"My Place in Judaism": Geography, Ethnicity, and Sexuality on Sarah Schulman's Lower East Side
Bachmann, Monica, Shofar
Novelist Sarah Schulman's characters inhabit southern Manhattan's lower East Side and the East Village, drawing on real and imagined histories of Jewish and gay activism and creativity in their search for physical and cultural space in which they can experiment with sexuality, art, and politics. Variant sexuality and minority ethnicity inform and amplify each other, as metaphors drawn from Jewish culture find their way into descriptions of queer life, and gay references function as comments on Jewish existence. Even while Schulman's characters move through streets rich with references to both Jewish and gay communities, those references increasingly nod to the past, as Jews move out of "the city" to the suburbs and to other cities, and gentrification threatens the economic viability of lesbians and gay men living on capitalism's margins. Schulman's fictional "tours" of gay and Jewish spaces of lower New York both memorialize and construct these intertwined communities.
Sarah Schulman, born in 1958, has lived in New York most of her life and sets her seven novels in what New Yorkers call "the city." New York City, and especially the overlapping blocks known variously as the East Village and the Lower East Side, serves in her novels as the new-world setting for Jews and gay people, including Jewish gay people, who strive to support themselves and one another, to look back to the history of both peoples, and to resist creeping gentrification while surviving by means of creative acts facilitated by the human connections possible if not always attained in crowded city streets and tenements. In the teeming geographic and social networks of the city, her characters can live as outlaws and artists, writers and journalists, trading greetings with drug dealers, panhandlers, and other outcasts of society, and harking back to the city's history of labor and queer activism and art. It is the city that allows Lila Futuransky, protagonist of Girls, Visions and Everything, to feel that she "could construct any kind of life that she desired to live."1 Schulman's fictional characters participate in and comment upon the forming, reforming, and dissolution of queer and Jewish communities in downtown New York.
Episodes in each of the novels bring together aspects of Jewish and queer identity, all within the geographic context of specific New York spaces. Schulman's 1984 novel, The Sophie Horowitz Story, follows an investigative journalist as she chases a lead for an exciting story down to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, on New York's Lower East Side. There, during orthodox services, the eponymous protagonist makes love with another woman behind the gendersegregating curtain. Afterwards, Sophie reflects on the experience: "I felt really good, I had found my place in Judaism, behind the curtain making love with girls."2 Her "place in Judaism" harks back to the bustling Jewish life of immigrants living on the Lower East Side; Sophie iterates the history of the synagogue, from its construction in 1887 to its precarious current position as a relic from a long-gone era. "Built by Eastern European Jewish immigrants," she tells us,"it had once had a congregation of thousands. Now, its twenty paid members try to keep the roof from falling in on the Italian walls, walnut pews and hand-blown glass gas-lights" (SHS 59). Her "place in Judaism" refers also to an imagined space of specifically Jewish lesbian desire and sexuality: her experience of making love with Muffin, she imagines, must resemble that of other Jewish women in the past. She implies that other female worshippers may have enjoyed one another behind the curtain, realizing that the men in the synagogue could not know and probably did not care what the women were doing during services (SHS 59). She describes her "agile and dark-skinned" partner as"[t]he kind of woman my grandmother probably made out with in the potato fields of Lithuania" (SHS 60). By locating this experience in the historic synagogue, and by comparing it to the imagined sexual acts of her character's Jewish foremothers, Schulman brings together Judaism and lesbianism, in a conjunction that allows Sophie to feel that she has "found [her] place. …