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Beyond the Pale

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Beyond the Pale — winner of the Lambda Literary Award — tells the stories of two Jewish women living through times of darkness and inhumanity in the early 20th century, capturing their undaunted love and courage in luminous and moving prose. The richly textured novel details Gutke Gurvich’s odyssey from her apprenticeship as a midwife in a Russian shtetl to her work in the suffrage movement in New York. Interwoven with her tale is that Chava Meyer, who was attended by Gurvich at her birth and grew up to survive the pogrom that took the lives of her parents. Throughout the book, historical background plays a large part: 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.

406 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1997

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About the author

Elana Dykewomon

24 books89 followers
Elana Dykewomon is an activist, an author, and a teacher and has a fiercely dedicated readership who have been eagerly awaiting her next novel for a dozen years. One of the finest thinkers—and writers—the women’s movement has produced, she has worked for the last fifteen years as an editor and teacher of composition and creative writing, both independently and for San Francisco State University. (from the publisher's website)

Red Room - Elana Dykewomon's Biography

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 140 reviews
Profile Image for Ali.
101 reviews
July 25, 2010
My mom bought me this book and claimed she did not know it was about lesbians. Um, check out the author's last name…
Profile Image for Eva.
80 reviews
December 7, 2015
I thought this was a lesbian romance novel but it's not. It's a beautiful and heart-wrenching novel that describes the life journey of jewish lesbian women at the turning of the 20th century.
The fact that the women happen to be lesbians is a beautiful secondary layer to the story.
The main focus of te author is to describe the rampant and generalised anti-semitism, sexism, racism and classism that existed at the time both in EU and the US.
It is a great novel and a beautiful surprise.
348 reviews
August 9, 2013
A great and unique story -- you don't often find a novel about Russian Jewish immigrant lesbian women (with some magical realism thrown in). The shifts in point of view felt awkward and confusing at times and it felt at times like the author tried to throw too many historical facts into the book (Triangle Shirtwaist, mention of the Bintel Briefs, Lillian Wald, etc.). However, as the descendant of Russian/Eastern European Jews who likely experienced many of the same events and difficulties the characters in this book experience (pogroms, crossing the Atlantic by ship, living in tenements, etc.) I found this book fascinating. I felt like I was visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in NYC (in a good way). As I did when I visited the museum, I found myself thinking about the characters and trying to imagine my ancestors in their place.

This book won a Lambda Literary Award and while the story is told from the point of view of two gay women, it is as much a book about women -- Russian Jewish, Italian, and other female immigrants -- as a "lesbian story." Intertwined with the story is the story of women living in a time before they could vote and way before any sex discrimination or equal pay laws protected them in the workplace. It wasn't until about 200 pages into the book that the lesbian aspect of the story was fully developed. I would be interested in learning how much of this part of the book is accurate historically -- I imagine much of it is and I would like to read more about it. As for the lesbian aspect of the book, Chava and Rose's relationship is realistic -- the love between them is palpable, as is the pain they sometimes feel because of having to hide their relationship. Gutke and Dovid(a)'s relationship also feels very real, although the reader does not get to know them as well. It makes me sad to think about how Gutke and Dovida could marry only because Dovida presents to the outside world as a man -- gay marriage was not something that would have even crossed the minds of lesbian couples at that time.

I enjoyed (maybe "enjoy" is not the right verb here but oh well) learning about the dynamics of the labor union movement and how it often excluded women, African Americans, and immigrants. Anyone interested in the obstacles any of these groups (particularly female immigrants) faced in the early part of the 20th century would enjoy reading this book. My review feels all over the place but perhaps that is because there is just so much in this book that it is difficult to summarize. I could go on and on but instead I'll say, just read it!
Profile Image for Paula.
346 reviews6 followers
February 18, 2008
I read this book several years ago and it still stands out vividly in my mind as a rich story of Jewish immigration and lesbian lovers. The novel takes place in Russia and NYC's Lower East Side in the late 1800's and early 1900's. It is an epic history of Jewish immigrants and a beautiful story of the relationship between two women amidst the plight of immigration, antisemitism, and the labor and political movements of the early 20th century. It will soon be available in paperback.
Profile Image for Ale.
17 reviews1 follower
April 4, 2019
I mean, why didn’t the author just come directly to my house to stab me? That might have hurt less.
Profile Image for Jules Ray.
25 reviews
July 23, 2013
I was given this book by the publisher for a fair review of the author's work.

Wow! What an amazing work of literature! I am so impressed after reading this book. I couldn't put it down for hours at a time.

The story begins in turn of the last century Russia and the lives of Russian Jewish women who start as girls and grow up in extremely difficult times of strife. The writing style is exceptional and brings you into the world that our women exist in. The world in Russia in the 1800s was more than just difficult for Russian Jews and the struggles and attacks were vividly portrayed.

As the families move from Russia to America we experience the traverse overseas and the conditions that poor immigrants had to endure. In America, it appears that the streets truly are lined with gold but somewhat tarnished. While they land jobs in America, the world is still full of troubles and it's not easy for an immigrant to hold a job for very long. This book carefully explains how unions got their start in America and what immigrants went through to get there.

Life in NYC on the Lower East Side is fantastically described in this book and the exploration of lesbian feelings is touching and sensitive. Growing into their own adolescence and adulthood we have women who are finding out who they are and where they live in each others' lives.

I highly recommend this book to any fan of historical fiction or women's literature.
Profile Image for Lynn.
838 reviews122 followers
October 23, 2022
This is an interesting book in that it explores a different perspective to the Russian-Jewish immigration at the turn of the century. Through the perspectives of three characters: Gutke Gurvich, a midwife whose partner is a woman posing as a man; Chava Meyer, a teenager whose parents were brutally murdered during a pogrom; and Rose Petrovsky, Chava’s young cousin whose family takes Chava to America to escape the Russian persecution, the reader gets to experience the immigrant experience in a new way.

The story is told from the perspectives of the three main characters, and each experiences life in a different way. The book starts with Gutke as she learns about midwifery and she experiences flashes of otherworldly insight into her patients in the form of some magical realism. This is handled very adroitly. Gutke is also confronting her own sexuality. The story then moves on to Chava and her family as the Russian persecution ramps up. The scenes of the Kishinev pogrom of 1903 are horrifying. When Chava is taken in by her mother’s sister’s family, we meet Rose, but Rose doesn’t really come into her own until they all arrive in America. In New York, Chava meets Gutke again and all their lives become intertwined.

You really get a feel for what the Jewish immigrant experience was like as the Petrovsky family and Chava are forced to live in a tenement and take menial work just to survive. As Chava and Rose are forced to share a bed in the two bedroom apartment, they discover a growing attraction to each other, which they must hide from the rest of the family.

Chava is very ambitious and manages to find better and better jobs, though she is aware of the misogyny of the times, where men doing the same job as her are paid more. She becomes active in the worker’s rights movement and a lot of famous historical figures make cameo appearances throughout the story: Lillian Wald, Emma Goldman, Samuel Gompers among others. There are a lot of references to socialist and anarchists and a great emphasis on social justice. At times it felt like the story was lecturing the reader. Then there are the climactic, horrific scenes of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, which changes many of the characters’ lives.

The three main characters are fairly well portrayed, but the rest of the characters, except for Dovida, Gutke’s “husband” are given short shrift. Chava’s mother and aunt seem like the same person, as do her father and uncle. The men in the story seem interchangeable at times, and I found it difficult to keep them straight. The story changes from Gutke’s perspective to Chava’s perspective to Rose’s perspective somewhat abruptly at times, and the reader isn’t always sure who they are reading about. The lesbian elements of the story are fairly organic, although some readers may be put off by it, but that is their problem. Think about the LGBT community always having to read about straight characters until recently.

This book really brought home to me why my great grandparents all escaped from Russia, and what their immigration experience might have been like. My grandfather once told me what it was like to escape over the border from the Ukraine into Poland with his family.

A couple of small things in the book really touched me. Chava’s sister Sarah was born with a “wandering eye” and was considered deformed. I was also born with a “wandering eye” but was able to have surgery to correct it when I was three. There is a scene where Chava’s Aunt Bina made bowls of sour cream and bananas. My mother used to make this for us! Now I do the same thing with low fat yogurt and berries. And there is a quote about “moving from place to place, always a guest, never rooted…” which hit a chord, for that’s how I have felt my whole life.

BTW, there is a glossary of Yiddish words at the end of the book, which I didn’t discover until I finished it. (Yeah, ebooks can be problematic this way.) Fortunately, with my Nook book, I can look words up online if they aren’t in the Nook dictionary.

This book is good in that you feel like you are living the Russian-Jewish immigration experience at the turn of the century, but I can’t say that I liked the writing. The story dragged in places and at times I just wanted it to be over, which is never a good sign. So it’s a solid 3 stars in that I liked it but didn’t love it.
Profile Image for Christine.
531 reviews9 followers
February 21, 2014
I was crying like a baby reading the end of this book !!!
I enjoyed the characters, storyline, the innocence of young love mirroring the older couples love for each other. Rose and Chava are cousins. Chava went with her family to America and settled in New York. The book opens with Gutke, a midwife, helping at Chava's birth. I was a bit confused when the book jumped back and forth between the two characters story. But Chava runs into Gutke in the city (small world isn't it) They go their seperate ways but stay friends thru out.
The struggles that women had back then were amazing, if it weren't for the women of that time organizing and fighting for our rights we may still be a lower class. All members of the family had to work in order to eat, pay rent and just get by. There was no one to help the little guy. The rich got richer and the poor poorer, and that is not what the US is based on.
Not saying that in 2014 we still don't have people who want to be rich and make their employees suffer lower wages for it. CEO's make too much money imo.(sorry for my political opinions here, but this book does get you thinking)
This story also reminded me very much of my grandma, as she was born Russian Germany (during the war things got weird with the maps) and she used many of the same words and sayings.
I look foreward to similar novels from this author.
August 2, 2020
This is one of my all-time favorites. This is the first historical-fiction I have read, and now I am hooked. I haven't been able to find another book like it. It covered rascism, prejudice, war, child-labor, gender-issues, migration, transgender/lesbian/gay issues, everything! And it's a love story beyond that! And it does it all sooo well. I can't really say anything about this book that would do justice. Read it.
81 reviews44 followers
November 5, 2012
There are only a few long-form works of lesbian fiction I've ever really enjoyed. This is definitely one of them! Thanks Elana Dykewomon for your fully-realized characters and enjoyable prose, and lack of closeted lesbian police officers with commitment issues.
204 reviews5 followers
June 24, 2017
This was an interesting novel of the Jewish diaspora between the late 1800s and World War I. Its unique perspective -- that of the feminine experience, and, in particular, the lesbian experience -- made it worth reading, even though I usually feel I have read enough about the diaspora, in general, over the years.

The three main characters are sympathetic and well-developed: Gutke, the midwife who has a special gift of "seeing" the future; Chava, whom Gutke delivered into this world; and Rose, Chava's cousin and eventual lover. Pogroms and difficulties in the eastern European region known as the Pale of Settlement lead Chava to her cousin's family in Odessa, and from there, to the US, where there are no pogroms but no Easy Street, either. Both places (the Pale and immigrant-filled New York City) are well drawn, and the history of early unionization of sweat shops (various kinds -- we see how tobacco is prepared for cigars and cigarettes, how binderies operate, how clothing is made, etc.) is given much attention and compared in some ways to the early revolutionary movements in Russia (which one of Chava's brothers chose to enter, despite his father's disapproval). The historical fiction here is well-researched and compelling, as are the characters.

I have only 2 criticisms of the book. Dykewomon uses 3 narrators -- Gutke, Chava, and Rose. In most places, this works well. However, there are several times when the narration switches rather abruptly, mid-chapter, without any hint that we've changed narrators until a couple of paragraphs in -- a bit confusing, given that the change is usually relatively short and adds little to the dramatic movement of the story. These changes are rather clumsy and could have been easily avoided or perhaps remedied by an attentive editor. The other "fault" I found was with the treatment of time; it was not always clear to me how much time had elapsed between scenes, chapters, etc. This, too, could have been easily remedied. Neither of these spoiled the story for me, but they drew my attention away from the narration at times.

This book is definitely worth a read for anyone who likes historical fiction with a decidedly feminine perspective. If you're a bit squeamish about entering the lives of lesbians, there's no need; this is treated seriously, but deftly, so the love between Chava and Rose is as natural as between the men and women in the novel.

I'm glad my daughter-in-law recommended this novel, and I'm glad I read it. It's a brave, informative, interesting story.

Profile Image for Cynthia.
Author 5 books140 followers
March 22, 2019
this book hurt a lot. the prose was beautiful, but i can't stop thinking about how much it hurt. it's rooted in real historical events, some truly horrific things that happened around the turn of the 20th century, and it's a book that really makes you reflect on these things. it's clear that the author is an activist and this book is devoted to the fight for workers' rights in particular, and i think it's powerful in the messages that it conveys. i found this a really absorbing and affecting read; my heart is so bruised by it and tender, but i understand the value in making the reader confront some of these terrible things that have happened in the past because those things are still happening to this day and there's still not enough being done about it; the lives of working-class people and of immigrants are still valued less, and anti-semitism still rampant. i'm really glad i read this and learnt more about the lives of russian jewish women, especially lesbian women, in this time period, and many parts of this book will stay with me (haunt me) for a long time.
Profile Image for Ginger Haggerty.
12 reviews3 followers
October 3, 2022
This book came highly recommended to me, and I sat on reading it for way to long.

This book chronicles the lives of four Jewish women starting in the the mid-1800s and ending in the early 1900s. From Kishinev, which is now modern day Moldova, to the tenement streets of New York, the story is one of darkness and resilience. All the women are gay. During a time when they didn't have the language we use today to label same-sex attraction and love and finding community was a dream and rarely a reality.

Told in first person, with magical realism elements, the characters are relatable and likeable.
While the novel dives deep into what it may have been like to be queer during this time - this book is above all about the anti-Semitism Jewish communities faced in Russia during the pogroms and the reality that America wasn't the golden land that was promised. I appreciated the reality check offered on the "American Dream" which was sweat shops and dangerous conditions in reality. The true dream was the freedom to organize, which is also a main plot point within this book as it happens during a time of great labor reform.

Highly recommend for fans of historical fiction that is well researched and character driven.

Profile Image for Kate.
2,027 reviews78 followers
September 23, 2013
I very much enjoyed the first half of this book, although the second half wasn't quite as compelling. It made for a great book club selection and I found the struggle of Russian Jews to be a subject that I hadn't known much about. Although this book can usually be found in Lesbian Fiction sections, it's a novel about so much more than that- oppression, political activism, feminism, and finding your own path in life.

Favorite quote of the book:

"There's going to be trouble."
"Just from a piece of paper?" I asked.
Mama almost laughed. "Trouble, Chavele, almost always starts with a piece of paper."

Profile Image for Laura Nowlin.
Author 6 books1,363 followers
June 3, 2017
If you're like me and learn history better when narrative is attached, check out this beautifully well written and researched novel of Russian Jewish immigration. Dykewomon takes lots of stylistic risks that work well, and the story told is utterly unique.
Profile Image for Judie.
707 reviews16 followers
October 6, 2022
My grandlparents and great grandparents came to the US from Lithuania and Latvia in the first decade of the twentieth century. By the time I was born, only one great grandmother and one grandfather were still alive. I was very close to them. Reading BEYOND THE PALE made me regret all the questions I did not ask them about life in Europe and the US when I had the opportunity.
BEYOND THE PALE begins in Poland/Russia in the late 1880s. Gutke Gurvich was the daughter of a rape victim. Her mother left her home because of how she and her baby would be treated by their neighbors. She became a midwife because there would always be work. Using her knowledge of herbs, she also helped treat medical problems, including those to help women in labor.
One of her patients is the mother of Chava Meyer. After Chava’s parents were murdered in a progrom. Chava moved to New York City to escape the dangers of being Jewish in Russia.
BEYOND THE PALE is a wonderfully told story of the lives of these women, both personally and as members of the societies in which they lived: the poverty, work environments, and society. It speaks of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire and of the growing labor movement. It also examines coming to terms with lesbianism.


“My mother accepted bad and good luck on faith; it was all part of what God had laid out, the road she was meant to walk. Pesah’s understanding was more complicated. By her, you needed more than faith, you needed to admire yourself just as you came, God was in you...but your own self was also something you moved on your on. You decided to act, not just God–or, God forbid, the Tsar–decided for you.”
“Men must have a factory where they make disagreements. Ordinary ones sold for a couple of kopeks, big ones for a ruble. My family kept this factory in business. Women worked so men could argue.”
“Was it just an accident that Mama and Papa were in the wrong place at the wrong time? What about the real sins, the sins of the people who killed them?...God took to long to punish murderers. It was no wonder human beings invented vengeance.”
“It was always men who were remembered for what they wrote. Maybe in the new world things would be different, and women would be remembered too. No one remembered working girls–was that why women had children, so someone would remember us?”

Elana Dykewomon’s writing draws us into the lives of the women and keeps us there after the story is told.
50 reviews1 follower
October 26, 2020
This is a fascinating novel for the lives it brings to its pages and the time period in which it was set. My involvement with this book felt personal, is the women in it are my grandmothers and great grandmothers, and they fled the same violence and oppression and came to the same poverty and struggle, and politicization and commitment to a different order that Chava, the main character develops. The story of Chava and Rose is sweet and tender. The last line of the book left me in tears. I love that Emma Goldman and Mother Jones wander through these chapters!

I found the abrupt changes in point of view, within the same chapters, sort of disruptive, and probably would have preferred the entire novel to be narrated from Chava's point of view. I also wonder if Chava's character is too much the product of a contemporary imagination, or true to how she might have been in her historical time,

Here is a description written by Chava, of her people-- the poor, fleeing Jews who left the Russian Pale of Settlement and came to the USA:
"We are nervous. Often enough our generosity rouses suspicion: what guilt, what bribe lies coiled within our gifts? But when we withdrawn and are anxious to have enough for ourselves, we are called misers, usurers, petty. Typical. We are typically ourselves, laughing too loud where no one else hears a joke, abstaining in the middle of everyone else's pleasure, escaping whenever we can whatever fate you think is our justice. So we write theories, make music on street corners and study mathematics. We explain ourselves only to each other. If you overhear us, you never understand."
Profile Image for Hilo.
217 reviews9 followers
August 5, 2021
Exzellent, sinnlich und sehr traurig.
Profile Image for leah geisler.
166 reviews
January 12, 2023
3.5 out of 5.
I read this as dramaturgical research for Indecent because the subject matter is so closely aligned with the play.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I appreciate how the author goes where no author I have ever read goes before, with a Jewish immigrant lesbian relationship in the early 1900s. The early inklings of transness are even included (that could be disputed, but I rest my case).
What I struggled with most was the fact that the two women in love are cousins. I do not think them being cousins was necessary to the story, since they met in the United States. They did not immigrate together. All of the tender love that Chava and Rose share was then clouded by this fact.
One more note! If you choose to read this, keep in mind there is a brilliant Yiddish dictionary at the end (should have been at the beginning in my opinion, but again, I rest my case) since there were so many words I did not know.
Profile Image for Charlie.
19 reviews2 followers
November 23, 2022
this book was simultaneously very comforting and very unsettling, a combination i like. i appreciate the way dykewoman develops her characters’ political identities and ties them to each one’s respective experiences. as a queer jew on strike, i picked a good time to read this
Profile Image for Tom.
325 reviews29 followers
September 2, 2013
(nb: I received an Advance Review Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley)

“My aunt sat at the kitchen table, sewing again. She watched the needle piercing the cloth, in and out: how many stitches in a life?” (p.308)

How many stitches, indeed? “Beyond the Pale” contains hundreds, thousands of stitches, which—when seen as a whole—form an amazing tapestry of life and love, sorrow and loss. The scope of this book defies what any three other novels combined offer, and it puts them all in just over 300 exquisitely crafted pages.

“Beyond the Pale” starts toward the end of the 1800’s in a small Russian village. Rabbi Isaac Meyer’s wife, Miriam, is going through a difficult labor. The baby is coming out feet-first. The midwife, Gutke, is wise and experienced, and gets the infant girl delivered safely. Her parents name her Chava.

Gutke has a sort of gift, where she catches glimpses of a newborn’s future life. She doesn’t always share her visions, for some of them are indeed unpleasant. For Chava, crying out healthy and strong, she sees a long, difficult journey, which she will face with courage and loyalty.

“Beyond the Pale” shows us Gutke’s background—how she came into her gift, and how she apprenticed as a midwife—then follows Chava’s journey forward. There are indeed tough times for the young girl. At fourteen, she moves to America with her family, and starts working almost immediately for $3 a week. As she grows through her teen years, she works different jobs—as do all her family members—but there’s never enough money to move out of their cold water tenement. Two bedrooms—far more than two bodies.

Times are hard for new immigrants, doubly or trebly so for Jewish immigrants. The Russian pogroms were replaced by a not-very-subtle anti-Semitism among “American-borns” in New York. For Chava, the New World is a harsh teacher, but she finds inner-strength from her family, her work, the burgeoning labor movement, and—especially—from the girl who became the love of her life.

“Beyond the Pale” covers so much time and so many experiences, but not once does it seem forced or dragging. The pacing here is perfect. So, too, is watching the different plot strands weave together like challah dough, then become something whole, beautiful and perfect.

There is heartache in this story—Chava suffers her share and more—but she finds satisfaction as she tests her inner-strength.

Elana Dykewomon’s command of both language and storytelling is near-flawless. There isn’t one misstep in this entire novel. Everything has its purpose and place; everything advances the story or supports it. Survival can be plenty tough on its own. Add Chava’s involvement in labor organization and her then-unaccepted Lesbian love, and you will be wrung-dry emotionally by the time you finish.

Another of my favorite quotes in “Beyond the Pale” is, “If you ask me, God speaks in onions.” (p.26)

In context, this alludes to the onions and garlic at the core of most traditional dishes they cook. In aggregate, it serves as the perfect metaphor for “Beyond the Pale,” with Chava shedding layer after layer, getting closer to her core-being, to the strong woman who will fulfill her destiny.

Most Highly Recommended

(note: Following the narrative portion of “Beyond the Pale,” there is a glossary of Yiddish terms. If you are unfamiliar with Yiddish, you might want to bookmark it before you start. Just a tip)
Profile Image for Johanna Markson.
581 reviews5 followers
May 19, 2017
Beyond the Pale, Elana Dykewomon
The Pale of settlement was a large area in western Russia to which Jews were restricted from 1791 to 1917. In the Pale were cities and small shtetls where Jews worked, lived, loved, married, had children and practiced their religion. But in these lands there was also rampant Anti-Semitism and Jews had their land stolen from them, were forced to leave the only homes they knew, and were sometimes killed and their property destroyed during waves of progroms.
Within the Pale is a small city called Kishinev where Gutke is born and raised and trained to be a midwife. She is gifted at what she does and sometimes sees things about the baby's future when she helps bring them into the world. One of the babies she helps deliver is Chava, second daughter to a Rabbi and his loving wife, born before the turn of the 20th century. Although life isn't great for the Jews of Kishinev it isn't horrible either, until it is too horrible to bare and too horrible to remain.
Gutke has another secret to hide besides that fact that she has premonitions, she is also the lover of women. Interestingly, women did find way to love one another during this time, even among this very religious community. Many women were spinsters who found ways to make livings while living together as friends. Others had special relationships with their friends even though both were married and mothers. This secret world, little talked about, is a large piece of this novel.
As the violence against the Jews grows, and many people die, many Jews decide the only way to survive and have a future is to take the harsh trip to America. Chava, at 14, is one of the travelers who suffers great misery in steerage to get to America. Gutke and her lover have money and a much easier time on their voyage to the U.S.
Once in the U.S. the immigrants must find work. Chava, traveling with her aunt, uncle and three cousins, finds work in various factories while her cousin Rose works in sweatshops as a seamstress. Everyone must work to help the family survive and cling to the ugly tenement apartment they have been lucky to find. Rose's mother takes in piece work and her father goes from job to job as a watch maker. One brother becomes a policeman and the other haggles his way into small success. Luckily, the girls also find friends at the Grand Street Settlement House, and they meet other women struggling to bring dignity to the lives of immigrants and factory workers. Chava becomes an activist for women's suffrage and worker's rights.
The struggles, emotions, and personal relationships are expertly articulated in this well researched and lovingly written novel. Life in a small Russian city, the hideousness of the progroms, the igniting of love, the ride on the steamship to America, life in the tenements on the Lower East Side, working endless hours in the sweatshops, fighting for the rights of women and workers, are all elegantly and vividly brought to life in this worthy novel
Profile Image for Erica.
286 reviews56 followers
August 4, 2022
"To me the steamship reflected the world's tiered conception of heaven and hell, whether Christian or Jewish. In the hold below, the mass of sinners, whose crime was poverty and desperation, prayed for relief from the crowding, the agony of their passage. In the middle decks, uncomfortable but hardly in pain, were those who lived in purgatory, counting every kopeck, balancing the small pleasure of adequate ventilation and relatively clean facilities against their fear of sliding into the abyss and their constant envy of those above them, whose parties they could actually hear. On top, the blessed reaped the rewards of industry and luck, of willingness to take advantage of others and circumstance, of turning opportunity into profit. Suppose in heaven everything was reversed? Those who sailed with such comfort would be thrown into the fiery pit, while those who had endured the hold were crowned as martyrs, heroes of the human condition. Did God really intend eternal reversal to stand as justice? I'd think God would have as many reservations as I did about the ultimate foolishness of glorifying any one at the expense of any other."

I found Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon (best pen name) at a used bookstore years ago, captivated by the premise. Chava was a Russian Jewish lesbian who immigrated to New York City at the turn of the twentieth century. (See? It had me at Jewish lesbian.) This book is an incredible look at the classism, racism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism that was the experience for many new American immigrants. It especially looked at Chava's experience as a factory laborer who was joining with other women to strike against unfair working conditions in a country with no protections. The women in this story stood up for themselves when their lives and livelihoods were at stake. Many chose queer love as a direct rejection of the terms of their prescribed lives as wives and mothers. The prose was perfection. I highly recommend picking up this book!
Profile Image for LVLMLeah.
307 reviews29 followers
June 22, 2015
4 1/2 Stars

This is an intense and often painful book to read, although it's full of humanity, deep insight, and heart. It's really more of a saga as it goes through 2 generations of Russian Jews from late 1800's to almost the 1920's.

It starts out with Gutke delivering Chava. Gutke is by then in her 40's and the first half of the book is about her life growing up as she reflects on it up to that moment.

The second part of the book is about Chava, a Rabbi's daughter, and her life from the point of childhood. Due to the changing political atmosphere in Russia in which Jews were being persecuted and murdered and forced to constantly move, both women, although not together, eventually make their way to America.

After we get Chava's story, the book jumps back and forth until both women eventually, by accident, meet in NYC.

It's a book about the hardship of Jewish life and life of immigrants of the early 1900's. It's also about how women were fighting for more rights and better workplace treatment. It's very detailed and clearly the author did a lot of research.

Although both women are lesbians, I did find it interesting that it was not the focus. Or at least from their inner standpoint, as both are narrators of their feelings about their lives, they do not stress about or constantly wonder about their attractions to women. It's very subtle in how it's presented. On the other hand it did show how women could get on in that way and manage. Gutke's partner dresses and a goes through life as a man and he is treated as such by society and people around them who knew seemed to not be too bothered. It’s not really any kind of love story as the focus, although love relationships are part of it.

As far at the narration goes, I was a bit jarred by the author's voice. She narrates her own book and it was read in an almost perfunctory, dry way, which I had a hard time with at first. But then I got used to it and started to feel these characters in the author's voice. The only confusing thing is that she didn't change the voice for each character. But that wasn't that big of a deal.

Definitely a book I would recommend people read. Especially if you have any interest in actual historical events and how it pertained to Jewish history.
Profile Image for Christoph Fischer.
Author 50 books473 followers
July 3, 2013
"Beyond the Pale" is an amazing piece of literature, an almost epic historical novel that spans a comparatively short period oh history but covers a lot of ground.
The book tells the interwoven stories of Chava, a Russian girl that escapes a Russian pogrom, and that of midwife Gutke and her female companion who is dressed up as a man.
As we follow their lot through the exciting times and their journey from Russia / Bessarabia to New York we also follow the course of European and World History and the many pressing themes of the times, such as gender equality, trade unionism, anti-semitism and many more.
As often in good historical fiction the small tragedy is multiplied by the outer circumstances, the fate of torn apart families and the hope of a better life in America, all these themes are handled very well and convincing.
The book seems accurate in its historical facts and details and reads compellingly well. Excellent!
Profile Image for Krista.
62 reviews1 follower
March 25, 2011
Got to thinking about this book the other day when hearing a lot on the radio about the 100th year commemoration of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This was a favorite among favorite works of historical fiction that I read in the 90's which has come back to me again and again in fragments over the years (which is saying something if you know how bad my memory is). Main character begins as an apprentice to a midwife in a Russian shtetl and ends up a labor unionist and suffragist in New York after fleeing the pogroms that kill her parents. Also details the love and courage of she and her lover who struggle against the compounded challenges they faced not just as poor women immigrants, but also as lesbians and activists.
Profile Image for GGG.
72 reviews
April 9, 2011
An excellent, under-read book. It is about love between women across generations and continents. It's also about Jewish experience in Russia and the U.S., and about the early labor movement. It's moving, not lecturey or overtly political (although it abounds with politics and values), and profoundly compelling. My mom recommended it to her book club at work, and she said all were deeply moved by it.
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