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Elena Dykewomon (Nachman) ’71

August 7, 2022, in Oakland, California, of esophageal cancer.

Beginning with the publication of her first novel, Riverfinger Women, Elana became a central figure in lesbian literature, history, and activism.

She was born into a fiercely Zionist household in Manhattan, the eldest of Harvey and Rachel Nachman’s three children. Harvey had been a navigator in the U.S. Army Air Forces during the Second World War and then volunteered as a pilot in the Arab-Israeli War of 1948, while Rachel helped smuggle arms to Israel. Around the time Elena was eight, Harvey moved his family to Puerto Rico in 1958 to open a law practice.

As a child, Elana knew she was “different,” but doctors told her she couldn’t possibly be homosexual. When her family moved to Puerto Rico, she found the Latin macho culture alienating, with its sexual role playing by men and women. She attempted suicide when she was 11, and spent a year recuperating at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. At Windsor Mountain School, a progressive boarding school in Lenox, Massachusetts, she came out as a lesbian and found a modicum of peace and acceptance.

Elana studied fine art at Reed for two years. She received a bachelor’s degree in creative writing from the California Institute of the Arts and a master of fine arts degree from San Francisco State University, where she later taught composition and creative writing for nearly two decades.

When she was 24-years-old, she published her debut novel, Riverfinger Women (1974), a ribald coming-of-age story about lesbian life during the social upheaval of that era. Initially written for—but rejected by—a straight publishing house marketing a line of pornography for bored housewives, Riverfinger was the first to be advertised as a lesbian book in the New York Times.

After the novel was published, Elana dropped the name Nachman, taking on the pen name Elana Dykewoman (later Dykewomon). “I chose ‘dyke’ for the power and ‘womon’ for the alliance,” she wrote in an essay published in a 2017 anthology, Dispatches From Lesbian America. “I figured if I called myself Dykewomon, I would never get reviewed in the New York Times. Which has been true. If I had it to do all over again, I might have chosen Dykestein or Dykeberg.”

Thus began a five-decade career as an outspoken writer of fiction, drama, and poetry. In the early ’80s, she settled in Oakland, California, drawn to the area because of its Jewish lesbian activist community, and was an organizer of the San Francisco Dyke March.

Her novel Beyond the Pale (1997) won the Lambda Literary Award for lesbian fiction and remains a classic in a genre that Elana pioneered. Tracing the entwined stories of Jewish lesbians from Kishinev, Moldova, to the Lower East Side, the story included Russian pogroms and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial disasters in U.S. history.

“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 she was not religious as an adult, as a writer she maintained a strong sense of Jewish identity, frequently writing pieces on Jewish themes. She also edited Sinister Wisdom, a quarterly lesbian literary and art journal, and co-edited special issues including “To Be a Jewish Dyke in the 21st Century,” and another story told from the point of view of a woman wandering in the desert with the Israelites after leaving Egypt.

Elana also published five collections of poetry and short stories and contributed to many lesbian-themed publications. In May, she was officially named a “trailblazer” by the Golden Crown Literary Society for prose that depicted “the lives of women and lesbians, both contemporary and historical, allowing us to see our stories on the page long before those stories were widely available.”

Elana and her wife and longtime partner, attorney Susan Levinkind, lived in an East Oakland enclave that is home to other LGBTQ artists and writers. Elana could often be seen walking her little dog, Alice B. Toklas. Following the death of Levinkind in 2016 from Lewy body dementia, Elana wrote a play, How to Let Your Lover Die, a rumination on love and loss. It was one of only five works selected from the 240 submitted for this year’s Bay Area Playwrights Festival. This summer, Elana worked with the actors who would perform two livestreamed, staged readings of the play. She was in hospice at home with friends and died just 20 minutes before the start of the second staged reading. The friends, neighbors, and family members watched her play on Zoom before calling the authorities. When mortuary workers came for her body, those assembled filed out silently behind them and broke into spontaneous applause as her body was placed in the van. Elana is survived by her brothers, Daniel Nachman and David Nachman.

Appeared in Reed magazine: December 2022

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