Ellen Galford’s The Dyke and the Dybbuk is, for only being eighteen years old, fairly iconic and hallowed in the tiny subgenre in which I spend most of my writing time. In other words, it may very well be the first great piece of sapphic Jewish fantasy. If I’m wrong, I’d love to know about more! In any case, it was a pleasure to read–sarcastic, sardonic, hopeful, enthusiastic, both a love story to our culture and a sharp criticism of some of its more tiresome features.
The initial premise stems from a trope some people may find painful, but is all too realistic thanks to the way society overwhelmingly pressures cis women to marry cis men. Namely, two young women in historical Jewish Eastern Europe are in love, until one of them leaves to marry a man. The jilted woman (herself somewhat of an outcast for her mixed parentage) responds by cursing the bride with demon possession. Thus enter our “what if Loki was a lesbian” demon, the hilarious–and also sapphic–dybbuk of the title. But she winds up imprisoned in a tree instead of being able to haunt the married woman and her daughters and granddaughters per the curse’s instructions, so it isn’t until the ninth generation of offspring that she gets a chance to escape and begin her assignment.
And this ninth generation is a British lesbian film critic who drives a taxi for her day job.
Rainbow Rosenbloom’s more at odds with her Judaism than I am, but, firstly, the book was written in an earlier generation, and secondly, there are pretty much twice as many ways to be Jewish as there are actual Jews in the world. I am confident that her experiences accurately reflect many other people’s relationship with their Jewishness. She’s surrounded by paternal aunts and she’s over-aware of the ways her preference for women—as well as her self-chosen first name, and also eating treyf–puts her in direct opposition to the way they want her to live.
The dybbuk decides that Rainbow’s already weird enough and has already maxed out ‘acting out’, so she can’t possibly make her look any weirder by ordinary possession. Therefore, she decides as her project she’s going to give Rainbow a massive crush on–Riva, a married Orthodox woman with six children! So suddenly, she’s super interested in her faith in a way she never was before (the irony being that it’s only because of a demon’s influence.) In comes an intense crush that I totally recognized from various straight girls I’ve crushed on.
Now, I have a soft spot for pious women, so like the sucker I am, I did fall hook line and sinker for the Rainbow/Riva ‘ship in this book. Spoiler warning: the author went somewhere else, but that’s okay. The book does deliver happy f/f endings, and even the demon herself gets to have some fun.
As far as the issue of how the book made me feel as a bisexual woman — the line “trendy bisexual” was used at one point in dialogue, but I do feel like any criticism of bi women’s choices was intended as unreliable narrator because from what I can remember it’s followed up with a reminder that they don’t actually know if the olden-days bride was bi or if she just married a man to appease cultural traditions which is extremely possible, given the circumstances. I beg of those reading this review to please be gentle with me if your experiences lead you to feel differently, because the week after I read the book my spouse ended our thirteen year relationship and so 1. I am not particularly able to hold my own in discourse at the moment and 2. I am writing this a month after reading the book and after a considerable amount of pain, so my memory isn’t perfect.
Either way, if you’re a Jewish woman who likes women, it’s worth checking out even if you aren’t a fan of spec fic. The speculative elements are lighthearted and easy to process–among themselves, the demons’ society is a parody of modern corporate culture and office politics. It’s out of print right now but worldcat.org has it listed in libraries all over the place, and I had no trouble getting a hold of it through interlibrary loan, so if you don’t mind using the system—and plenty of librarians told me that using a library actually helps libraries and isn’t a strain on them at all—it should be relatively easy. Besides, used copies are not hard to find.
Content warning: I have vague memories of there being the g-slur (for Rromani) in there someplace.
Thank you for taking the time to read my review! I write more of them at http://shiraglassman.wordpress.com and on Goodreads, or check out my latest book, The Olive Conspiracy, Jewish fantasy about a young lesbian queen who must work together with her found-family, including her wife, a dragon, a witch, and a warrior woman, to save their country from an international sabotage plot.