Shulamis Yelin came into my life at my grandmother's shiva. With auburn hair, bright pink lipstick and a multi-colored patchwork jacket, she didn't look like any other "old" person who had come to pay her respects and clearly that's the way she liked it. She didn't talk in hushed tones and she didn't say false things like "it's going to get better." After the minyan was over she asked me to walk her home. She did this like a girl of sixteen offering to take her girlfriend out for milkshakes to save her from too much family and too much death. I thought I should be kind and walk home this 89 year old woman whose hands made me think of my savta [grandmother].
That night in Shulamis' apartment I was, for the first time, swept into her world. She was eager to dazzle me, her audience of one, with her wisdom, eccentricity and particularly with the tokens of her fame. She wanted to show me all the goodies that cluttered her small apartment because each one carried a story and an opportunity to impart some important lesson or idea. So I sat and she performed. There were trinkets from Israel where she had taught English at Hebrew University in the 1960s and where, I would later learn, she had had an affair at age 58 with a much younger man. She showed me dolls from Mexico where she had gone to a health spa, Inuit figurines from when she had gone to teach children in northern Quebec, framed letters of praise from celebrated authors and Nobel Prize-winners, each of which she read to me aloud to confirm her place in the world of arts and letters. She showed me dark and mystical paintings by her artist daughter who lived in California. She urged me to consider talking to my plants as she did. She unwrapped dozens of miniature glistening sculptures she had made. They looked like mother of pearl but they were made of fish bones from meals Shulamis had eaten by herself at the little linoleum-topped table. I could see her at the fish market with bright lipstick explaining to the man behind the counter that she needed something particularly bony so that she could have a good dinner and good materials for her art. This was Shulamis, turning garbage into beauty and proud of it. As Shulamis said so often, "It ain't what you got, but what you make of what you got."
Shulamis's commanding voice filled up the cluttered apartment and I could see how much she loved an audience. It hardly mattered if I was one woman in her kitchen, or a group of children on a frozen plain, or a gathering of old Yiddishists downtown. She was holding court, spinning tales, imparting wisdom. I was struck by Shulamis' keen desire to be heard and seen, to be honored and to be loved. It was easy to oblige because she was entertaining, and singular. She vacillated between self-deprecation and self-importance. But mostly she was just a great storyteller. Her mind was always a step ahead. She wanted to talk about altered states of consciousness, the importance of folklore, the sorry state of our world. She had so much to say. And I sensed not enough people to say it to. One daughter, far away. An independent woman who raised an independent woman. And the circle of progressive Yiddishists of which Shulamis had been a key part – so many of them were gone.
A little later she took out a stack of poems, hundreds of hand-typed unpublished poems. She had a book coming out soon and it had been so hard to select which ones to put in it. She had a graduate student who was helping her but did I want to take a look? Let her know if I liked them; help her figure out an order; separate the ones I thought were the best. I had no idea how to do this but Shulamis's confidence somehow spilled over into me. Now we were two Jewish female poets, two generations between us, sharing tea and planning a future of collaboration. It was getting late (at least for me) and as I hugged Shulamis's slight frame I promised I would call her when I returned to Montreal – we would meet and talk about her poems.
That evening in September 2001 wasn't the first time I had met Shulamis. Though I had lived in Montreal for only three full years, my parents and grandparents lived there most of their lives. Montreal Jews know Shulamis. In the course of writing this article I have talked to many relocated Montrealers who have been shocked to discover that Shulamis died last June. But I have never been met with a blank stare when mentioning Shulamis to former Montrealers. It is as if they assumed that she would always remain alive and part of the Montreal they could visit whenever they were missing "the old country." I know the feeling. Shulamis's short colorful figure climbing a snow bank to reach the Jewish Public library, or calling out "Rabbi, Rabbi" even after the Torah discussion was over on a Saturday morning at the Reconstructionist synagogue, was somehow reassuring to Montreal Jews, especially those who now live elsewhere. It was as if we could rest a little easier knowing Shulamis was still living, writing, teaching, and keeping alive in her signature way the progressive Yiddish-speaking world of first-generation Montreal Jews. She did this through her writing but also through generous sharing of time and money with the organizations she cared about – the Jewish Peoples and Peretz Schools, the Jewish Public Library, Na'amat Pioneer Women, and Dorshei Emet: The Reconstructionist Synagogue of Montreal. In the way she lived her life, Shulamis kept alive something else as well: the possibility of being an older Jewish woman in a different way – non-conformist, feisty, relishing chutzpah , unafraid to interrupt, take up space, impose her voice or ideas whenever she could.
When I was back in Montreal just a few months later Shulamis was in the hospital; she had had a heart attack. Her body was weakened but her spirit was insistently strong. "Growing old isn't for sissies," she once wrote. She wanted to heal quickly – there were things to get done.
That was the last time I saw Shulamis. Though she did get out of the hospital briefly, she never fully recovered. Shulamis died on June 24, 2002, less than 10 months after I had visited her apartment. Our relationship was over before it really began. I would have to get to know her through newspaper clippings, her writing, and conversations with those who loved her and knew her well.
Shulamis Borodensky Yelin was born in Montreal on April 12, 1913. Her parents had emigrated from Chernobyl three years earlier. Her father died in an electrical accident when Shulamis was 10 weeks old. Although her mother Vichna soon remarried, she became too ill to care for her Shulamis, who was then raised by her bubbe and zaida [grandparents] for the first three years of her life. It was in that beloved house that she was first embraced by yiddishkeit and a love for the Jewish holidays. Soon after Shulamis and her mother and stepfather moved into their own house, a sister Deena was born. Shulamis had been loathe to leave the bustling home of her bubbe and zaida for the quiet and secular atmosphere of her parents' house. She greeted her little sister with great enthusiasm and adoration, but this relationship was cut short when Deenie died of cancer at an early age.
Shulamis's early experiences of loss certainly added a layer of sadness to her life, which hovered gently below the surface of her humor and wit. She expresses this just as she lived it, in a poem titled "Mourning" in which she creates a litany of loss but chooses to undercut it with rhyme and a bold ending: "I've mourned for dreams that crumbled/hope that melted gray./ There's no more room for mourning in my heart:/I'll dress in red today."
In one of Shulamis's published stories she writes about herself as a young Jewish girl in Montreal who comes home one day shocked and infuriated because her teacher has insisted that Shakespeare, whom she calls Shekspir, was not a Jew. Indeed Shulamis grew up in a world in which it made sense for her to claim any genius writer as a member of her tribe. And she was emboldened by such beliefs. She proudly claimed her heritage and used it to nourish her life's work.
Shulamis had hoped to become a journalist, but coming of age during the Depression, she, like so many women of her generation, directed her talents into a more practical and accessible field for women; she became a teacher. In the course of her life Shulamis taught every grade from nursery school to university, and at one point served as the assistant principal of Young Israel Day School. After graduating from Macdonald College in 1930, she moved to New York and studied at Columbia. She was offered a job writing scripts for radio but decided to return home to Montreal. She married Ezra Yelin in 1938 and began working as a teacher. Later she had a daughter, Gila, whom she raised as a single mother after the premature death of her husband. Shulamis earned a masters degree in English from University of Montreal while teaching in both the public schools and in Yiddish supplementary schools. She was awarded the honor of being named a master teacher by the Protestant School Board of Greater Montreal.
It is not entirely clear what led Shulamis to write. In 1963 she was asked to present a short memoir at the fiftieth anniversary of the Peretz Shule, and she found that writing it – and being well received by an audience – engaged her. The more significant impetus for her writing, though, was her experience of "re-borning" after a serious brush with death.
In 1969 Shulamis was in a near-fatal car crash that kept her in and out of the hospital for two years, and changed the course of her life. Shulamis recalled coming out of a coma and realizing that she had been offered a choice: she could decide that life was too painful and accept its early conclusion. But she did not. The avenue of calm and peace and lack of pain was the path towards death. As she says in one of her poems, she decided instead to "say Yes to Life/and meet him in the market-place,/ openly."
During this period of battling with mortality and her own body's slow recovery, Shulamis grew fierce in her insistence on life. In the introduction to her first published collection, Seeded in Sinai , she explains, "Suddenly I was writing. Day after day I watched my fingers move the pen across the page. It was as if a sluice had been wrenched open, and years of accumulated pain and impression rushed to be released." Shulamis had kept a journal as a girl but she found herself plagued by the question of whether to write in Yiddish or English. Now she realized that this conundrum had held her back from taking up writing more earnestly at a young age.
While Shulamis' poetry and prose grew mostly from her experiences, Shulamis' interests were wide ranging and her thirst for knowledge unquenchable. She was interested in humor as a cultural heritage; she studied folk tales and proverbs and she sought out multicultural exchange on these issues, both in Montreal and her travels abroad. She deeply admired the work of I.B. Singer and Yehuda Amichai. She enjoyed sharing her particular perspective and history with both children and adults, and she published a syllabus for use in Canadian schools entitled The Jew in Canada: 1760-1960 .
But for Shulamis, preserving the past didn't mean giving it full reign. Shulamis loved yiddishkeit and the Jewish community was her family. Although poetically she was drawn to midrash and often remarked that she had an angel sitting on her shoulder, in her day-to-day life she had little patience for a supernatural approach to religion and considered herself an agnostic. She may have been "Seeded in Sinai" but it was as much the shattering of the tablets as the moment of revelation that she considered her legacy. She was thus drawn to classical Reconstructionism and indeed was a founding member of Montreal's Reconstructionist synagogue, which in its day was seen as a radical slap in the face of traditional Montreal Jewry.
Not only did Shulamis love Judaism, she also loved her city. She appeared frequently on Canadian public radio and television reading from her work and talking about Montreal and its cultural life. Her book of short stories, Shulamis: A Montreal Childhood , is beloved by many, particularly those who share a love of Montreal and its Jewish life of the twenties and thirties. As Saul Bellow wrote, "I read [Yelin's] stories in a kind of nostalgic ecstasy." For Shulamis the stories were a way to pay homage to a moment in history and to attempt to preserve its sounds, smells and teachings. Shulamis was keenly aware that the "sense of loss" in her was not just personal but communal. As she wrote, "An era has passed away."
In "Prayer for the Finite I," Shulamis writes, "Let me taste the veritable sweetness of my own worth/I, who am created in your image." I only had the chance to taste a kernel of Shulamis's eccentric sweetness. How deeply I wish I had taken the opportunity to do an oral history of Shulamis while she was alive. But I didn't. So I am left with this taste. Yet I think this is how Shulamis experienced life, and how she wanted her friends and admirers to experience her: grateful for each day and each experience, and always hungry for a bit more. Her "Prayer" concludes,
Lead me to sufficient sustenance
of the spirit
to assuage my hunger,
that I, in turn, may lend a hand/
to those who know my own today's uncertain heart.