Interview

Ten Unanswered Questions: An Unconventional Interview with Eve Adams

Noam Sienna

INTRODUCTION

This uncon­ven­tion­al inter­view” is also an uncon­ven­tion­al review of the fol­low­ing book: Jonathan Ned Katz, The Dar­ing Life and Dan­ger­ous Times of Eve Adams (Chica­go Review Press, 2021). 240 pp., $30.00.

Close to a century ago — on Thursday June 17, 1926, to be precise — the New York City police arrested a young Polish Jewish immigrant named Khave Zloczower, also known as Eve Adams. As detailed in Jonathan Ned Katz’s thrilling and meticulously-researched biography, The Daring Life and Dangerous Times of Eve Adams (Chicago Review Press, 2021), Eve Adams had been under FBI surveillance for years for her socialist activism. But what ultimately sealed her fate was something more personal.

In 1924, Adams had opened a tearoom in New York’s Greenwich Village known as “Eve’s Hangout.” This bohemian club, which hosted poetry readings, art classes, and evening lectures, became known as a safe space for what one newspaper called “close-cropped women in mannish attire…” (Katz 74). In the spring of 1925, Adams went further and published a remarkable collection of short stories, based on the women she had known and loved, boldly entitled Lesbian Love. Printed privately in 150 copies (and long thought lost, but now reprinted in full in an appendix to Katz’s biography), Lesbian Love contains nine stories, most of which seem autobiographical, describing vibrant and sometimes turbulent romantic and sexual relationships between women. It is believed that this book is the first study of the lesbian community in the United States written by a lesbian author.

Sadly, it was just too bold for its time. One of Adams’ neighbours tipped off the NYC police that “indecent literature was on sale” at Eve’s Hangout, and an undercover policewoman was assigned to investigate. Receiving an autographed copy of Lesbian Love, she alerted the backup officers, and they raided the tearoom. Adams, along with many of her gay and lesbian patrons, was arrested and charged with “publishing obscene literature” and “disorderly conduct” (66).

She was sentenced to a year in prison, which she served — but more was to come. Because Adams was not an American citizen, the judge notified immigration officials that she had committed “a crime of moral turpitude,” which justified her deportation. She was given a hearing, but despite her impassioned pleas that “I have always conducted myself properly in this country, I love this country with my whole heart and soul. I want to become a citizen, [and] if I am deported, my life is ruined,” the ruling was final (94). On December 7, 1927, “Chawa Zlotczewer, alias Evelyn Adams,” was deported from the United States back to Poland.

She made her way to Paris, where she spent the next decade eking out a living selling books while living with her new partner, a Polish Jewish singer from Lodz named Hella Olstein. As the clouds of war began darkening European skies in the late 1930s, Adams and Olstein began to contemplate an escape. To one friend, Adams wrote: “My mind is on Moscow and Tel-Aviv [sic], two new lands… Both countries, Russia and Palestine, are calling me, and there where I can make myself useful and do something to help along to build life, I shall remain until the wanderlust will call me again. I made up my mind to go together with my friend Hella. How and when we will do it, I do not know as yet” (125). In other letters, she begged her American friends to help her obtain a visa to be readmitted to the United States.

But neither Russia, nor Palestine, nor the USA was to be in her future. In December 1943, Adams and Olstein were arrested in Nice and sent to Drancy, and from Drancy on transport convoy no. 63 to Auschwitz, where they were both murdered. As Katz writes in his conclusion: “It’s daunting to follow atrocity with words. No language is adequate to Eve’s cruel murder, and the executions of millions. Silence seems more fitting; it gives us time to catch our breath. But after silence words are called for—emotions are not enough” (153).

Katz’s book is a sensitive portrait of Adams’ life, highlighting both the challenges faced by LGBTQ people in early 20th-century America and their significance for understanding the art, literature, and politics of the period. But it is far from the final word. In an attempt to put into words some of the lingering questions that Adams’ story has raised for me about the role that Judaism and the Jewish community played in her life — questions perhaps only Adams could answer — I have decided to interview her. This interview, of course, is by necessity a one-sided one. Even if Adams had survived and lived to hundert un tzvanzik, she would no longer be alive in 2021. Unfilled gaps and unanswerable questions regularly punctuate Katz’s narrative, reminding us of the great distance from which we have attempted to know Eve Adams. Similarly, her silences in my interview with her speak to all that we cannot know about our pasts, and all the answers that have been stolen from us.

At the same time, her story (especially in Katz’s telling) seems so vivid that at times I feel that I almost knew her. Adams’ brother Yerachmiel Zahavy and Olstein’s brother André Olstein both lived into the 1980s, and it is thanks to them and their families that many memories and documents of Eve Adams’ life were preserved. The daughter of Adams’ American partner Ruth Olson Norlander, Joan Norlander, whom Adams helped raise as a child, died in December 2000. The longest-lived of Adams’ acquaintances, Olstein’s younger brother Georges Olstein — to whom Adams once gifted a watercolor by Henry Miller — died at the age of 98 in 2017. Katz concludes, in the words of the Auschwitz exhibit at New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage: “Eve lived “not long ago,” and “not far away”… Eve Adams is our contemporary” (160). I can only wonder at what she might have brought into the world had she been allowed to stay in the United States; it is even possible that she could have met and befriended her own passionate biographer. I am grateful to Katz for recovering and honouring the remarkable story of this witty, talented, and brave woman, and I hope that these questions spur further research into her life’s work and others like her.

Noam E. Sienna: Eve — or should I say Khave? Ewa? What name do you prefer? I wonder if the many names that appear in the records you left behind each mean something different to you. The evocative “Eve Adams” for advertising your tearoom, the barely-disguised pseudonym “Evelyn Addams” on the title-page of your book, the intimate and affectionate “Khavetshe” to your beloved younger brother in Palestine. As your biographer hypothesizes, “[your] chosen appellation hinted playfully at [your] androgynous persona, combining a bit of Eve, a bit of Adam… It suggests [your] desire to define for [yourself] the woman emerging on [your] exploratory American journey” (36). Could you speak to what these different names represent?

Eve Adams: [silence]

NES: In the 1925 New York State census, you gave your occupation as “writer.” According to Katz’ reconstructed timeline, you had just published your book Lesbian Love a few months earlier. Your English prose, both published and unpublished, is evocative and engaging, as is the little writing that survives of your Yiddish family correspondence. Did you ever try your hand at publishing any of your writing in Yiddish? In several places, you indicate that you worked for Jacob Marinoff [1869-1964], selling subscriptions to Der Groyser Kundes, and according to one report, you also advertised for Di Naye Velt, among other “radical papers” (40). Did you ever write for these papers yourself? Perhaps you published under a pseudonym — you certainly wouldn’t be the only one!

EA: [silence]

NES: Similarly, I’d like to ask about your literary friends and colleagues in the Yiddish world, since Katz’s biography already explores your connections with English writers, including Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Peter Neagoe. I mentioned Jacob Marinoff, and you were also acquainted with his sister, whom you apparently quite admired, the actress Fanya Marinoff (wife of bohemian writer Carl Van Vechten). Another clue comes from a Yiddish letter to your brother Yerachmiel from the early 1970s, in which your cousin Zekharya Zloczower (later Zachy Zacharia) remembered that “in Yiddish circles, [you] circulated among writers, [and] for a time [were] close to the poet Menakhem [Boreysho, 1888-1949].” 1 1 This quote is not found in Katz’s book, but is presented on his website in the original Yiddish and an English translation among other supplementary documents relating to Eve: https://outhistory.org/exhibits/show/evad What Yiddish writers were in those circles? I wonder whether you ever crossed paths with your Mława-landsman Joseph Opatoshu [1886-1954], only a few years your senior, whose frank and realist stories of your hometown you must have appreciated. I’d love to know more about your place among these Yiddish literary colleagues.

EA: [silence]

NES: Zacharia also specifically recalled that you “had opened a sort of teahouse in a bohemian hub, where homosexuals used to gather ... and had actually written a pamphlet in English about lesbian love [lesbishe libe].” 2 2 ibid. This suggests that your work in supporting and describing gay and lesbian life was known, at least by reputation, among your Yiddish-speaking colleagues. Did you ever show a copy of Lesbian Love to Zacharia, Menakhem Boreysho, or Jacob Marinoff, or any of the Yiddish writers among your acquaintances? I’d be curious to learn of their reactions.

EA: [silence]

NES: While we’re on the topic, I want to ask you about your love of the theater. In Katz’s biography, he brings many attestations to your engagement with contemporary English-language drama, particularly plays featuring relationships between women. In fact, in 1929, your own book Lesbian Love was adapted into a play titled Modernity that ran briefly in Greenwich Village (before closing for fear of the police). But I’d love to know whether you were a fan of Yiddish theater as well, and there’s one play in particular I’d like to ask you about: Sholem Asch’s Got fun Nekome [God of Vengeance]. Did you ever see it? I’m sure you must have heard of it, particularly since its notorious English-language run in the first months of 1923 was held at the Provincetown Playhouse, on the very same block of Macdougal Street where you would open your tearoom in Greenwich Village just a year or so later. The play continued to run in Yiddish theaters throughout the 1920s, so I imagine you would have had the opportunity to see it, whether in English or Yiddish. What did it mean to you — a Yiddish-speaking lesbian yourself — to see something resembling your experience represented on stage?

EA: [silence]

NES: Speaking of your own experience, there are several passages in Lesbian Love which seem fairly autobiographical, and you attested in your deposition that much of this book is based in your own life. For example, you describe “Dawn” as “a little Jewish girl with a mass of golden hair, wistful eyes, who has suffered and struggled way back in old and new Russia” (174). Or the story of “little Jimmie,” who is “a working girl, of the Russian Inteligentzia [sic], foreign in this country, [employed] in a ladies waist shop,” as you yourself were when you first came to America (182). And especially the last story, “How I Found Myself,” in which you describe your — or your alter ego’s — first romantic encounter with a woman at the age of 19: “one of the greatest and most significant events of my life, which will never be forgotten” (198). If the age you chose in fiction reflects your own life, was this based on an experience you had in Poland (since you were twenty when you immigrated to New York)? What differences did you experience between lesbian communities in Eastern Europe and the United States?

EA: [silence]

NES: I’m also curious about the diversity in the American lesbian communities you describe in your book — how did you recognize each other, and what practices or experiences did you share? It seems like many relationships crossed ethnic and religious lines, such as one of your own partners, the Minnesota-born artist Ruth Olson Norlander, of Norwegian heritage, fictionalized in Lesbian Love as “Sorine” (186-188). To what extent was your relationship, turbulent as it seems to have been, shaped by your own identity as a Polish-Jewish immigrant? And what about you and Hella: how did you meet? How did you fit into the various circles that you crossed in Paris: French singers, American writers, Yiddish-speaking immigrants?

EA: [silence]

NES: Your Jewishness also seems to have drawn you to radical politics, unionism, and the labor movement, and you were proud of your friendship with Jewish anarchist Emma Goldman. You were certainly not alone as a radical Jewish woman in the labor movement, and perhaps even not alone as a lesbian — did you ever connect with other Jewish women in the movement, like Fannia Cohn, Rose Schneiderman, or Pauline Newman? Scholars have long wondered whether their lifelong devotion to relationships with other women might have carried more personal meaning. How was your life shaped by the intersections of your gender, sexuality, religion, and politics?

EA: [silence]

NES: As our interview draws to a close, let me go back to your childhood in Mlave (today Mława, Poland). What was your family like? What do you remember of your early years in Poland? You testified in your obscenity trial that after “primary school” in Mława, you graduated from some kind of college in Plotzk (today Płock, Poland), perhaps a teacher’s seminary (43). You were apparently well educated in Polish and Russian, in addition to Yiddish, and of course later in life you learned English and French. How did your education and experiences as a young Jewish woman in Poland influence your political, personal, and ideological commitments? What drove you to leave Europe for America?

EA: [silence]

NES: Finally, the ineluctable end of the story arrives. Your family members offer visions of other possible futures: while your parents and some of your siblings stayed in Poland and were murdered by the Nazis, your Migdal and Zacharia cousins had already taken up “respectable” occupations in America, while your younger brother Yerachmiel had settled among the burgeoning Zionist Jewish community in Palestine — he tried several times to have you join him there — and Hella’s brothers found safety in Switzerland. What kinds of futures did you and Hella dream of together?

EA: [silence]

NES: Thank you, Eve, for your time, and for your life. It has been an honor to learn from you.

MLA STYLE
Sienna, Noam. “Ten Unanswered Questions: An Unconventional Interview with Eve Adams.” In geveb, December 2021: https://ingeveb.org/blog/ten-unanswered-questions.
CHICAGO STYLE
Sienna, Noam. “Ten Unanswered Questions: An Unconventional Interview with Eve Adams.” In geveb (December 2021): Accessed Jan 22, 2022.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Noam Sienna

Dr. Noam Sienna is a historian and scholar of religion, whose work focuses on Jewish life in the medieval and early modern periods, with particular interests in book history and Jewish communities in the Islamic world.