Shira Gorshman: A Life in Three Acts
By FAITH JONES
In 1920, Shira Gorshman, age 14, left her unhappy home in
Krakes, Lithuania, to become a freethinker, utopian socialist, and—eventually—a
writer of tremendous philosophical subtlety. The transformation was slow and
had a stepfather who could not bear her and grandparents who resented
her independence and lack of religious zeal. At 16, she became a mother; later
on, she tried to become a writer in a country, Russia, whose policy towards
Yiddish could prove burdensome to writers. Despite the long odds, Gorshman not
only succeeded as an author, she lived a long life (1906 to 2001) that
witnessed three distinct manifestations of Jewish existence: the settlement of
Jews in pre-statehood Israel; the creation of Jewish communes in the Crimea
after the Soviet revolution; and the attempted destruction of the
Eastern-European Jewry in the Holocaust.
Gorshman’s literary career began humbly enough. Her first stories were
published in Yiddish newspapers and literary magazines in Kiev and Moscow.
Because she somehow escaped the government’s notice, she was able to write
stories that rebelliously portrayed Soviet citizenry as flawed and divided. In
“A Basherte Zakh” (“Something
Predestined”), for instance, an engineer suddenly finds himself demoted, then
fired. No reason is given, but corruption or nepotism were probably involved.
In Gorshman’s later fiction, she continued to assert her creative license
through depictions of intermarriage and impiety. And she continued to write in
Yiddish, despite the Russian government’s tacit opprobrium towards the mameloshn.
The same maverick spirit seemed to guide most of her life’s decisions.
After ending her first marriage, she moved to Palestine and joined the commune G’dud ha-Avodah (The Labor Battalion).
She’d already had three children by then, all daughters. Some members of G’dud ha-Avodah settled kibbutzim, but others served as a mobile
heavy-labor pool, clearing rocks for farming, paving roads, draining swamps,
and living together on their shared income. Like many utopian experiments of
those years, G’dud ha-Avodah split
ideologically. Gorshman followed the left-wing faction to resettle in Crimea,
to found a commune called Via Nova
When she arrived, in 1928, she found the work almost as difficult as it
had been in Palestine. Gorshman was the head of the dairy operations and
oversaw 500 head of cattle. She was a difficult character and often landed in
trouble with the collective’ governing council. In a film interview conducted
by Boris Sandler, the current editor of the Forverts, Gorshman tells the following
story. She had discovered that two members of the collective, who worked under
her in the dairy operations, had turned the young calves out to pasture without
first giving them water: a careless decision. Gorshman got so infuriated that
she hit the two young men, and was subsequently called before a tribunal of the
farm’s governing council.
Gorshman lost her temper at just the right time, while a group of
artists from Moscow was visiting the farm to paint life in the communes. One of
the artists was Mendel Gorshman. At the tribunal, he was completely taken by
the woman who had beaten up two men. Thus began their romance. When he returned
a few months later, the two were married. In 1931,Gorshman, her daughters, and Mendel relocated to
Moscow and it was there that she flowered as a writer. Her first collection, Der Koyekh fun Lebn (The Strength of Life), appeared in 1948,
with illustrations by her husband. Over the next 40 years she published four
more books in Yiddish, and two were translated into Russian.
An interesting feature of many of Gorshman’s stories is their distance
from religious Jewish life, and their reference to folk knowledge. The
character of Bubbe Malka, although herself religious, comes into conflict with
the town’s rabbi. Bubbe Malka has been pulling up mushrooms growing in the
cemetery to make cordials and liniments for her patients. The rabbi considers
this disrespectful to the dead; Bubbe Malka’s obvious closeness to nature and
to her own, less rule-bound, God, is perhaps the real reason for his
discomfort. Gorshman’s understanding of folklore extends to non-Jews too. In “A Basherte Zakh,” which involves the
marriage of a Jewish woman and a gentile man, the gentile mother-in-law
sprinkles her new daughter-in-law with hempseed to promote fertility. Her son
is embarrassed that his mother may seem, to his sophisticated in-laws, a
country bumpkin, but both sets of in-laws are delighted when the young woman
gets pregnant almost immediately.
Off the page, however, life wasn’t so pleasantly resolved. When Gorshman
returned to Israel in 1990, following her daughters there after her husband’s
death, she found modern Israeli life hard to adapt to. Even her own cousins
were unwelcoming: they all spoke of the difficulty of life in Israel and
advised her to return to the Soviet Union. Luckily, she did not. Although her
re-entry into Israeli society was difficult, after a few years she had made
contact with the small community of Yiddish writers and publishers there, which
quickly realized her importance. Many writers slow down in their last years,
but Gorshman sped up. Between 1990 and her death in 2001, Gorshman published
five books in Yiddish; one was translated into Hebrew. With this wealth of
subtle, fascinating work to draw on, there seems to be no good reason why Gorshman
shouldn’t, once available in English and European languages, eventually be seen
as one of the major thinkers of Yiddish literature.