Review

Review of Shira Gorshman’s Meant to Be, translated by Faith Jones

Sean Sidky

Meant to Be by Shi­ra Gor­sh­man, trans­lat­ed by Faith Jones (White Goat Press, 2023). 200 pages. $18.95.

Meant to Be, a collection of stories by Soviet Yiddish writer Shira Gorshman, is not an easy work to read. The stories are dense, the characters stoic and uncompromising, and the point of view often purposefully distant. We rarely learn much about the motivations behind the actions we witness and are given only the slightest glimpse into the unfolding dreams and thoughts of the central characters. Yet this collection is arresting, even transformative. Compiled and beautifully translated by Faith Jones, these stories are a poetic and powerful representation of the incredible complexity of life in the face of tragedy, suffering, and uncertainty.

Meant to Be, while not directly autobiographical, parallels Gorshman’s own life in many ways: Gorshman was born to a poverty-stricken family in a small town in what is now Lithuania. She was active politically from an early age, and her commitment to her politics saw her move to Palestine with a socialist-Zionist labor organization, then to Crimea to start an agricultural commune before moving with her husband to Moscow, where she began to write. Decades later, the Soviet Union crumbling around her, Gorshman returned to Palestine, now Israel, to spend her twilight years. Each of these locales are featured in the pages of Meant to Be in which the women at the center of Gorshman’s stories often find themselves faced with the difficult task of navigating male-dominated political and artistic spaces. It is easy to look at each of the varied figures at the heart of these stories and see them as Gorshman reflecting on her own life and journey, blurring the lines, as in most of her work, between memoir and fiction.

This is the first book-length collection of Gorshman’s work to be translated into English, with only a handful of stories elsewhere, many of which were also translated by Jones. Jones has been a mainstay of Yiddish translation and writing on Yiddish arts for many years, and has spent much of that time as an advocate for and translator of Yiddish literature written by women, including co-curating and co-translating a special issue of In geveb on gendered literary debates in modern Yiddish literature. Jones’ translations, in general, strike a careful balance between highlighting the peculiarities of the authors’ own sparse and restrained Yiddish voice and producing magnificent works of English-language poetry and fiction. Meant to Be is no exception: at once captivating and alienating, Jones’ translation truly embodies the complex tensions that flow through these stories and characters.

While reading this collection, I found myself continually tense, poised on the edge of my seat as if waiting for the other shoe to drop — and though the lives of the women and, occasionally, men who form the core of these stories are intense and replete with both tragedy and joy, there was rarely a sudden confrontation, no explosion. Life is rarely so well structured. As Faith Jones writes in her brief introduction,

Gorshman is most notable for her unflinching examination of women’s lives and her willingness to dwell on uncomfortable emotions [...] In Gorshman’s text, everything is about the situation, the event, the interplay of right and wrong, and the characters’ reactions to them. Her stories abound in knowledge that is hidden and sometimes barely speakable: it is her practice to not force this knowledge out but to allow it to gradually appear (x).

Rather than cohesive plots, then, what we are presented with are slice-of-life narratives in all their confronting, confusing, and gripping lack-of-finality. With the exception, maybe, of the final and title stories, there is no conclusion to be had, no final or neat resolution.

Perhaps that’s why, for the first time in writing a review, I found myself turning to what others had said before of the author and their writing, in the hope that someone else had neatly captured the complexity I was struggling with. My first stop, as it so often is, was Joshua Fogel’s monumental translation (and update) of the Leksikon fun der naye yidish literatur. The Leksikon offers a brief portrait of Gorshman, noting only that “she depicted masterly the deep psychological experiences, rich in characterization of human features. The hero throughout her entire oeuvre is the woman as a popular image in this chaotic and stormy historical epoch.” Even while her stories were being published, it seems that critics lacked the means to account for the intensity and brevity of her writing, which are often more character studies than plot-focused narratives. Yet, deep, rich, chaotic, are stormy are all accurate descriptors of this short collection, a panorama of human complexity that spans the most tumultuous years of modern Jewish history to date — from the Russian Revolution to the Holocaust to the Yishuv — and enormous range of locales and communities, from the recognizably Jewish spaces of the shtetl or kibbutz, to more radical Soviet collective farming communities, to the alienating anonymity of the large modern city.

If there is a unifying feature to the stories beyond the rich character portraits, it is this kind of historical alienation: all of these stories depict characters who are lost, searching in one way or another for something like a home. For some, driven away by death, violence, or economics, this home is a physical place; for others it is a sense of belonging and community; yet, for still others, it is individual people—children, partners, old friends lost or reclaimed, fleeting moments of human connection in a sea of anonymity.

This theme finds its most understated expression in the exceptionally brief “Between Mountains.” A two-page story, in which there is almost no action or movement (as is characteristic of the shorter stories in this collection), “Between Mountains” shares with us a glimmer of new connection, as an unnamed narrator is befriended by another woman, a servant or laborer, named Manya. Invited to Manya’s home that evening, the two sit together, no conversation passing between them, content and happy in the silent presence of another person who demands nothing, until that quiet comfort is broken by the arrival of Manya’s “Master,” a gruff and demanding man, who barely tolerates the presence of the narrator. Later that evening, they walk together in the fields, with only a few words from Manya. We are left, at the close of the story, with a glimpse into a life that is wearing these women away to nothing, offset only by this new, but fragile hope for comfort in companionship.

In “Wild Hops,” the complexities of family, community, and memory in post-war Europe are thrust to the foreground, through the eyes of a blacksmith, Nokhem, returning to his home after the Holocaust, unable to leave the past but unsure of how to continue into the future.

He knew for a certainty that nobody would run to greet him. Not his mother, his father, his sisters and brothers, and not his wife and children… He knew. But the place had a hold on him. Through the whole war he had an image of this shtetl burned into his memory (87).

Desperate to keep busy and work so as not to get drawn into sorrow and memory, Nokhem quickly resumes work. Yet, at the same time, he rebuffs offers from a farming collective that other survivors from his town have formed nearby, a group that values his work and his presence, and members of which made efforts to help Nokhem’s family during the war. This struggle between being tied to his home and smithy, his wariness about becoming too entrenched in the community of the labor collective, and his own fears of losing himself to memory and pain become suddenly disrupted by the curious intrusion of a young child, a little girl his neighbor had hidden from the Nazis. The story unfolds slowly, and warily, as Nokhem learns brief snippets of information about the child, what she experienced during the war, and the neighbor’s apprehensions about the child becoming too attached to him, desperate as she is for a new father. The story — like many here — is sweet and heartbreaking from beginning to end, a powerful example of Gorshman’s ability to articulate that complex and destabilizing balance between hope and sorrow that so many post-Holocaust, and post-tragedy, narratives strive for.

Not all the stories end on notes of hope or comfort, however. In fact, the opening story of the collection, “The Parasite,” is easily the most confronting and troubling of the whole collection. It is the story of Khatshe the Rag Man and Khaye-Hinde, the confusing and dysfunctional parents of six living children. Unlike the stories that follow, there are no moments of levity here, no respites from the uncomfortable and troubling portrait we get of a family that is falling apart at its seams. Five of their children died from illness, mistreatment, or neglect, and Gorshman holds nothing back in her presentation of these parents. Khaye-Hinde, especially, is so overwhelmingly concerned with appearances and the opinions of their neighbors that she is regularly willing to sacrifice the health and wellbeing of her children to preserve that peace. We pity the family, in many ways: their situation is desperate, they struggle to find enough food for their whole family and, yet, at the moment we are most empathetic, the story takes a sharp and violent turn. It is hard to walk away from this story without feeling emotionally drained; I had to put down the collection for some time to reckon with this story, and to prepare myself for what I assumed would be the tone of the collection that follows. As I understand it, the order of this collection was translator Faith Jones’ decision, and truly it was a bold and intense choice to open with “The Parasite,” a story that casts a long shadow over the whole collection, even as readers slowly come to realize how different it is from the rest.

When read hand in hand with the final and title story of the collection, “Meant to Be,” the two make a thought-provoking contrast. “Meant to Be” is the story of Leah (and to a lesser extent her husband Dovid) watching as their daughter Rokhl, a late-twenties costume designer for the theater, builds a life for her own in her career, and in the blooming relationship with a new actor to the theater, and as-yet-unrecognized talent, the kind and supportive Misha. There is no big tragedy here, the family continues on, and Misha’s career goes on as well, until his big opening night. If “The Parasite” tends toward the dark and disturbing end of the emotional spectrum, “Meant to Be” ends on a note of resounding possibility for the future - the closest we get to a story with a neat, conclusive ending. Even here, however, Gorshman refuses to fully isolate this moment and insists on reminding us that even though the story may end, the characters and their lives go on:

The family sat talking, reliving the wonderful premiere and its glorious success. Yet even they could not predict what would happen now: the things that were about to be said and written about Misha—the actor who only two years ago was unknown and unnoticed by the greatest minds of the theater world—and what would come of it all (154).

In ending on this note the story seems to be turning its gaze upon us, as readers, to remind us of the impossibility of capturing a life between the pages of a book, the impossibility of us ever gaining full access to the lives, joys, and sorrows of the characters we have spent these small vignetted moments with. In some ways this reflects the contents of the stories themselves, so many of which involve brief, chance meetings, small times spent together, and the inseparable gulf between people with different lives and history, in spite of which they manage to find connection, comfort, and love. This is a collection that demands patience and rereading and rewards it time and time again.

Or, perhaps in this ending Gorshman is reflecting on the possibilities and unknowns of her own practice, the open question of whether she will find the audience that she seems to desire. Read from beginning to end, Faith Jones has built for us a collection that seems intentionally to amplify this emotional uncertainty: the collection guides us through a winding and deeply complex emotional development, and at the same time, clearly parallels the changes of Gorshman’s own life, geographically, politically, and artistically. It concludes, here, with “Meant to Be,” the story of an artist who, despite working diligently and having the support of their loved ones, struggles to find recognition, a story that leaves us just on the cusp of potential success though we have no way of knowing, as we are reminded, “what would come of it all.” It is hard to ignore the poignancy of that message for Gorshman and for the collection itself: like the titular story, Meant to Be is Jones presenting Gorshman to the English-speaking world, as if to say: here, these are her stories, these are her words, and their future is in your hands.

MLA STYLE
Sidky, Sean. “Review of Shira Gorshman's Meant to Be, translated by Faith Jones.” In geveb, February 2024: https://ingeveb.org/articles/review-of-meant-to-be.
CHICAGO STYLE
Sidky, Sean. “Review of Shira Gorshman's Meant to Be, translated by Faith Jones.” In geveb (February 2024): Accessed Apr 22, 2024.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Sidky

Sean Sidky is scholar of Yiddish literature and culture, Jewish responses to catastrophe, poetry and poetics, and American Judaism.