From July ’06 Spotlight: “Now here was Deborah herself a citizen of Warsaw, but so hard up she could not afford to buy a hat. To venture forth hatless would be counter to all the unwritten laws of decency. Consequently, Deborah stayed indoors, like an eager dog chained to its kennel. It was all very well for [Deborah’s brother] Michael. He had no hat problem. He could go wherever he pleased.”

I’ve collapsed a few paragraphs from page 122 of Esther Kreitman’s 1936 novel Deborah above to help make the case for Barbra Streisand’s lovely film Yentl. Yes, I know, Isaac Bashevis Singer had nothing good to say when Streisand wrote her own adaptation of his story about a shtetl girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can study Torah, but who made him both judge and jury?

Truth be told, I found Kreitman’s novel pretty tough going; it’s painfully raw and unmediated. Having read Deborah though, I now find Yentl even more compelling, striking a perfect balance between the sister’s despair and the brother’s nonchalant whimsy, and thereby creating an indelible cinematic heroine who transcends them both. Singer scholars can debate the implications of these consanguine and literary relationships, but for now suffice it to say that Kreitman died in 1954 and Yentl made her first appearance (in English) in 1961.

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