Meir Shalev’s Distinctive Israeli Voice

By | Apr 17, 2023
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There are writers you love because you’ve read all their books, and there are writers you love for just one book. Meir Shalev, the Israeli novelist, memoirist and columnist who died last week at 74 after a struggle with cancer, was prolific and beloved at home: He wrote eight novels for adults, 12 for children, several nonfiction volumes about the Bible and a weekly column in the Israeli daily newspaper Yediot Aharonot. His books were translated into 26 languages, and several, especially the 2006 A Pigeon and a Boy, won worldwide acclaim. But my sense of him was indelibly fixed by the comic and bittersweet memoir he wrote in 2009—published in English translation by Evan Fallenberg in 2011—called My Russian Grandmother and her American Vacuum Cleaner: A Family Memoir.

For years I’ve been pressing this book on innocent readers of all sorts, inflicting it on members of my book group and narrowly failing to get it included as the memoir entry in the “Israel @75 Virtual Book Series” Moment is running in conjunction with The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington this spring.  (We’re reading Ilana Kurshan’s beautiful memoir If All the Seas Were Ink instead—and you should sign up!—because it, unlike Shalev’s, is readily available as an audiobook.)

I don’t even remember where I first encountered Shalev’s book, which takes the reader back to a hardscrabble moshav (similar to a kibbutz but with more family autonomy) in the 1950s, a world away from the comfortably modern, politically chaotic Israel that’s lately claimed our attention. Shalev was born in 1948 in Nahalal, in the Jezreel Valley. The moshavniks farmed under difficult conditions. Dust and grit blew everywhere, austerity was a value elevated to the level of patriotism, and villagers deprived of outside entertainment policed one another avidly for deviations from socialist dogma. “American” luxuries such as nail polish, in particular, were anathema: Even decades later in Shalev’s family, he writes, the final shaft in any gossipy condemnation of an acquaintance was “I hear she gets manicures, too.”

The central figure in the story is Shalev’s Grandma Tonia, a reluctant pioneer with an extreme aversion to dirt, which she enforces mercilessly, to the point of rarely letting the members of the family into their own house (family life mostly unfolds on “the slab,” the concrete-poured back porch). When an American relative, Great-Uncle Yehoshua—who has unaccountably chosen to abandon Zionism and “make the desert of Los Angeles bloom” instead—sends Grandma Tonia a gleaming, luxurious, extremely American General Electric vacuum cleaner, the clash of values is unbearable. Cognitive dissonance reaches such a pitch that the “schveeper” is used only once, then locked up untouched for years. Shalev’s portraits of the family and the culture are hilarious and loving, and there’s compassion running under the comic account of Grandma Tonia’s antics: Haaretz called it “probably one of the most enjoyable books ever written about obsessive-compulsive disorder.”

Though Shalev is gone, he deserves a wider reading in America. Moment’s Marilyn Cooper profiled him in 2017: They discuss his rule of never mixing politics with his fiction, his novels’ grounding in pre-state legends and much more. And I’m lucky—I still have so much Shalev to read. The Blue Mountain, his first novel, written in 1988, is described as drawn from Grandma Tonia’s stories, so I’ll probably start with that. 


The “Literary Moment” section of our “Israel at 75” issue is now available online. Take a stroll with our writerly tour guide Omer Friedlander, prize-winning author of The Man Who Sold Air in the Holy Land, through the cafes, bookstores, gardens and byways of the Israeli literary imagination—and the books that bring them to life. For another striking and—shall we say—unorthodox fictional take on Israel, this one set half a century in the future, follow the trail of Erika Dreifus’s review of a new volume of short stories by Tova Reich, The House of Love and Prayer and Other Stories. As Dreifus warns, though, this imagined vision of a future Israel is not for the faint of heart. (“Try it in your book club—if you dare,” she writes.) And if you’d like to balance fiction with nonfiction, Moment’s Special Literary Correspondent Robert Seigel offers a brilliant reflection on two books about the complex history of American political support for Israel—by Jews and others.

Get ready for more anniversary material from Moment in the next few weeks. And enjoy your chametz!

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