High Doorsteps

Born in 1905 in Lithuania, Shira Gorshman did not begin writing until the late 1930s. By then she had lived in Palestine and Crimea, serving as a member of workers’ collectives in both locales. In Moscow she married the artist Mendel Gorshman and began writing as a response to the creative life there. She continued writing steadily until her death in Israel in 2001, often reflecting on the vulnerability and tenacity of Jewish life in different historical settings. In particular, she investigated women’s roles in Jewish and Soviet cultures and the effect of world events, such as the Holocaust and Jewish settlement in Palestine, on the communist ideals she continued to hold dear, even as she despaired of ever seeing them put into practice.

“High Doorsteps” takes us into the world of Soviet labor communes. These utopian enterprises were not free of the power relations they sought to overturn. In this story, Gorshman shows, through a gendered lens, how both resistance and solidarity are needed to create a more just world.

 

The landowner’s enormous house had made it through the revolution with the windows unbroken, the knobs and hinges still attached to the thick oak doors; but the commune’s young members used just two rooms and the kitchen.

The house was intact but appeared empty and abandoned. You couldn’t see the painted floors through the layers of dust. A cloudy, green-pink color bloomed on the windowpanes. The corners of the ceilings were matted with cobwebs. Wind blew in freely through the doors, lifting up the thin green mattresses and sniffing the old leggings underneath, then flew back out to the breezy steppe.

When they left for the quarry in the morning, they didn’t bother locking the door. It wasn’t that they were careless or forgot. Nobody was going to take their few possessions. The only really useful items were secured. The big pot was concealed in the stove and the table was nailed to the wall. The empty kitchen cupboards no longer needed the heavy, old locks that had done their best to keep the landowner’s pantry safe. The wooden spoon, the military dishes, and the two tin pails were carried to the quarry.

There was no variation from routine. For breakfast they ate anchovies on bread.

For dinner, a thin millet porridge or groats, which they called “shrapnel.” Quarry work was hard, even though the soft Crimean stone was made of seashells and you could saw it like wood. In recent weeks they were finding it hard to work together. Berkovitch had temporarily taken over for the chairman. Berkovitch found more and more of his work was urging the comrades on.

“If we let the kasha burn, the whole revolution suffers! Don’t you know the chairman has gone specifically to find us help? Are we going to let everything go to the dogs because of some food? We’re getting a housekeeper soon. They won’t send just anyone. We just have to be patient. If we keep bungling, we won’t get a single house built before fall! What kind of beginning would that be? There’s nothing else to discuss.”

In any event, the comrades were more astonished and disappointed than relieved.

She arrived with a bulging bag in her right hand, her left hand supporting the bundle hanging in a sling from her left shoulder.

Berkovitch looked over the new arrival and read carefully through the paper she presented to him. He said, “Oh, good. The Yevpatoria party committee knows what we need. What is your name?”

“Golda. He’s Yulik,” she said, blushing as she unwrapped the package in the sling.

The men looked at the tiny, pale pink cheeks, the eyes as blue as his mother’s.

They couldn’t stop looking at him. Berkovitch smiled.

“Lovely. Yulik—is Yulik. As for you, we’ll soon find out what you’re all about.

Here is the key to the pantry. Go to it! There’s a sack of barley groats in there if the mice haven’t got to them first. Some vegetables should be delivered today. Did you get a ride from the station?”

“With a team of four horses,” Golda answered, looking in surprise at her new key.

“What time did you leave Yevpatoria?”

“Four a.m. I was impatient to get started,” Golda answered, watching as the men started streaming out the door.

“That’s just what we need—a bunch of diapers!” Elik remarked as they left, speaking loudly to be heard over the banging of the pails.

“Perhaps Yulik’s maker didn’t like diapers either,” Berkovitch remarked sadly. “Is it not just as Zarathustra said? Sire a baby, and get out as fast as you can!”

Arele joked. They burst out laughing and walked a little faster.

Golda, with her baby on her hip, went from room to room trying to understand why they had chosen to live in the two rooms farthest from the kitchen. By tomorrow she would have the house arranged differently. She hadn’t heard the men’s banter, but if she had it would not have surprised her. The party secretary in Yevpatoria had said almost the same things: “Do you have any idea how much you’ll have to do? Plant a garden, wash diapers, cook food for all the comrades?”

“I can manage all that. The baby won’t be a burden to anybody,” Golda had said.

The party secretary allowed it but gave her a warning. “No funny business!

There’s nothing but men out there. This is a carefully chosen crew.”

“I’m not a fool. Funny business is never a good idea. My baby is nobody’s business but mine,” Golda answered tartly.

She stood now in the kitchen of the carefully chosen, looking at their empty cupboards. She found the barley and quickly made a thin soup. She fed Yulik and herself, put a fire under the huge pot that she had filled with water, and went outside. She didn’t have to wander far to find what she needed. There was wormwood growing nearby. She made several brooms so she could use some for the walls and ceilings and others for the floors. She scrubbed out all the rooms, finally cleaning out the one at the very end for herself. She settled Yulik in there. Since the rooms all led from one into the next, this meant she could keep him in there and herself out of sight, at least until Yulik learned how to climb over the high doorsteps.

She opened all the windows, brought the mattresses outside, and threw out the old leggings.

Yulik’s fierce wail made its way through the house, echoing sharply off the high ceilings. Golda, busy sweeping off the walls, murmured, “Those aren’t pearls of wisdom falling from your lips . . .” and continued with her work. When the walls, sleeping planks, and floors were spotless, she gathered up the aired-out mattresses and put one on the floor of her own room, where Yulik was now fast asleep. She laid out a yellow diaper and swaddled him in it. She kissed his little tush. He had cried himself into a deep slumber, and her kisses didn’t wake him up. She rummaged in her bag for her satin skirt and covered Yulik with it.

She went back to the kitchen. All the surfaces gradually revealed their colors. You could tell what wood the table was made of; the metal doorknobs and hinges sparkled, polished with a crumbled piece of a clay brick. Everything was in order by the time Yulik woke up from his nap. Golda gave both him and herself a quick wash, then put on a dark blue tunic with an angled, standing collar and the skirt she had covered Yulik with for his nap.

When the commune’s men returned from the quarry, they only stepped inside the door before they stopped, barely recognizing their home. The house smelled clean and fresh, with a faint scent of wormwood. They looked silently around, each in turn. They gradually drifted through the kitchen to the dining room. Arele was the first to regain his voice.

“Dialectical materialism teaches us that floors are painted just before the working class goes to hell in a handbasket . . .”

“Stop goofing around,” Elik interrupted.

“What are you so upset about? You’re the one who was complaining about diapers,” said Vitke, who was usually quiet. He was going to remind Elik of something else but clammed up when he caught sight of Golda.

“For tonight, you’ll have to lend me a mattress,” Golda said, looking around at the men. “I’ve already pulled up some hay to make my own, and it’s drying now.”

“Everything here is yours,” said Berkovitch, smiling and spreading his arms wide as if the house were full of beautiful things.

“Not mine but ours,” Golda remarked, going quietly to her room at the far end of the house.

It was late that night when Shimen returned from Yevpatoria. He brought with him a big barrel of live flounder, oil, millet, and barley flour. When the men awoke before dawn the next morning, breakfast was ready for them. A bowl of kasha stood at each place; fried fish lay on the upturned pot lid in the center of the table. Both large pails were filled with flatbreads to take along for lunch.

As she saw the men out that morning, she told them, “From now on, we’ll eat at six o’clock every evening. Please don’t be late. I can’t promise, but I’m going to try to make gefilte fish tonight, if I can grind the nicks out of the hatchet.”

At the quarry the commune members couldn’t stop talking about Golda. Yankl chewed his flatbread thoughtfully and was moved to share his opinion. He was the one they called “the leaden bird.”

“Golda has had her share of troubles; that’s why she works so hard!”

Borekh cut him off. “You haven’t had a life of luxury either, but you’re perfectly happy to let the next guy over pull out three stones in the time it takes you to pull out one!”

“Agreed. A lazybones doesn’t come out ahead. But I’ve never seen anything like her. She’s a dynamo. How does she get it all done?” Berkovitch wondered.

“Things are going to be different now!” exclaimed Munye happily. He had sat silent until now, but his gray eyes were narrow and gleamed like the blade of a new knife.

“I wish you good luck, but be careful! And that’s enough jaw-flapping anyway,” Berkovitch said, then yelled, “Let’s get some rocks out of this quarry!”

The talk stopped. Then the only sounds were gasps for air and the dull thud of stones as the commune’s workers piled them up in regular, square heaps.

Golda planted her garden behind the house. Soon the men had green onions and spring radishes to take with their lunch. Golda was busy from dawn to dusk. If the delivery of produce was delayed, she would pick up Yulik and run to the farm across the way, never returning empty-handed. She was friendly, comradely, but restrained. After work on Friday, each commune member found clean, mended clothes waiting for him along with freshly cut pieces of soap beside their basins of steaming hot water. Yulik’s little body was covered in blue bruises even though Golda padded the high doorsteps with scraps of old quilted jackets to keep him from hurting himself.

Sometimes one of her comrades would say, “How does this all get done? How do you get through all this work so quickly?” She would answer, “We need to give a communal thanks to the stove for being big enough to handle everything!”

She wasn’t wrong. Pretty much as soon as the fire was going in the stove, the food was cooked and ready for the rest of the day. Golda put on two huge pots of kasha with two tins of anchovies. She never used up their oil supply because she would save the grease from the tins of fish. Sometimes she would take a skinny piece of bread and dunk it in the fish oil, sprinkle some salt on it, and give it to Yulik to chew on. He grew so healthy on this diet that he stopped needing to nurse. The extra weight made it hard for him to get up over the doorsteps, which was no bad thing either.

Once when Shimen brought the produce he also brought Golda a heavy clay toy on thin legs. Golda stared at it trying to figure out what it could be. “Not a camel, not a lion, not a buffalo, not a horse . . . oh, it’s a deer!”

“Zarathustra agrees,” Arele said, making a pair of horns for the deer out of matchsticks.

Yulik loved his toy. He didn’t even try to climb over the doorsteps now. Golda would find him napping peacefully on one of the quilted jackets, the toy in his arms.

There was more free time now. The commune members would walk to the nearby farms after dinner—even Golda, when she had time. She carried Yulik and got the chance to chat with the local women. She already knew some of them, and one, Zara, was becoming a friend. Zara had been to the commune one day and seen Golda’s bed but said nothing. A few days later she returned with a pillow and a blanket. Golda insisted it wasn’t necessary, and even that she would strain her neck since she wasn’t used to pillows, but Zara wouldn’t take them back.

And it came to pass that shortly thereafter, the pillows and blanket witnessed the most extraordinary event.

 

Golda’s days were filled with labor. Hands worked, feet moved, the mind ticked over. Occasionally she took Yulik out to the steppe to watch the birds rise suddenly from their hidden nests among the grass, or to look up at seagulls that had flown all the way from the sea. They were watching one day when a seagull dove to snatch up a lizard, then flew away screaming shrilly, as if the lizard had attacked the seagull and not the other way around. “Nothing new there: the butcher screams for help,” she mused, letting her thoughts drift. “Just like from two bodies you most often make a third body and almost never make one soul.

That’s just the way it is.” She was grateful that her new comrades were men of few words, quiet and reserved. It didn’t offend her when Berkovitch said, as he often did, “Take a break, Golda dear. I’ll look after Yulik.” She would hand over Yulik and think, “You can’t learn to be a leader. You’ve either got it or you don’t.”

And it was just then—once Golda had navigated the choppy waters and learned to live in a house full of strangers, from time to time even looking in the last broken mirror in the house to check she hadn’t aged too much from all her troubles—that one more trouble came to find her.

Golda was sleeping as she always did, deeply and restfully, the way the young sleep when they’re bone-tired. She woke suddenly, feeling constricted. She tried to sit up. Strong arms, hot breath, and crude words pushed her back down.

“Stop fighting. You’re not a schoolgirl.”

Hands wandered over her body; hot, heaving breaths pushed their way into her terrified mouth . . . She gathered her strength and bit down hard on the thing that disgusted her most.

He slid weakly off the bed. Golda grabbed Yulik and jumped over the body on the floor. Standing in the middle of the room she began spitting out words, which reverberated like an avalanche in the soft silence of the night. “You animal! You vile beast! Get out! Get out!” She screamed the words from her wide-open mouth, sobbing. She pulled Yulik more tightly to her breast.

In the morning Golda did her work, as always. She said not a word to anyone, looked at no one, stood stiff and grim. As the men were leaving for work, she saw them head off for the quarry, all except Munye. He walked the other way, toward town and the train station. She understood then. Her comrades had seen clearly, and rendered their verdict.

 

 

FAITH JONES is a librarian and adjunct professor of library science in Vancouver, Canada. She researches Yiddish culture with a focus on women’s history and was a 2015 Yiddish Book Center translation fellow. She is a frequent contributor to Pakn Treger.