After six months in Israel, I am still attempting to master the Hebrew language. One of the good thing about learning a language as an adult is that I already have a fixed meaning and usage of each word I learn. As I have already experienced a multitude of what daily life has to offer, it is easy to substitute a word in Hebrew for a word in English and still understand the context. For example, the word mechonit (car), although foreign, is easily understood by the information I already know, i.e. what a car looks like, what it is used for, and how Israelis abuse the privilege of driving one.
While this process of contextual learning is more or less successful, there is one Hebrew word that I still do not understand. I learned the word smartut the day we moved into our Tel Aviv apartment. My cleanliness crazed husband, G, dragged me to the local store to pick up the tools for my first lesson in Israeli Housewifery. He explained that all Israelis clean their floors with a smartut. Knowing that Israelis are well known for their technology, I was excited for a new technologically advanced cleaning method.
However, the first item G picked up was a gigantic version of my Grandmother’s shower squeegee. Those of you with Jewish grandparents who have glass shower doors know what I’m talking about (“Don’t forget to SQUEEGEE after your shower, bubbaleh!”).
G picked up a bucket next. I was beginning to understand that he expected me to somehow clean the floor with this giant squeegee and bucket, but was thoroughly confused. G saw the puzzled look on my face and told me not to worry; we were headed to the smartut aisle next. I had high expectations for
this mythical product, although with my limited cleaning experience, I had little knowledge of what it might actually be. We picked up a package of what looked like thick white magical cleaning cloths and headed home.
At home I tore open the package and glanced down in confusion. I discovered that the legendary smartut (pl. smartuteem) were nothing but large white rags. I stared up at G in disbelief. How could this cleaning system, practiced by millions of Israeli women, be just a squeegee and a rag? The romantic word I had been hanging onto was not at all what I had fantasized; it literally translated to rag.
Over the weeks I tried various methods of smartuting the floor. I perused government offices, taking mental notes of how the cleaners smartuted the floors–if the methods they used were good enough for the government, they must be worth a shot. I even read blogs, written by generations of women before me, to learn secret tips of the art of smartuting. I knew that there had to be a tried and true method of smartuting, and I was going to find it!
I tried different methods of smartuting–I wrapped the rag three different ways to find the most efficient way to clean the floor. I learned that every Israeli housewife has their own particular way of pushing a rag with a stick. I don’t even get involved in the debate of floor cleaners, simply because I cannot even read the labels well enough to know if I’m buying a matte or shiny finish or something that smells like a hospital or flower garden.
Regardless of how it happens, the fact of recent life is that I have been participating in a cultural more that might only be found in Israel. Moreover, it is one Hebrew word that I still do not understand because there has been absolutely no prior contextual basis for this phenomenon. How it is possible that the rest of the world is blessed with microfiber mop heads and steam cleaners while I clean my house with a squeegee and a smartut?! No matter how innovative Israel gets, I have a feeling that this cleaning system, somehow so deep-rooted in Israeli culture, is not going anywhere. It may be a pain to use, but there is something comforting in taking part in this ritual of my new country…not to mention, smartut is pretty fun to say!