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Queer on the Lower East Side: Beyond the Pale

Updated: Mar 3

Sunday, March 3, 2024, 3-4:30 pm Pacific


Coming Out in the 1970s and Traces of Dykewomon's Lower East Side - Notes by Donna Keren

ReAd tHe UpDaTed BlOg

& Test your qUeEr jEwIsH kNoWlEdgE!*

On March 3, the Yiddish Shmoozers (in Translation) will discuss the novel Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon. Winner of the prestigious Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Fiction, an annual benchmark since 1987 of cutting-edge scholarship and creative work on LGBTQ+ topics. Beyond the Pale is the second of Elana Dykewomon's five prize-winning novels written over her lengthy career as writer, editor, and activist.

The 400-page saga set in the Russian Pale and New York City first appeared in 1997. It has since been kept continuously in print by independent presses with editions in 2003, 2013, and 2018. The blurb on the back cover of the current edition (Open Road, 2018) introduces the main characters and plot:

Born in a Russian-Jewish settlement, Gutke Gurvich is a midwife who immigrates to New York's Lower East Side with her partner, a woman passing as a man. Their story crosses with that of Chava Meyer, a girl who was attended by Gutke at her birth and was later orphaned during the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Chava has come to America with the family of her cousin Rose, and the two girls begin working at fourteen. [Note: The girls experience the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911 and become trade unionists.] As they live through the oppression and tragedies of their time, Chava and Rose grow to become lovers--and search for a community they can truly call their own.

Elana Dykewomon (1949-1922) at her home in Oakland months before her passing. Born Elana Nachman, she changed her name in the 1980s: “I chose ‘dyke’ for the power and ‘womon for the alliance,” she wrote in 2017. "I figured if I called myself Dykewomon,” she joked in a 2022 interview with The Jewish News of Northern California, “I would never get reviewed in The New York Times.” Poetic justice, the NYT carried these comments and this photo in its lengthy obit for the groundbreaking lesbian writer.

Beyond the Pale is an important work within the contexts of queer literature, Jewish immigration and labor history, and the Ashkenazic imaginary. As late as the 1980s, when Elana Dykewomon wrote her novel, Ashkenazi women and anyone else seeking evidence of their 19th and 20th century forebears living freely with women partners in passionate relationships--whether in in Eastern Europe or in immigrant enclaves such as New York's Lower East Side-- would have come up disappointingly empty-handed. A web of factors account for this absence of visibility and data about lesbians in the period that Dykewomon wrote about. I'll mention two of them.

First, accounts of women's experience in Yiddish--and especially by women writers--were unlikely to be published in Yiddish or translated into English, even if they happened at all to have been written. An informal survey in 2002 by the staff of the New York Public Library's Dorot Division identified "nearly 900 women who wrote and published their work in Yiddish. Yet of the 2% of Yiddish literature that has been translated, most is by male writers."

Further, as the NYPL Dorot staff notes, in historical anthologies of Yiddish literature in translation, writers are typically all-male. Apart from Yiddish writer Sholem Asch's 1907 play--and this is a hugely important exception--I'm not aware of explicitly lesbian characters and themes in Yiddish literature. But they may well exist in hiding, as I'll discuss below. Fortunately, we are now in a period of active discovery/recovery of women's writing in Yiddish, thanks to a growing cadre of brilliant, dedicated, scholarly translators from Yiddish into English and other languages. Readers need only to visit the websites of In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies -- and also The Yiddish Book Center to catch a glimpse of this awesome wave . . . .Gib a kuk!

A second factor in the invisibility of Jewish lesbians in extant documents of 19th and 20th century Yiddish culture has to do with the lack of denotative term. Any unmarried woman was slotted into the highly stigmatized and socially deficient role of an alte moyd (old maid). In Beyond the Pale, the self-sufficient seamstress Golde, the midwife Gutke Gurvich's first woman lover, is socially tolerated but pitied for being "an old maid." In lesbian poet Irena Klepfisz's poem (excerpted below), a married brother might find a cramped room to house his old maid sister, but "they did not build wings for them." The word "lesbian" was missing in Yiddish and had to be invented (lesbianke). It did not appear in Uriel Weinreich's Modern English-Yiddish Dictionary of 1968, although the word "homosexual" did. Again, the word "lesbian" does not appear in Beinfeld and Bochner's Comprehensive Yiddish-English Dictionary (based on the 2002 Dictionnaire Yiddish-Français by Niborski, Vaisbrot, & Neuberg). It does appear, at last, in the League for Yiddish Comprehensive English-Yiddish Dictionary published in 2016. Thank you, editors Gitl Schaechter-Viswanath and Paul Glasser! At last we have lesbians, lesbianism, lesbian love and even lesbian sex! What a relief!

Playwright Paula Vogel based her 2017 play Indecent on Sholem Asch's 1907 play God of Vengeance, in which a superficially pious Jewish brothel owner's daughter falls in love and runs away with the prostitute Manka. In Beyond the Pale, the character Chava sees a performance of Asch's play and critiques the idea that two women falling in love should be viewed as an act of God's vengeance--that is, a curse upon the father.

Unless I missed something, the word "lesbian" doesn't occur in Beyond the Pale. If so, it would have been an anachronism. I see this as a deliberate, essential choice by the author. Instead, the novel creates a space for the relationship between Chava and Rose to emerge and develop "naturally" over time -- that is, without any sexual ideological burden. Absent the word "lesbian," the characters find everyday language to express their love for one another and to describe other women who appear to be in same-sex relationships. Chava and Rose enact and exploit the presumed non-existence of lesbian love as they hide in plain sight. They whisper tendernesses and share kisses in the bed that, because of their poverty as immigrants on the Lower East Side, they share in earshot of the rest of the family.

Blewish (black-Jewish) actor Rebecca S'manga Frank cast in the role of Manka in Indecent at the Oregon Shakespeare Theater's 2019 season. Video clips:

The importance of anthropologist Lillian Faderman’s book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers: A History of Lesbian Life in Twentieth Century-America cannot be overstated. Lengthy unstructured interviews with 186 lesbians in the United States (diversified by race/ethnicity, economic class, and region), allowed Faderman to track broad changes in lesbians’ experiences, behaviors and self-identification. Starting with the turn of the last century, Faderman’s analysis focused on the social construction of sex and gender, as compared with an essentialist view that a lesbian orientation is inborn and innate. Putting her material into conversation with other scholars and sources, Faderman noted that passionate love between women was an accepted part of the social fabric until the new sciences of sexology and psychoanalysis introduced the vocabulary of sexual deviance.

Returning to Beyond the Pale, the world in which Elana Dykewomon’s characters Chava and Rose lived was hardly a Gan Eden (Garden of Eden), but a space of relative shelter. Since this was also the world of Sholem Asch’s characters in God of Vengeance, the absence of overt societal recognition and repression of love between women may help explain the Yiddish author’s mild, if not outright sympathetic portrayal of the lovers Manke and Rivkele). But, as Faderman’s book shows, the social environment changed again and again. Fast forward to the 1960s and 1970s, when the category “women” became the focus of radical critiques under patriarchy and heterosexism. This second wave of feminism—think of Betty Friedan’s 1963 blockbuster book, The Feminist Mystique-- followed hard on the post-WWII conservative re-imagining of the American nuclear family. This was the period of greatest stigmatization and repression of lesbians, including many who had returned from service in the armed forces, where they had experienced unprecedented opportunities and freedom to find community. In the 1950s they found themselves labeled as “sickos,” hunted in police raids of gay and lesbian bars, targeted during the Red Scare, and ejected from military and public service.

I see Elana Dykewomon’s novel as a pivotal point in this ongoing lesbian and queer social history. Born in the United States in 1949, her formative years in the 1950s and 1960s corresponded with the most intense stigmatization of lesbians on record. I know because I lived through it too. To my regret, I didn’t meet Elana. I don’t know when and how she came out. But her book, written at the height of lesbian feminist revolution and liberation, envisions a space for love between women--and specifically Ashkenazi Jewish women in Eastern Europe and America—to occur as naturally as a spring rain. Her vision repairs so much of the horribly repressive era in which she and I were raised. At the same time, her book presages and participates in the queer movement that was next to emerge and is so fabulously productive today.

I wish I had time to write more now about our queer Jewish moment, but I have spent all of Saturday, March 2, preparing to this blog to appear in your inbox. And tomorrow, Sunday, March 3, there is so already much to discuss:

1. Why do we need the term “queer?” Who is queer?” Are you queer? Who in your family circle was/might have been queer? What was their experience?

2. What is happening now in the world under the rubric of Jewish and queer? (You might be pleasantly surprised.)

And, of course, there are all the other important questions about Beyond the Pale -- questions that I put aside in order to emphasize the importance of this book as a lesbian intervention that informs who we are as Jews in America and in the world.

This is a book that does so much more than add lesbians to our American Jewish post-immigration history. It is a work of meticulously accurate scholarship and sweeping imaginative reconstruction.

These are some of those topics:

3. Women’s position(s) and daily experiences in the Old Country (Kishinev and Odessa) just preceding the Russian Revolution.

4. Violent riots (pogroms) against Jews. The everyday fabric of face-to-face relations between Jews and non-Jews in late 19th century/early 20th century Russia.

5. The reorganization of family relations. The weakening of community and of patriarchal control.

6. Labor exploitation, especially within the immigrant Jewish community and at home. Labor socialist (Bundist) consciousness and organizing.

Not least, Beyond the Pale is a thoughtfully and boldly structured master work.

It’s also beautifully written.

Let’s talk.



Temim Fruchter (2016) “Embracing the Multiple: A Conversation with Zohar Weiman-Kelman.” In Geveb: A Journal of Yiddish Studies

Jeffrey Shandler (2006) "Queer Yiddishkeit: Practice and Theory. " Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies

Eve Sicular (2002) "Outing the Archives: From the Celluloid Closet to the Isle of Klezbos" (In Queer Jews, edited by David Shneer & Caryn Aviv)

Adrienne Rich (1980) "Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence," Journal of Women's History


*Test your qUeEr jEwIsH kNoWlEdgE!

QUIZ No. 1

1.     Which autobiographical book written by and about Jewish women immigrant workers in Russia and America describes lesbians and/or queer women?


a.  Out of the Shadow: A Russian Jewish Girlhood on the Lower East Side by Rose Gollup Cohen (1918)

b.  Diary of a Lonely Girl or The Battle Against Free Love by Miriam Karpilove (1918; trans. Jessica Kirzane 2020)

c. The Bread Givers by Anzia Yezierska (1925)

d.  None of the above


2.     Which Marxist feminist anthropologist in the mid-1980s coined the theory of the “sex/gender system”?


a.     Barbara Myerhoff

b.     Gayle Rubin

c.     Margaret Mead

d.     Eleanor Burke Leacock

3.     In the “sex/gender system”. . .


a.  gender is inborn 

b.  gender is necessarily binary

c. gender is a pattern imposed on biology for the social organization of labor

d.  gender is first assigned at puberty  

4.     Which of the following is true of Eve Adams, subject of historian Jonathan Ned Katz’s book The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams (2021)?  


a.  Born Chawa Zloczewer into a Jewish family in Poland, she emigrated to the

United States in 1912

b. She befriended anarchists, sold radical publications, and ran a lesbian- and gay-friendly tearoom in New York City

c.  She published Lesbian Love (1925), was convicted under obscenity laws and was deported back to Europe in 1941

d.    All of the above

 5. Which award-winning New York based poet wrote the 1980 essay “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence”?


a.     Adrienne Rich

b.     Malka Lee

c.     Anna Margolin

d.     Celia Dropkin

ANSWERS: d, b, c, d, a

QUIZ No. 2

1. Anthropologist Lillian Faderman’s  book Odd Girls and Twilight Lovers (Penguin, 1991) argues that  passionate love between women was an accepted part of the social fabric in England and America until:


a. sexologists and psychoanalysts began labeling sexual types and categorized non-heterosexual acts as evidence of abnormal personalities (“deviants,” “inverts”)

b.   the popularity of  “lesbian chic” during the 1920s

c. the US military made a feeble attempt to weed out lesbians during WW II

d. mid-20th century pulp fiction depicted lesbians as “sickos” living “twilight” lives


2. In which of her wide-ranging poems (excerpted below) does Irena Klepfisz celebrate the solemn joy of women’s’ escape from the imprisoning role of a non-reproductive woman (“old maid”).


a. they did not build wings for them (p. 38)

b. it was good (p.35)

c. Zi shemt zihk/She is ashamed (p. 179)

d. Vider a mol/Once again (p. 175)



they did not build wings for them

the unmarried aunts; instead they

crammed them into old maids’ rooms

or placed them as nannies with the younger children.


would be heard vague tales of a woman

withdrawn and inaccessible suddenly disappearing

one autumn night leaving her room bare

of herself. women gossiped about a man.

but eventually word would come back

she had moved north to the ocean and lived



--Irena Klepfisz, Her Birth and Later Years: New and Collected Poems, 1971-2021 (University of Wesleyan Press, 2022) 




QUIZ No. 3

1.   Where is the term "lesbian" discussed in Elana Dykewomon's book Beyond the Pale, which is the story of two same-sex immigrant couples?


a.  too often to count

b.  about once per chapter

c. in the conclusion

d. not at all


2. Which LGBTQ+ (and Jewish) theorist coined the argument that all gender--whether queer or straight--is the performance of chosen, enacted, symbolically coded acts?


a. anthropologist Jeffrey Shandler

b. philosopher Judith Butler

c. historian of religion Daniel Boyarin

d. journalist Masha Gessen


3. What gendered term, if any, best describes the character Dovida?


a. lesbian

b. transvestite

c. queer

d. I'm not sure but would like to discuss it


                                                                                                   ANSWERS: d, b, d

QUIZ No. 4


1.  Paula Vogel's brilliant play, Indecent, builds on Sholem Asch's 1907 work, God of Vengeance. In the book we are reading, Beyond the Pale, the character Chava sees the play God of Vengeance and criticizes it because:


a. it was written by a man who could not understand women's situations

b. it portrays lesbians as prostitutes

c. the two women who fall in love meet a tragic end

d. God's "vengeance" on an impious father is that his daughter falls in love with another woman


2. One of these books makes the argument that queer discourses erase and devalue lesbians and the foundational contributions of the lesbian feminist culture of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.


a. The Tribe of Dina: A Jewish Women's Anthology ed. by Melanie Kaye/Kantrowitz and Irena Klepfisz (1986/Rev. 1989)

b. Jews and Queers: Symptoms of Modernity in Late--CenturyTwentieth Vienna by Matti Bunzl (2004)

c. Female Husbands: A Trans History by Jen Manion (2020)

d. The Disappearing L: Erasure of Lesbian Spaces and Culture by Bonnie J. Morris (2016)


3. Name another novel by a Jewish author that deals with lesbian, trans, and/or cross-dressing characters:


a. Francine Prose's Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932: A Novel (2015)

b. Ellen Galford's The Dyke and the Dubbuk (1993)

c. Temim Fruchter's City of Laughter (2024)

d. All the above


                                                                                                   ANSWERS: d, d, d


Gelya Frank will facilitate this session solo because of a scheduling conflict for Donna Keren. Apologies to Donna and to you. --GF 2/29/24


Some Notes on the Reading

by Donna Keren

First of all, I am sorry to miss the discussion this afternoon, but as you know the date change hit a long-standing conflict on my calendar. Secondly, I don't have a lot to add to your thoughtful probing and questing as well as questioning of the text and the story. But I did want to make one or two comments about how I read the book. Feel free to share with the group.

Given the timing of my great-grandparents' arrival in New York in the late 1880s or 1890s, locating their lives in Harlem, Westchester County and the Bronx, the Lower East Side was where you went for bras and bagels. it was not where they had settled or lived. The synagogues they built were in the Bronx, the jobs the men had were well paid and neither of my grandmothers ever worked. They were not bourgeoise, but their lives were quite comfortable. They were not Orthodox, and over time would move away, far away, from the rules of Kashruth.

When I moved to New York City in 1974 - fifty years ago – the Jewish community so carefully described by the author was still remarkably present and active. One of the most striking connections for me was that I lived in a pre-war apartment building that shared a corner with the site of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (Greene & Washington Place). That building, however, was now a 10-story, stone and brick NYU lab and science building just one block from Washington Square Park. There were still sweatshops in low rise buildings on Waverly, Washington Place, Mercer, Broadway and West 4th Street. The workers, now, were Chinese and Puerto Rican. One by one, real estate and New York University's need for space would change the uses of the buildings but leave them (or most of them) still standing. Nevertheless, the anniversary of the Triangle Fire would bring out a demonstration and tribute every year. (That I know of, at least until 1998 when I moved away from the neighborhood.)

There always seemed to be a special feeling of resistance in that space, despite the changing uses and the late 20th century. That same intersection became the center of repeated demonstrations by ACT-UP and other AIDS resistance marches. With their backs to the site of the Triangle, they would protest the City's treatment of the LGBTQ community (although we mostly said "gay" in those days). Their reason for being there, I admit, was my upstairs neighbor- then Mayor Ed Koch – a self-denying, basically celibate gay man, who did little to address this crisis. Ultimately, he was only recently outed in a NY Times article.

The cultural heritage of that time now falls into a mix of architectural remainders – the Jarmulowsky Bank on Canal Street is now a luxury boutique hotel, the shops on Orchard Street (but for one or two) long ago became tattoo parlors, new designers and art galleries – and intangible but important stories about a different time and place. The lox and smoked fish from Russ & Daughters (a 4th generation family owned and operated business) now comes from Acme in Brooklyn rather than the back of the shop still on E. Houston at Allen Street. Katz's Deli still piles on the pastrami and serves new pickles to long lines of waiting tourists using the same ticket tracking that my grandmother would have used. The Tenement Museum, Eldridge Street Synagogue and other heritage sites are worth a visit.

As for coming out lesbian in New York City in 1974, the community visible to the trained and seeking eye was significantly larger than anything Chava would have known. But for family, friends, neighbors, classmates & professors, and co-workers or bosses, it was still best you keep hidden and quiet. In the now 55 years since Stonewall, I had hoped we could leave that pain in the past - a story to be read and remembered but not lived again. It seems I was uncharacteristically optimistic.


March 3, 2024

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