Novel weaves lives of Russian Jewish lesbian emigres

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Elana Dykewomon’s name leaves more to the imagination than one might think. One might predict that the person behind the name would be a hardcore, radical lesbian activist.

But one wouldn’t expect to meet a Jew proud of her parents’ Zionist activism, a researcher obsessed with historical detail and an author whose latest book is a gracefully crafted tale about Russian Jews at the turn of the century.

Sipping tea at the kitchen table in her cozy Oakland home, Dykewomon didn’t get to talk right away about her recently published novel, “Beyond the Pale.” First, she had to answer a question she has been asked countless times:

No, Dykewomon is not her given name. It’s Nachman.

She dropped it in 1976, after becoming intensely involved in feminist activism and completing her first novel, “Riverfinger Women.” Nachman, she explained, “was associated with a long line of rabbis that I no longer wanted to be…tied to at the time.”

Theoretically, that line includes Reb Nachman of Bratslav, the renowned 18th-century Chassidic sage.

“I’m not sure if that’s just a family story,” said the 47-year-old New York native, who has a soft, round face and short, dark hair that is starting to turn gray.

Her given name doesn’t appear on the cover of “Beyond the Pale.” But it shows up in some press materials, “partly to show I’m Jewish,” she acknowledged.

“If I had to do it all over again, I might have chosen Dykestein or Dykeberg,” she said with an easy laugh.

Though Jewish themes or characters have appeared in her prose and poetry in the past, this is her first major work that is every inch a Jewish tale.

The 416-page historical epic, which took her 10 years to research and write, moves from Russia in the 1860s to New York in the early 1900s. It is primarily the tale of two Jewish women, Gutke Gurvich and Chava Meyer.

Gutke is the product of a rape. Her Jewish mother loves her regardless. Gutke becomes a midwife and eventually meets Dovida, a woman who passes as a man. They immigrate to America together.

Chava, the daughter of a rabbi, loses her parents in the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. She comes to America with other relatives and comes face-to-face with anti-Semitism, sweatshops and utter poverty. She and her cousin, Rose, become lovers.

All these characters eventually meet as they search for “women like us.”

Some might dismiss such a story line as far-fetched. But Dykewomon has written a believable novel with fleshed-out characters — both female and male.

Her countless hours of research contribute immensely to the book’s authenticity. In essence the novel was born in 1987 when Dykewomon wrote a poem about a woman whose lover had died. She began to muse about the lives of these women. “Beyond the Pale” slowly began to emerge.

Dykewomon, who teaches English part-time at San Francisco State University and is former editor of a lesbian journal called Sinister Wisdom, said she began the research with an old set of Encyclopedia Judaica in a Berkeley public library.

She then found the journal of a turn-of-the-century traveler in Russia. The writer, who included a chapter about the Russian hatred for the Jews, concluded that the Russians were probably right.

“The anti-Semitism blew me away,” Dykewomon recalled.

She went on to find first-hand accounts of the Kishinev pogrom. She studied everything from midwifery, fashion and gender roles to socialism, anarchism and Zionism.

She brushed up on Yiddish, Torah and Talmud. She learned about Eastern Europe’s shifting geopolitical borders, nuances of speech from that period and attitudes toward sex.

“It was a real education for me.”

Writing the novel also answered personal questions for her as a lesbian.

“It can’t be that we are the first generation of Jewish lesbian activists on the planet,” she said. “So part of what the novel is about is searching for our ancestors and ancestral community as Jewish lesbians.”

Though her father’s family came from what is now Latvia in the early 1900s and her mother’s family arrived from Poland and Hungary in the late 1800s, “Beyond the Pale” isn’t personal history.

A few family stories made it into the book, though, including the death of her paternal great-great-grandfather. He was dragged by his beard until he died. By which enemies, Dykewomon doesn’t know.

Her own life is a fascinating story in itself.

Born in New York City, she moved to Puerto Rico with her family as a child. Her father, an attorney, had worked on a case there and liked the island.

Her parents were passionate Zionists. Her father fought in Israel’s 1948 War of Independence. Her mother, who lives today in Florida, was secretary of a smuggling ring that raised money for arms and Zionist efforts. Dykewomon moved to Oakland in the early 1980s, partly to connect with the Bay Area’s Jewish lesbian activist community.

Her relationship with Judaism has been a bumpy one. After becoming a radical feminist, she rejected all organized religion.

Dykewomon, who wears a large, silver Magen David with a purple stone in the center, acknowledges that she used to suffer from “internalized anti-Semitism.”

A turning point was a 1982 Jewish feminist conference in the Bay Area. Finding other women such as herself, she said, “gave me a way to identify as a Jew and a radical lesbian.”

Her ties to Judaism today are cultural and grass roots, through a large “friendship-familial-political network.”

Not only does she feel comfortable as a Jew today, but she found new connections to the past.

“One of the pleasures of writing the book was that I found myself at home in history.”

Natalie Weinstein
Natalie Weinstein

Natalie Weinstein is J.'s senior editor. She previously worked as a senior editor at CNET News and, in the 1990s, as a reporter and editor at J., which was then called the Jewish Bulletin.