“Beyond the Pale” by Elana Dykewomon— Two Women

Dykewomon, Elana. “Beyond the Pale”, Raincoast, 2003.

Two Women

Amos Lassen

I am taking a step back in time with “Beyond the Pale” since it was published and won the Lambda Literary Award in 2003 but since I am building a complete biography of LGBT Jewish literature, I want to definitely include this. “Beyond the Pale” tells the stories of two Jewish women living through times of darkness and inhumanity in the early 20th century. Elana Dykewomon captures their undaunted love and courage in gorgeous prose. We are with Gutke Gurvich from her apprenticeship as a midwife in a Russian shtetl to her work in the suffrage movement in New York. Chava Meyer, who was attended by Gurvich at her birth and grew up to survive the pogrom that took the lives of her parents. What happened historically is an important part of the book as are Jewish faith and traditions, the practice of midwifery, the horrific conditions in prerevolutionary Russia and New York sweatshops, and the determined work of labor unionists and suffragists. This is a book that certainly has something for everyone.

It all begins with an infant’s scream–“a new voice, a tiny shofar announcing its own first year.” The midwife attending this birth is Gutke Gurvich, a half-Jew with two different colored eyes and a gift for being able to see into the spirit world. This is her story. It is also the story of Chava Meyer, the baby girl Gutke delivered that day and this is also the story of the important women in both of their lives, whoever they are: mothers, sisters, neighbors, lovers, friends.

Chava immigrated to America after a pogrom in Kishinev in which her mother was raped and killed. Coming to New York City and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, both she and Gutke become involved in the nascent labor union and suffrage movements. For me this is where the novel shines. Writer Dykewomon has written a beautifully detailed account of life among turn-of-the-century immigrant Jews including classes at the Henry Street Settlement House and the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. However, what makes this book so fascinating is that the story is told through the lens of several lesbians’ lives. What we see is a Jewish community living through the terror and uncertainties of both Russian pogroms and life in the New World.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with the term “The pale”, it is the area outside the Russian towns where Jews were forced to live, where they were not in anyway protection from persecution by this separation. It was in the pale where Gutke delivered Chava in 1889.

In America, Chava becomes active in the Women’s League and is confronted with its racism and anti-Semitism. Gutke, married to a woman who passes as a man, shows Chava how women lived with other women before Stonewall when everything began to change. Among progressive groups there was a lot of infighting and immigrants torn between assimilation and preserving the traditions that had defined them for so long. What is so special with this book is how Dykewomon has recognized and shared the solidarity of women that existed at that time.

In New York, Chava lives with her cousins in squalor that she never endured in Russia, and rather than finding opportunity in New York, she finds herself spending her days manufacturing cigars, binding books, and fixing machines. In her free time, she attends feminist-activist lectures and meets with feminist women’s league and union workers. She also falls in love with a close woman friend of hers and reunites with Gutke who assists her in understanding her lesbian relationships. Through the use of Yiddish terms and traditions of the Jewish holidays, we see what living was like back then as Jewish immigrants tried to adapt to America. We read about the living and working conditions in 20th century America as we read the story of “the hardworking, maltreated, malnourished women”. We also learn about the origins of the women’s suffrage movement and the unions.

“Beyond the Pale” is the story of difficult lives  into another time and place. It is about history, courage, and standing up for change in a world where many are experiencing freedom for the first time.

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