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. 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.
Set in Russia and New York during the early twentieth century and touching on the hallmarks of the Progressive Era—the Women’s Trade Union League, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911, anarchist and socialist movements, women’s suffrage, anti-Semitism—Elana Dykewomon’s Beyond the Pale is a richly detailed and moving story, offering a glimpse into a world that is often overlooked.
“A wonderful novel.” —Sarah Waters
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Beyond the Pale
By Elana Dykewomon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2013 Elana Dykewomon
All rights reserved.
A Tiny Shofar
I am original alphabet.
from my spine
cutting ciphers in
my mother's cells.
I scan my fate
on the wrinkled walls
of that first room
in my red fist
scraps of prophecy.
In Kishinev the river Byk is frozen. The oven is stuffed with coal, yet Miriam lies shivering on a small bed in one of the few stone houses on Gostinaya Street, cursing the walls: "Everything is ripped out. Stone—why did you let yourself be cut off the mountain, for what? I can't, I can not go through this again. Stone—"
Gutke pulls Miriam's dark, damp hair back, ties and tucks it behind her neck. Her fingertips push into the soft furrows of Miriam's forehead, as if she could smooth the strain away. One of Gutke's eyes is as black as Miriam's, the other flecked gold. Miriam stares into one eye and then the other, working out a puzzle, letting the midwife's gaze travel inside her, all the way to the second heartbeat. Her breathing calms.
Gutke pours wine from a jar onto a rag and runs it over Miriam's lips. "Go on, say what you like. It's just me here, listening. Women bring forth in sadness. We fulfill the word, God's judgment on Eve."
"I'm not Eve. I don't deserve this pain." She clutches at Gutke's stained skirt.
Gutke shrugs. "You know yourself pain is never a matter of deserving. We'll get through this together. Watch my eyes."
"What are you giving her?" Rabbi Isaac stops pacing, grabbing hold of the doorposts and pushing his chest into the room, bending his head to avoid the beam.
"She's raving already. Only give her water."
"Rabbi, no offense, I do this all week long. Perhaps a psalm would calm the house. You could find just the right one, nu? Come and read to us, or else I'll call you if I need your help."
Isaac thumps into the other room, kicking up dust from the packed dirt floor. Why Gutke again? There are other midwives, even his mother Malka volunteered, but Miriam has to have the half-Jew. Stubborn. That's how they always argue, back and forth: You have to be so stubborn.—Me, stubborn? It's you—.
He should be in shul now, close to the stove, discussing the week's midrash. He could go anyway. No one would fault him. The other men would say he was every inch a rabbi—his wife is home giving birth, but does that stop him from honoring God?
The boys are at their lessons, baby Esther with his sister Shendl. Still, what if Miriam should need him? Leaving her alone with Gutke, that wouldn't be wise. Of course you cannot blame the woman for her mother's sins. No one ever complains about Gutke as a midwife, but she could be working enchantments. It's up to a rabbi to make sure there's no opening for Lilith. All right, all right, maybe Gutke is right, a psalm. He sighs, noticing how the Book of Job precedes the Book of Psalms. Everything is infused with meaning, certainly the word of God. Here is his message to bend his spirit to the event.
Gutke hears mumbling from the other room and is relieved. Miriam presses her eyelids shut, rolls her head away from the wall, opens them again. While Isaac stood in the doorway, Miriam could hear every word he thought. Everything is clearer, magnified when you give birth—or maybe when Gutke comes. A mixed blessing. Miriam gave in to Isaac when she had her second child. The Jewish midwife, he insisted. Gutke's a good Jew, she said to him. But he had just received his appointment at the guild congregation; he was so nervous. She wanted to tell him it was vanity, but she didn't dare.
Sweet, I thought it was sweet, how proud and vain he was about me, Miriam thinks. Then Chaim died a week later. Always you learn to hold your own in suffering. How else? Some of the women won't have Gutke in their house; they're afraid. So, she sees things when the baby comes. Not much really, or maybe she sees more than she says and just gives a clue. I like clues. I like to know what I can. But maybe she only makes things up—Esther, she said, would be kasha and lace. Kasha, that's easy enough to predict for a girl. My Abraham, he'll be an olive branch in Zion. I could have told her that. But Daniel, what did she say about Daniel? He will cover himself in ink as a drunkard flings himself into the wine barrel. What a thing to tell a mother—oh no—
Suddenly Miriam's eyes are very wide, her breathing hard as a blacksmith's hammer. She sits straight up.
"Better to sit up. It hasn't been so long. You see, your body remembers," Gutke says. "Just follow your body. For me you shouldn't be modest. Sitting up will make it easier. Turn sideways on the bed, and I'll put a pillow against the wall for you. It's just a little while longer." Miriam's contractions are coming quickly. Gutke wedges two chairs against the bed. Miriam, pressing her bare feet against the wood, is grateful for the resistance. Her legs are wrapped in cotton cloth; the featherbed drapes around her like a shawl. But still she shivers, the cold reaching for her through the walls.
"What? Is something wrong with my baby?"
"It's too soon to tell. We know it's coming feet first." The opening is three fingers wide now. Miriam always stretched well, no need for cutting. But the shape of the mound is wrong, not round as a fist pounding on the door of the world, the way it should be. And the smell is slightly off. Gutke knows the entire catalog of scent. She likes this smell, the condensation of woman—urine, sweat, blood, secretions that ease the baby's way. She can remember how Miriam smelled with Esther, strong, simple. Now this is just a little wrong, smoky, almost. Because the baby is coming backwards or something else? Gutke puts a knotted, dry rag in Miriam's hand.
"You have to trust me. Keep your legs open just as they are. The baby is going to need a little more help than usual."
Miriam sweats and then gets clammy. She gives a shriek. "My kishkes—it's scraping them out!"
The opening seems to wink at Gutke, giving her hope. Yes, the baby is upside down, but exactly, which is better than sideways. Here's a tiny foot, like a flag, surrendering, and here's the other. She puts her hands on the feet. The head you must not yank, yet everything depends on getting the head through fast.
"Breathe and push. You call that a push? Your baby Esther could push harder. Okay, take a deep breath. I'm going to pull and you're going to push." It hurts much more this way. Head first, the opening is widest in the beginning. Then it's easy and the mother can rest a little as the baby makes its way towards the light. But this—Gutke can feel the pain in her own pelvis.
"Give a little yell, that's good. Good, yell again. The baby just doesn't want to let go of you, coming into this world, and why not?" One hand wraps around the infant's thighs and as Miriam pushes, she drags, supporting the baby's back with her other hand, angling the shoulders slightly. Miriam's skin begins to tear and Gutke has no time to take care of it.
"Almighty God I can't stand this I can't—." Miriam's lips are swollen, blood suffusing their brownness, turning almost pink. Coming out, the baby is like a noodle, stretching, long, thin and then—yoke and bulb, shoulders and head sticking.
"Push, Miriam, push. You're strong, you want your baby to live." Gutke, still calm, moves her hand to hold the cord tight against the body, so it doesn't tangle. She gives a good twisting pull. The baby's chin is coming out now, face down towards the floor. "Once more," and the baby is out. Gutke gives it a first somersault, keeping the cord away from the neck.
"Thank God." Miriam is gulping, moaning. Isaac's prayers are louder, frightened and sharp. But in this moment Gutke hears nothing. This is the best, this absolute silence before the baby cries. And then the cry itself, a new voice, a tiny shofar announcing its own first year. Gutke and Miriam breathe out together as soon as the baby wails. Miriam is ragged and bleeding at the base of the birth opening, but for only half an inch.
"It's all right?"
Gutke smoothes the baby's face, spreading the buttery secretion over legs, belly, shoulders.
"It's all right. You have a baby girl, born on the twenty-second of Shevat, 5649, a Tuesday, so ugly that if you show her to the river, it will stay frozen and spring won't come this year." That should keep the evil eye off this long, good-looking child, Gutke thinks.
Miriam laughs, dry, flat, grateful. The baby's all right! She can feel it on her belly; her hands find her daughter's hands; she circles them in her fist, learning her daughter by the shape, feel, hunger of her. Miriam shudders, sweat covers the sheets, the shivering stops. Gutke clamps the cord now, the way she has hundreds of times, when the blood is quiet, not rushing between mother and newborn. She makes the cut clean, ties up the end close to the baby's navel, leans over Miriam, wipes her forehead, puts a little more wine on her lips.
Then she threads a needle with thick, special thread she makes herself for this purpose. She waits. Miriam's arm tightens around her daughter as she grunts out the afterbirth. Quickly Gutke sews the tear.
"This is my fault. I hope you will forgive me—I didn't think I needed to open the skin. Now it hurts a little more. You will have to stay in bed at least a few days so it heals well and doesn't tear again. Your mother-in-law, maybe you'll have her in to watch the children? You'll do this so I can redeem my conscience?"
"For your conscience. It will be a mitsve for me." Miriam is stroking her tiny daughter's head, patting the circle of black hair.
Gutke smiles as she wipes Miriam clean, her thighs, her lips, the stitches, the underside of her cheeks. With her palm pressed against Miriam's vagina, she closes her eyes and sees water as big as the Black Sea. Bigger. Not unusual, she sees this ocean often. But now the water is bright, as if lit from underneath, sharp and steaming, too hot to touch. For a moment she is dizzy. Enough, she says to the water, enough. Then she pulls the sheets up and rinses her hands in the basin. Miriam holds her baby and watches Gutke. When Gutke turns back to her, she grabs her hand, pressing almost as hard as when she was bearing down.
"What did you see for my daughter?"
"A long, difficult journey. But she will be loyal and have courage."
"Courage?" Miriam runs her tongue over dry lips. A little more wine, why not? "Is that some kind of curse? Every Jew has courage."
"'Some will go wandering; some will stay home.' I don't write the Book of Life, I only read it and, anyway, from a great distance. It may mean nothing."
"I'm very tired," Miriam says, moving her fingers in Gutke's palm as if she were trying to decipher some code imprinted there.
"It's time for you to rest now." She runs her hands through Miriam's hair. They breathe together, slow, intimate. "Rabbi Meyer," she calls as she straightens up. "There is a new girl in your house!"
Isaac hunches through the doorway in an instant. He reaches for the hand that isn't cradling the baby, but Miriam twines her fingers in his wiry beard instead. He shouldn't touch her now; she's still unclean from giving birth. Later he'll take a purifying bath and pray.
"I want to call her Chava, after my grandmother's sister," Miriam says. "She will be a friend to us. She came out backwards, Isaac, can you imagine? But she's all right, she's fine. My little Chavele."
"Backwards? So that's what all that yelling was about. I thought you were dying, kayn ayen-hore." He laughs and pulls her hand out of his beard. "So, Chava. Chava is fine. She's your daughter, very good looking in an ugly sort of way." Two boys, two girls. He accepts. He is good at accepting but he also worries that maybe he is not as powerful as before, not as favored by God.
"Yes, yes she is. I am going to fall asleep soon. Remember to pay Gutke."
His hand moves shyly across his daughter's black hair as if he were afraid of being burned, then he rests his palm around her skull. Quickly he pulls back and slaps the knuckles of his fist. It will be all right. There's plenty. Miriam could have another ten children. God would provide. Girls, girls are all right—it's good for Esther to have a sister now; she'll like that.
Gutke clears her throat.
"Well," he considers the solid, serious woman in front of him. Certainly his mother could not have delivered a baby that came into the world backwards. "Everything is good then?"
"Yes, and the charge is three rubles."
"Three? For a girl? It was only two for Daniel."
"Now it is 1889, Rabbi Meyer, and Daniel was easy. I'm not even charging you extra for the scare your daughter gave us."
"Chavele," Miriam is singing, "little Chavele, you don't know, your mother brought you into the world beside a wall of stone. Little Chavele, little Chavele, wine is sweet and stone is hard, the world is cold and the river frozen, may you live to walk among the plum trees blooming."
"What's that she's singing to the baby?" Isaac asks.
"Just nonsense, a comforting song," Gutke answers, putting the rubles in her skirt pocket.
"Chavele, my baby Chavele, drink now, the world is changing."
The Words for It
The Christians say we are coming into the twentieth century, the beginning of a new age for humanity. May it please God that it be a better age than the last. I, Gutke Gurvich, have had the great good fortune to live these forty-one years. I want to hold my memories, bind them up as individual stalks of wheat are gathered in the field, that they may be part of the harvest of my life. I am a simple woman who has seen the very center of creation repeatedly as I have tended women in birth. Never having given a child of my own to the world, I choose to create in Yiddish for myself and my few dear friends. Like Glükel of Hamlin, it may be that my words will be found by later generations, and help them understand how it was for us in Bessarabia. But if future generations think it perverse for a poor woman to have the chutzpe to write down her own life—well, much of my life would seem perverse, depending on the judge. I spend my days taking care of others. On these pages I do as I please.
What I like to write about best is Pesah Kohn, my great benefactor, may she be singing in heaven at this very minute. But like every woman, I must begin with my own mother.
My mother, of blessed memory, Feygele Gurvich, of Kamenka on the Dniestr, a mottled reed of a woman, was given in marriage when she was just thirteen years old and the boy fourteen. Think of it! As if the family couldn't wait to get rid of her. But it was a common thing in those times, only a minute after the death of the Tsar Nicholas.
The boy was the son of an innkeeper who had good relations with all the local police, so his family managed to keep him from the draft. Sometimes kidnappers—soldiers or vagabonds who'd get a ruble for their trouble—took boys as young as eight and shut them up with priests, doing who knows what to them so they would forget they were Jews. If you said for one moment, just to make them stop yammering, "All right, I'll go by your church," that was it. No turning back, ever. A terrible thing, the family had to mourn for you as if you had died.
My mother's family was poor but very pious, somewhere a rabbi among the distant relatives, though my grandfather was just a man who sold a little this, a little that, a peddler. All my mother ever said was that he smelled like fish. Feygele was the oldest daughter and there was a younger one, by a year, who was a beauty. They wanted to make sure my mother was all set so they could get an even better catch for my aunt.
Of course Feygele didn't know her husband before the marriage, how could she? She was always working from the time she was nine. It was a very good match for her. The boy was a scholarly type and everyone said she was very lucky, since her family couldn't make a dowry for her except for two goats, a sack of potatoes and a few rubles. They agreed to give the boy the traditional food and lodging while he was studying. So they married. He moved in and she went on as before, taking in washing to help the family.
For six months they lived this way. I could never find out if they even knew each other as husband and wife. By the time I was old enough to ask, my mother had made a complete legend of him: good, kind, smart, shy, the prophets would drink honey from his lips. They were children, only, walking in adult clothes. Sometimes it just goes that way. You start walking around in your mother's big shoes and the next time you look down, your feet are all swollen and sore, the shoes barely fit. Then it's too late to say you were just pretending, am I right?
Since before the time of Catherine, Jews have lived the same way in Russia. We bend under one tsar, straighten up a little under another. So Tsar Nicholas died, my mother married the innkeeper's son and the innkeeper, maybe he thought he didn't have to bribe the police anymore for protection. Of course anytime you think you're safe from the authorities is an illusion. Seeing how much suffering a Jew can take is a game to them. And Jews—they turn away. I've heard the Gentile women talk about their Christ. "Turn the other cheek," he said. If he said that, then it must be true he was a Jew.
Excerpted from Beyond the Pale by Elana Dykewomon. Copyright © 2013 Elana Dykewomon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
One of my favorite books ever written.
You will stay up all night just to find out how things turn out. I will read it again and again. Dykewomon's words allow you to feel what the characters feel and transports you back in time.
The author is able to take you to a time and place in the past where you experiance the experiences of the people in the book. You feel thier feelings. It is an outstanding work.