Ethnographic art of Mendel Gorshman, a native of the town of Barysaw.

While preparing for the Shtetlfest expedition, one of the project participants accidentally found Mendel Gorshman’s drawing “Wedding Dance” (1926) /1/ and paid attention to it. According to the comments of Walter Zev Feldman (USA), researcher of the Yiddish dancing and musical tradition, the drawing is very close to the truth, the author pays a lot of attention to body movements and plastique. 

That is, Gorshman in his drawing pinpointed in great detail the valuable thing that we do not have a video chronicle about and that is difficult to convey in a textual description – the expression and position of the hands of the Jewish dancers, the character of the peculiar Jewish gesticulation and facial expressions. This is a great finding, because until now world art has few high-quality examples of Jewish dance images. Most often we see pictures like memes, and usually they are memes of Hasidic dances. Why this happens and, in general, where this view of the Jewish dance tradition came from can be learned from the essay in two parts (refer to the links at the end of the text).

Our group became interested in the artist and his story. We learned that the artist, who is known as the illustrator of the books of Babel and Shalom Aleichem and who is called the “Jewish history of Russia”, was born in Belarus. In the small town of Nova-Barysaw, at the beginning of the 20th century. He left to study painting in Russia around 1920, but in 1926-1928 he had a trip to Belarus on the occasion of the creation of a series of graduation color autolithographs “The Town”, dedicated to everyday life of the then Litvak (meaning the former territories of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania) shtetls. Probably, the drawing accidentally found by our participant us from this Belarusian period.

The search for the original picture led us to the P.M. Dogadin Astrakhan Art Gallery (Russia), where we were told that several of Mendel Gorshman’s “dance” pictures are indeed in the funds of their institution, including the “Dance of Mature Men” (1926) /2/, and also that: “The work has not been published before. The information about the author we have is the most ordinary, no one has studied this collection in detail.” 

We hope that the personality of the artist and his work (with the help of this article as well) will become the focus of attention of local ethnographers and local historians.

Because for now, these drawings are the only visual sample of Jewish (Yiddish) dances that we found during our expedition to the former Jewish towns in the summer of 2021. And not only us. Unfortunately, the ethnographic records of professional academic researchers working throughout the 20th (and early 21st) century are almost entirely devoid of recorded visual examples of Jewish dance. And we know from research sources that the Jewish dance was lost during the 20th century. Therefore, these images, made from nature, are a truly valuable artistic and ethnographic sample for those who are trying to search for and revive the Jewish dance tradition.

The Shtetlfest project has received official rights to publish digital copies of two Mendel Gorshman lithographs, the originals of which are in Astrakhan. 

A few more digital copies of Gorshman’s drawings were given to us free of charge and allowed to be published in the media manual by the National Art Museum of the Republic of Belarus. 

Thanks to our museum, we have a portrait of Mendel Gorshman’s mother, although we still know nothing about this woman. /3/ Except for the fact that she definitely lived in Nova-Barysaw at the end of the 19th century and gave birth to the artist Mendel Gorshman. 

The images of the city of Barysaw in the 1930s are also interesting for us. /4, 5/ Belarusian art of the 1920s-1930s is not widely represented. But the works created during this period are also worthy of attention as ethnographic material, since many artists at that time were participants in the local history movement and took part in various expeditions during which they made sketches. We have little biographical information about Mendel Gorshman. But the dates on the drawings made from nature indicate that the artist visited his native places, and perhaps we still have a chance to find relatives, neighbors or someone who knew his family in Barysaw and will be able to tell us something about where Gorshman’s “dancing” drawings were made and who was pictured in them.

Pay attention to the portrait of Gorshman’s wife, a Yiddish writer. /6/ 

Shira is also a Litvak (Lithuanian Jew), like Mendel. She was born in Kaunas and met Mendel in the early 1930s in Birobidzhan. And it is to her that an interesting piece of the story belongs, where the essence of the Jewish dance is very subtly and aptly described. Shira tells an almost autobiographical story about Hanke who returned to her parents’ family during the Soviet occupation on the eve of the Second World War, was rejected by her relatives, and especially by her mother, because of the departure of the “prodigal daughter” from traditions. The family is experiencing difficult emotions that cannot be expressed in words. The situation is tense. And instead of words, Hanke’s uncle starts dancing to his own singing and calls his sister, Hanke’s mother, and the others to join him in dance in the center of the room. And this dance is at the same time a forgiveness, a blessing, and an inexpressible joy. The short novel is called “Unspoken Hearts.” (In Found Treasures: Stories by Yiddish Women Writers, edited by Frieda Forman et al. Toronto: 1994.)

The Shtetlfest project is very grateful to Alena Lyashkevich, Paveil Hanchar, Valery Yermakovych and Alyaksey Ivanou for their help in working with the ethnographic material: to Zev Feldman for his expertise on Gorshman’s “dance” drawings; and to the P.M. Dogadin Astrakhan Art Gallery (Russia) and the National Art Museum (Belarus) for their cooperation.

*Some dates of Mendel Gorshman’s life and work:

November 2, 1902 – the artist was born in Nova-Barysaw (Belarus), died on January 2, 1972 in Moscow (Russia).

1920-1921 – received his first professional knowledge in Kostroma (Russia), where he studied painting, drawing and wood block printing in the Free Art Workshops.

1925 – the first exhibitions, sources say that they took place in Belarus.

1926-1928 – traveled to Belarus and made a graduation project of “The Town” color lithographs.

1931 – during a trip to Birobidzhan, he met his future wife, Shira Gorshman, who was not yet a writer, but a lonely widow with three children.

1966 and 1977 – only two personal exhibitions. Both took place in Moscow, the last one after the artist’s death.

2020 – the artist’s works were included in the Album of Ethnographic Drawings “Paradise and Pain in the Song Land… Belarus through the eyes of artists of the 1920s and 1930s”. (Compiled by Natalya Martynava, ed. Minsk: Belarusian Encyclopedia named after Petrus Brovka, 2020)  

** About the artist’s wife, Yiddish writer Shira Gorshman

***About the popularization of folk traditions and how the Jewish dance became a meme:

part 1, part 2

****About scientific studies of Yiddish dance and klezmer music: book and workshops