the grandchild; my grandmother asked that the slop for the pigs be taken out. Coming back in, the grandchild, both asked the grandchild to bring eggs back.

But what about the American Vacuum Cleaner? It was a gift to her out of spite for her husband from Uncle Yeshayahu, aka Uncle Sam who lived in Los Angeles. There is a long involved story connected to why this gift was made. You will need to read why was it kept locked up? What after she died, what became of it? Several more stories that explain that or maybe don’t explain what happened to the vacuum cleaner.

Meir Shalev, weaves the family stories about the main events in his grandmother’s life. As he mentions, there are exaggerations as time goes on. But the stories will make you laugh out loud and set you to thinking. One of my favorites is the author wearing read nail polish on his feet, why this happened and the significance of this act.

Meir Shalev is a superb storyteller. I believed that he learned this from his grandmother and his many relatives. Storytelling enriches and explains the family.

Don’t miss this book if you love family stories.

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program but that in no way influenced my review.
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LibraryThing member fearless2012
I liked this book for its cover. :P (Even though I really did read the whole thing.)

LibraryThing member BookAngel_a
Meir Shalev was raised in Palestine, surrounded by a family of story tellers, and a grandma, Tonia, who had an extreme cleaning obsession…to put it mildly.

This memoir takes a unique approach, spinning the family history around a single story: how Grandma Tonia got her big, shiny, American vacuum
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sweeper (pronounced “svieeperrr”) and what happened to it. Since everyone in his family likes to tell stories, there are several versions of each family story, and he incorporates those as well.

Grandma Tonia is the star of this book, and though she may have been hard to live with at times, she is memorable and even lovable. This book is recommended for anyone who is interested in what life was like growing up in a Palestine village, and anyone who simply loves listening to story tellers.

(I received this book through Amazon's Vine Program.)
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LibraryThing member HollyHerndon
3Q, 2P (my VOYA codes) This is a funny and bright depiction of author Meir Shalev's memories of childhood and coming of age, woven around time he spent with his Grandma Tonia on a moshav, a Socialist, Jewish, agricultural settlement in Palestine. Grandma Tonia's quirks are described lovingly, but
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it's clear that her phobia around dirt, dust, smudges, and blemishes on walls affect her relationships with those around her. She loves to entertain, but company almost never enters the house. She receives guests on the back porch so they do not bring dirt into the house. No one is allowed to shower inside the house, nor use the toilet in the powder room. Children bathe in a large trough-like outdoor sink, and children and adults shower under a hose rigged up on the side of the cow shed.

I chose 3Q because the book is funny, entertaining, and satisfying, and the reader does come to understand and love the characters. However, the narrative is light on context, and the context would be very interesting to read about! I was disappointed that there was not more background given about the moshav and its history. I chose a 2P because I think this will appeal to a fairly narrow range of people, whether adults or young adults. These will likely be people who have an interest in Israeli writing, settlements, and/or politics.
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LibraryThing member mlake
In My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner Meir Shalev writes a love letter to his grandma Tonia. Tonia is a Russian woman living in Palestine and waging war on dirt. Every doorknob and handle has its own dust rag to keep dirty hands off and dust at bay. Showers are taken outside to
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keep the bathroom clean and only the most honored guests are allowed in the house. Great Uncle Yeshayahu sends Tonia a vacuum cleaner all the way from America (the land of degenerate gum chewing, dangerous music and women with painted fingernails). At first Tonia loves the svieeperr, until she learns it keeps the dirt inside - making it dirty itself. She takes it apart so she can clean it, then locks it in the bathroom with the fine linens and glassware she never uses. Shalev grows up hearing stories of the svieeperr but never seeing it until he was 22 and it was even more glorious than the family stories.
It took me a while to get into this book, but as I neared the end I did not want to get out of it. I didn't know anything about this time or place in history, but I got to know the people and it is the people I wanted to spend more time with. I wanted to hear more of the smart, lock picking, flying jennet, the Gypsies and Uncle Yitzak, all the family stories that start with "this is how it was"...

January 2012
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LibraryThing member Gittel
Loved this book! Well written, very funny, and offers insights into the early days of the State of Israel. What could be better!
LibraryThing member suesbooks
This was a moderately interesting book with too many unimportant, uninteresting details. The writing was nowhere the quality of A Pigeon and a Boy, which I thought was excellent. I learned about life in Israel, but most of the characters were not well developed.

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