Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale

In her historical novel Beyond the Pale, Elana Dykewomon weaves together the lives of two women: Gutke Gurvich, a Russian midwife, and one of the people whom Gutke helps bring into the world, a girl named Chava Meyers. The novel opens with Chava’s birth one winter just before the start of the twentieth century: “In Kishinev the river Byk is frozen. The oven stuffed with coal,” and yet Chava’s mother Miriam “lies shivering on a small bed in one of the few stone house on Gostinaya Street, cursing the walls.” While the birth is difficult, Chava emerges without injury, and soon Gutke, who is clairvoyant, tells Miriam her sense of the baby’s future. She says that the girl will have “a long, difficult journey. But she will be loyal and have courage.” The words do not impress the exhausted mother, who asks, “Is that some kind of curse? Every Jew has courage.”

True to Gutke’s prediction, Chava stands out as notably courageous even among the courageous. She survives the Russian pogroms to immigrate to America where she fights exploitation as a factory worker in New York City. At her very first job, she strikes, walking out of a box factory where rats make “tunnels in the waste cardboard on the floor.” Her story coupled with Gutke’s provides for a great, sweeping novel, but while this book is large in scope, its structure rests on down-to-earth symbols contained with its story. The two main plots – Chava’s and Gutke’s – are woven together like the challah bread that Miriam at one point teaches her daughter to make. The scenes move naturally, one folding over into the next and the next. Gutke and Chava are lesbians, and their stories come together to create a nurturing vision of social protest among Jewish women.

Originally posted on 11.18.2005