Shira Gorshman: A Life in Three Acts


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 improbable: Gorshman 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 (New Way).

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.