The Openly Polyamorous Family That Shocked Tel Aviv in the '20s

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At home in Tel Aviv, from left: Leo, Shulamit and Gurit with their grandchildren.
At home in Tel Aviv, from left: Leo, Shulamit and Gurit with their grandchildren.Credit: Reproduction by Meged Gozani
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman
Shany Littman

Among the passengers on the S.S. Umbria, a ship carrying German Jewish immigrants that arrived at Jaffa port on October 22, 1920, were the members of the Kaufmann family. They were a singular family unit. There was Leo, the father, and Gertrude (afterward Gurit), the mother, with their 10-month-old son Raphael – and there was also Leo’s other wife, Shulamit, a young physician. Leo was 25; Gertrude, 23; Shulamit, 24. Ardent Zionists all, members of the Blau Weiss (Blue White) Jewish youth organization in Germany, they had come to help create a new society in the Land of Israel. They were also determined to discard their parents’ Old World bourgeois values: not only the comforts of life in Europe but also traditional, conservative conceptions about the family unit that, in their view, were unsuited to the new community they wanted to help forge.

The three lived together for the next 40 years, first as members of the agricultural-pioneering movement, afterward both as part of Tel Aviv's bohemia and as stalwarts of Zionist activism. As prominent symbols of a new Israeli society, they did not hide their unusual way of life and made no apologies for it. 

Was the ménage à trois an ideological matter for them? No, according to Leo and Shulamit’s daughter, Avishag Kadman-Zahavi, who is today 97. “They decided that this was the right way,” she says. “Both women were in love with Father and Father was in love with both of them. It was a solution to a particular situation. We didn’t know any other families like ours.” On the other hand, she adds, “The ideology then, after World War I, was one of freedom. They were the first hippies.”

Kadman-Zahavi recalls feeling no hostility from her immediate environment as a child; the children did not make fun of her, nor did she encounter criticism of her family's unusual structure.  “Maybe they talked about us behind our back – I don’t know.”

Were both Gurit and Shulami your mothers, from your point of view?

“There was never any confusion. I was Shulamit’s daughter and the others were Gurit’s children, but it was one family.”

“For me it was natural – almost,” says Ayala Kadman-Goren, 94, Leo and Gurit’s younger daughter. “I always knew that at home, Father had a first wife, Gurit, and a second wife, Shulamit, who introduced herself as Leo’s second wife. They were not ashamed of it, and treated it as something that was allowed. But when we started to learn Bible, in second grade, and the teacher said that in biblical times some men had more than one wife, I would be ashamed and lower my head. I had the feeling that it was different with other people.”

No girdles or bras

Leo Kaufmann was born in Mulheim, Germany, to a well-off family that owned a leather factory. His mother died when he was a child. Avishag relates that Leo was the first in his family to attend university. He studied law, economics and history at the universities of Bonn, Heidelberg and Leipzig. At age 15, he met Israel Feinberg, a pioneer of the First Aliyah (wave of Jewish immigration, 1882-1903) and one of the founders of the community of Rishon Letzion. According to his daughter, it was due to that encounter that he became a Zionist. In 1918, Kaufman helped found the Hehalutz (“the Pioneer”) Jewish youth movement in Germany. “It was a total revolution. He was from a large family that had lived in Germany for many generations and was not in the least Zionist. From his point of view, Zionism was a rebellion against the parents,” says Avishag.

Leo met Gertrude Lowenstein at a family wedding. She had been born into a wealthy, educated family, in Leipzig in 1897. Her great-grandfather was Rabbi Salomon Herxheimer, one of the founders of Liberal, or Reform, Judaism in Germany. Gertrude, too, was progressive from an early age and believed, for example, in the equality of the sexes. In her youth she joined the Wandervogel movement, which espoused a lifestyle as close to nature as possible. She was a dancer and choreographer, and she taught dancing and physical education. Eventually she became a pioneer of ethnic folk dancing in Israel and was awarded the Israel Prize for her efforts.

Gurit Kadman.Credit: Reproduction by Meged Gozani

“She wanted to be contrary about absolutely everything.” Ayala recalls. “She would say: If everyone is wearing high heels, I will go barefoot or wear sandals. If everyone wears a girdle and a bra, I will be without a girdle and a bra.”

After meeting Leo, Gertrude began to be attracted to Zionist ideas. They joined Blau Weiss together and participated in an agricultural training course as preparation for immigration to Palestine. Gertrude gave birth to their first child, Raphael, a few months before they made the move. Were they ever officially married? None of their children ever saw wedding pictures or a marriage certificate, and everyone insists that it wasn’t important. 

“Gurit could’ve cared less about a wedding,” Avishag explains, “and anyway, she wanted to do everything backward. But because it was Germany, and she was possibly already pregnant, they may have been officially married.” 

Both women, Gertrude-Gurit and Shulamit, bore the surname “Kaufmann,” which after Israel’s establishment they Hebraized to “Kadman.” Gurit initiated the surname change, and everyone was enthusiastic about switching from a name that meant “salesperson” in German, to a name whose Hebrew root refers to "progress," as Gurit emphasized. On the same occasion, she took a first name no one had ever heard before: Gurit. 

Leo met Shulamit Epstein when Gert-Gurit was already pregnant. Shulamit had been in 1896 to a traditionalist Jewish family that arrived in the German city of Elberfeld from Riga,  Latvia. According to Avishag, what enchanted her father when he first met her mother was her Hebrew name: “Mother studied medicine and received a prize as the outstanding student in the whole of Germany. An article about the award appeared with her Hebrew name, Shulamit, which was quite rare then. Father, who was already a Zionist, read it in the paper with admiration, and afterward they met.” 

Nili Tal, an Israeli filmmaker who in 1981 made a film about Gurit Kadman after she received the Israel Prize, recalls Kadman telling her that Leo wanted to leave her after meeting and falling in love with Shulamit – but Gurit said there was no need, that she could join them. And so it was.

Triangular family

After arriving in the Land of Israel and spending a few weeks in Tel Aviv, the Kaufmanns, together with the Blau Weiss group with whom they arrived from Germany, moved to Heftziba, a malaria-ridden farm near Hadera. The movement had organized a commune there ahead of establishment of a kibbutz nearby, in the Jezreel Valley. Gurit and Leo’s second son, Amnon, was born on the farm in early 1922. Avishag, Shulamit’s only child, was born at the end of that year, after Kibbutz Heftziba was founded. 

As prominent symbols of a new Israeli society, they did not hide their unusual way of life and made no apologies for it.

“The constant life together led to friction and clashes between people of differing nature,” Leo Kaufmann observed in his memoirs about kibbutz life. “Each of us had hours in which we yearned for an individual life, far from any type of collaborative endeavor.”

According to a letter that Gurit sent her parents back in Germany, which is quoted in a family volume written by Amnon, it seems that parents were under the impression that the family’s singular way of life was not totally accepted by all the kibbutz members. Gurit vehemently denied these rumors, writing them on January 29, 1924: “Beloved parents! I know how much you worry about me due to the rumors… All your worries are groundless. There were no fateful decisions that I need to clarify, as Father said. Leo and I continue to be connected as always – likewise with both Shulamit and Leo, and with Shulamit and me. The rumors you’ve heard, according to which the group took certain steps because of the relationships between us and decided to expel Shulamit and Leo, but let me stay, have not a word of truth to them… The truth is: We are leaving the group in favor of the Gdud Ha’avoda [Work Battalion]. It is the country’s largest and most important communist group, which today numbers hundreds of young people, is growing all the time, has branches in all the cities, and its main settlement is [Kibbutz] Tel Yosef.”

From subsequent correspondence, it emerges that Gurit’s parents looked askance at the triangular family structure of Gurit, Leo and Shulamit. Gurit wrote them that Leo was to visit Central Europe in order to promote the Work Battalion and that she would be happy to join him and meet them in Germany, if they would pay her fare: “You informed me that it would be best to meet you in Italy and go back with you to Germany. That was on the assumption that Leo and I were not living together peacefully, but I can’t do you a favor like that – since our relationship is as good as ever – for you, that changes things. Do you want me even in this situation? Please let me know immediately.”

Gurit’s ideological background in the Wandervogel youth movement, from which the Jewish movement Blau Weiss sprang, might explain her freewheeling approach to relationships and sexuality. 

“Wandervogel was a broad movement with all manner of peculiarities and oddness,” observes Prof. Ofer Ashkenazi, director of the Koebner-Minerva Center for German History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “But there were also many elements that members of youth movements in Israel would be familiar with: the approach to nature outings as a means to create a new society; the thought of getting to know the country’s byways as a value in its own right, which signifies and creates a tie to the ‘authentic,’ natural qualities of the nation-state; and the feeling of rebelling against the generation of the parents. 

“Wandervogel offered the technical possibility of sexual and spiritualistic experiments, if only because the young people were far from their parents and were prepared to ‘rebel’ against bourgeois institutions.”

Na’ama Zahava-Ely, Avishag’s daughter, recalls Gurit telling her that on kibbutz, at least, her behavior was considered normative: “She said that all her girlfriends always behaved very freely. It was a commune, so where, exactly, did the boundary in personal relationships pass?” 

Kadman with his daughter Ayala Goren.Credit: Reproduction by Meged Gozani

Shaul Vardi, who was born on Kibbutz Heftziba many years after the departure of the Kaufmann family, says that kibbutz children from Avishag’s generation didn’t always know who their father was. There were also stories, Vardi says, about Gurit organizing nude swims at the Sakhne park (today the Gan Hashelosha National Park), and about a nudist group that took shape as a result.

In 1925, following the move to Tel Yosef, also located in the Jezreel Valley, Leo was sent by the Labor Battalion as an envoy to work with Zionist youth in Austria and Czechoslovakia; Gurit traveled with him to Austria with her sons. Shulamit and Avishag also went to Europe, but spent most of their time in Germany, where Shulamit completed her medical studies at the University of Bonn. That same year Gurit’s daughter Ayala was born. After a year in Europe, the family returned to Tel Yosef, but things did not go smoothly there.

“They didn’t integrate well into Tel Yosef,” Avishag says. “Especially the mothers. [Being on Tel Yosef] was an ideological thing for Leo, but Mother and Gurit remained connected to the group on Heftziba.”

At this time, the Histadrut Labor Federation offered Leo a job managing the organization in charge of workers’ neighborhoods, a senior position that required relocation. In 1927, the family moved to Haifa and the following year to Tel Aviv. For two years, the parents and children lived in rented houses, before moving into the new home they built for themselves, in 1930.

Exercising in the nude

The two-story house on Shalag Street in Tel Aviv had a vegetable garden and it overlooked the seashore. Each of the adults had a corner of their own – larger quarters for Gurit and Shulamit, and a smaller nook for Leo. The four children shared a big room on the second floor, and there was also a guest room. For ideological reasons, Leo absolutely refused to have a house larger than 100 square meters and was dead set against having a living room. 

Avishag: “In his parents’ home in Germany, there was a salon with armchairs and sofas and tables, which were always covered with white sheets; they were removed only when guests came over. The rest of the time the family lived in the kitchen. So the Kadman house didn’t have a living room. 

“On the other hand,” she notes, “despite the distance from Germany, the hatred for the bourgeois and the sultry climate in the Promised Land, Leo made a point of showing up at all family meals wearing a suit and tie, even at home.

Even without a living room, the family did a great deal of entertaining. Friday evenings at the Kaufmann-Kadman residence were known far and wide in Tel Aviv during the period of the British Mandate. In a home movie shot in 1936, during a visit by Gurit’s parents, the Kaufmann-Kadman house looks cheerful and brimming with activity. The children, happy and tanned sabras, are seen working together in the blooming garden; playing the piano, the violin and the recorder; doing exercise with Gurit on the roof; and eating oranges the Israeli way – without knife and fork, faces smeared with juice – to the consternation of the straitlaced visitors from Germany. In the most amusing part of the movie, the family serves the grandfather from Leipzig a dish of olives. He tries to eat one for the first time in his life, but is unable to swallow it.

'Both women were in love with Father and Father was in love with both of them. It was a solution to a particular situation.'

The Kaufmann-Kadman family was well known in the city, and everyone was aware that it was a home where a man lived with two women. “The whole country talked about it. Novels were written about Gurit, Shulamit and Leo. Everyone knew about it,” says Avishag, recalling that the parents of her future husband, Amotz Zahavi – a founder of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel – were put off by the connection with the famously permissive family. “When he told his parents about us and said he would like to bring me home, they said it was out of the question, you won’t marry anyone from that family.”

Leo often traveled abroad to attend Zionist congresses in Europe, and conferences about housing. Gurit gave private gymnastics lessons on the home's flat roof, which had ladders, climbing ropes and other equipment. In the summer she taught swimming in the Mediterranean, as well as folk dancing at the Ben Shemen youth village. For her part, Shulamit worked for a time as a physician in Ben Shemen, but mostly was a homemaker.

Grandson Yoram Kadman, Amnon’s son, remembers that the coed exercise classes led by Gurit were conducted in the nude, for ideological reasons. “From her point of view, it was the natural way to exercise. Nudity was not a cause for shame – that was how it was done in ancient Greece. Some people wondered about it, there were parents who considered it somewhat odd, but the Tel Aviv bohemian circle of those days accepted it.”

One of Gurit’s grandsons, Ayala’s son Amos Goren, served in the Israel Defense Forces Sayeret Matkal commando unit and took part in the Entebbe operation. During his childhood, he says, he spent many hours in the home of Gurit and Shulamit when visiting from the United States, where he grew up, during summer vacations. 

Goren: “It was like a very-well organized summer camp. We took turns in the morning making breakfast and clearing the table, followed by morning activity and homework, and afterward we would practice playing our musical instruments and put on shows. It was important for Gurit for there to be a framework and substance. She wanted to expose us to all kinds of things.”

Goren did not know any other families with two mothers, or of two grandmas living with the same grandpa, but he does remember that no one made a fuss over it: “The whole dynamic there was peculiar. It wasn’t altogether clear what was going on and where Leo was and where they were. Leo was respectable and somewhat removed, not the type to hug grandchildren and be all lovey-dovey. He died when I was 8. 

“Shulamit offered a foundation of stability; she made it a home more than Gurit and Leo did. Gurit had something very special in terms of openness and shamelessness. I remember that at 18 I took a shower in her house, and she came in and said: Wow, what a gorgeous guy. That was my grandmother. Instead of glancing away and apologizing, she said something that made it natural and open and not embarrassing.”

Even in terms of Tel Aviv’s bohemian society, which allowed itself to behave in ways others did not, this family was an unusual case, says sociologist and historian Debby Bernstein. 

“[The actress] Hanna Rovina also had a child outside of wedlock in that period, but that doesn’t mean it was accepted or that other women who bore children out of wedlock didn’t suffer certain sanctions. What the elite could do, doesn’t attest to what was permissible as a general norm.”

Ayala Goren, Leo and Gurit's youngest daughter.Credit: Meged Gozani

Two women, two roles

Gurit’s children had excellent relations with Shulamit, Ayala recalls: “We loved her like a mother, she looked after us. Gurit was energetic and always had unusual ideas; she always wanted to create new things. That’s how she started with the folk dancing, by taking the folklore of the various ethnic communities and combining it with Bible stories. She was not a homemaker. Shulamit, in contrast, was responsible for the cooking, the maids, the order in the house; it was obvious that she took that on herself. 

“Maybe it came from a desire to do something meaningful. It was clear to us all that Shulamit was responsible for the house, with everything that entailed. On the other hand, we considered her to be a more intellectual personality than Gurit.”

There was an abiding harmony and close friendship between the wives, according to everyone who knew them. After Leo’s death in 1963, they continued to live together for 15 years, until Shulamit died. 

“In later years I asked my mother about their relations, and she told me that they hardly ever quarreled,” Ayala says. “She told me explicitly that when Shulamit died, she missed her more than she did Leo.”

'They were both very strong women, and they both had a choice: They were not imprisoned in an unwanted situation.'

“Even though they were very different, they respected and esteemed each other very much,” Na’ama, the granddaughter, relates. “They were actually the ones who established the home and the family. They were both very strong women, and they both had a choice: They were not imprisoned in an unwanted situation. It took me many years to realize that it takes ongoing effort to create a place like that, where people feel at home and visit so often. By the way, they were not a romantic couple. There was no sexual bond between them. It wasn’t a triangle in that sense.”

What was Leo’s place in the family structure?

Avishag: “At first he was very much present; afterward he had his own matters to look after.”

Na’ama: “Shulamit’s standing joke was that Father was not of much use in the house, but there’s nothing that could be done about it, he was necessary. It was a joke, but there was something to it. The important thing was their joint creation.”

Ayala: “He was the patriarch; he got everything he wanted and whatever was needed. They [his wives] were very tied to him and wanted to please him, and they didn’t want to live a bourgeois life. It was clear to Father that they were serving him and showing him respect, but he didn’t manage the house. The two women ‘saluted’ him, as it were, but not from a place of self-effacement. Even so, I was angry at him. It hurt me to see how submissive and subservient they were, while he himself was free. He adored women and he had other relationships, definitely.”

Leo wasn’t the only one who had relationships with other women, Ayala says. “The women were also completely free – at least, that was how I explained it to myself. I knew they had good friends, but I didn’t want to go so far as to discover the exact character of the ties. I thought it was all right: If he could do it, so could they.”

From left, Gurit Kadman, her grandson Amos (in back), and her children Raphael and Ayala, 1970.Credit: Reproduction by Meged Gozani

As a child, Na’ama Zahavi-Ely lived with her parents and her sister Tirza across from Leo, Gurit and Shulamit on Shalag Street. She remembers grandfather Leo as someone to whom people were deferential but not as someone who was frightening.

What caused that deference?

“He was a smart man who took an interest in a great many things. Women were definitely drawn to him, but not because he was good-looking, because he wasn’t. But he was charming. One thing that impresses me now, in retrospect, and that guides me in life, is very great openness, which Leo, Gurit and Shulamit showed for people who led a different life. And people who lived differently respected them, too. Even my father’s parents, who at first had reservations about the relationship, became like members of the family. It was an accommodating and welcoming house. People of all stripes, including the squarest, felt comfortable there.”

But did the sides of the triangle really feel easy about the arrangement? Ayala’s husband, historian Aryeh (Arthur) Goren , once interviewed Gurit and recorded the conversation. “Toward the end of the interview,” he recalled, “I asked her if she would do it again, to live as one wife of two with one man. She said vehemently, in her style, ‘Under no circumstances.’” 

Na’ama says the two women told her that people often asked them whether theirs was a worthwhile way of life. “They always advised others not to do it, because it was too difficult. The key to survival, according to what they told me, was not to hold grudges or settle accounts. The two women loved each other, without a doubt, and were good friends. That I saw. They provided one another with far more mutual support than he [Leo] gave them.”

Numismatic expertise

One day in the early 1920s, Leo Kadman wrote in his memoirs, he was walking on the beach near Caesarea when an Arab boy offered to sell him an ancient coin. He identified it as a coin from the period of the Roman conquest and destruction of the Second Temple. Thereafter, he started to collect coins and became an expert in the currency of the Roman era in the country, publishing books and articles on the subject. He was a founder of the Israel Numismatic Society, which met in the house on Shalag Street. In 1962, he donated his collection to the Eretz Israel Museum in Ramat Aviv, and financed the creation of the museum’s Kadman Numismatic Pavilion to house the coins.

In December 1963, Kadman’s longtime dream of hosting the International Numismatic Congress in Israel came true. At the opening event, held at the Hebrew University, he welcomed the participants, uttered a couple of words, suffered a heart attack and collapsed on the stage. Physicians in the audience tried to revive him, but to no avail. 

Ayala recalls that the chief rabbi of Tel Aviv initially refused to bury her father in a regular cemetery – he cast doubt on Leo’s Jewishness, because he had lived with two women. After discovering that Leo and Shulamit were not formally married, but that she was his common-law wife, he agreed to a regular burial.

Shulamit died in 1977, and Gurit passed away 10 years later, at the age of 90. The fine house at 5 Shalag Street had been replaced by a particularly ugly apartment building, bearing a plaque describing the house that was there beforehand but without noting who lived in it. Ayala and Aryeh, Avishag and Shoshana, Amnon’s widow, all in their 90s – and each of them after more than 60 years of being married to one person – can look back on their lives and say definitively that the children of the extended Kadman family did not adopt their parents’ radical concept of family life. Ayala, for one, says she was always a very jealous person. 

“We were married in 1953 and I was very much against polyamory. If I suspected that Aryeh was cheating, I told him that if I caught him I would cut off something,” she says, to which Aryeh, amused, adds, “So I was very careful.”

Amnon, the son, died 12 years ago, and Shoshana thinks that his faithfulness to her spanning more than six decades was perhaps “a result of conclusions concerning the kind of [family] structure” he experienced growing up. 

Amos thinks it’s not surprising at all that none of the children of Gurit, Shulamit and Leo opted for polygamy or polyamory: “From their point of view, consciously or not, there was something traumatic about it. As natural as it was, they were different compared to other children and compared to their friends’ parents. They all came out of it damaged. So there was perhaps an extreme reaction in the other direction and a fear of being different.”

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