Book Review – “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” – By Isaac Bashevis Singer

I don’t typically review short stories, but “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” was not a typical short story. As far as I’m concerned, Isaac Bashevis Singer earned his Nobel Prize for this piece alone. Some reviewers call it a novel. Based on the structure, I would classify it as a short story. I’m in awe of the way every facet of this complex tale wove together at the end. At the same time the author included a bit of a cliff-hanger. What an amazing utilization of the short story form.

I’ve never read a work of fiction with such well-developed conflict. The brevity of the story added to my awe of this achievement. The protagonist was a young Jewish woman who longed to live like a man and become a Rabbi. In spite of “the Torah’s prohibition against wearing the clothes of the other sex” (page 155), Yentl took on the male persona, Anshel. While doing this, she met another Rabbinical student (Avigdor) with whom she fell in love. He loved another woman (Hadass) whom Yentl (as Anshel) married to preserve for Avigdor since her father refused to allow him to marry her. This tale had conflict in so many different forms it astonished me that the author could fit it all in. None of it came across as contrived or too cluttered to follow, either. All I can write is: WOW!

I liked the way “Yentl” explored gender roles. At the beginning of the tale when she asked her father why she wasn’t born a boy he explained, “Even Heaven makes mistakes.” (Page 149) In the guise of Ashel, Yentl studied to become a Rabbi, and performed as well as her peers. No one discovered her gender until she chose to reveal it herself. If I hadn’t known the author’s sex before reading, I would’ve assumed the writer a female. I’ve never encountered a story with such latent feminist undertones written by a man. Once again, I admired Mr. Singer’s skill.

While about young Rabbinical students studying the Jewish faith, Mr. Singer presented it in a way that made it accessible to a much wider audience. As someone who attended Catholic schools for 13 years, I understood the story. Not once did I get lost or find the subject matter dull. The story grabbed me from the beginning and made me want to keep reading until the conclusion. The fact the author achieved this writing about a world totally alien to me again, showed his proficiency as a teller of tales.

My only criticism involved Anshel’s (Yentl’s male persona’s) marriage to Hadass. Did she have no brain? I didn’t understand how she could have possibly lived as Anshel’s wife and not had any idea as to her real gender. The sentence “Anshel had found a way to deflower the bride” (Page 161) served as Singer’s only hint as to how this occurred. I’m struggling to wrap my mind around this one. It reminded me why we writers are always told to “show don’t tell.”

I read “Yentl” out of The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The quality inspired me to read more of the author’s work. I’m glad to have more of it on hand. If I may paraphrase Mr. Singer, “A writer is essentially a story teller. Not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind.” With the greatest respect to Mr. Singer, he schooled me on just how a writer can add copious conflict no matter what length a work may be. He also redeemed my faith in the artistic integrity of the short story. He did all this while telling a great story, too.

One comment

  1. I have this same book. My mother gave it to me to read the first story in the collection: Gimpel the Fool. She really like the story. I did too. The story you reviewed here sounds so familiar. I’ll have to re-read it. Thanks.

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