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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  1. Isaac Bashevis Singer described his sister, Esther Kreitman, as “a Hasid in skirts”. For she would go to evening classes joined study groups, debating societies and socialist gatherings. So it is reasonable to surmise she was his model for Yentl. Esther wasn’t exactly the same as Yentl, more like her own character Deborah who went lamely into an arranged, loveless marriage that failed. I think her resentment and dystopian vision (which you convey well) gives her a unique place amongst the early/ mid 20th century Yiddish women writers. There’s not an ounce of shtetl shmaltz. And, as you say, her work was not edited when it was first published. It is raw, rare meat. I have published in English translation her novel Diamonds and Blitz and Other Stories. See As for Barbra Streisand – I doubt she knew much about Esther Kreitman – her film came out in the same year as Deborah was first republished in English – in 1983. her interest in IBS came after he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

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