I.B. Singer’s sister a literary power in her own right
The English-speaking world for many years was deprived of the writings of Esther Singer Kreitman, who was forced into the shadows of invisibility based primarily on her gender.
In fact, Kreitman was part of a writing dynasty family that included her brothers, Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua. But Kreitman was not taken seriously as a writer. In fact, for most of her life, she was held back from accomplishing her dreams.
Although a novel, “The Dance of the Demons” is a thinly veiled memoir of the author’s life.
In the early part of the book, the reader finds an adolescent Deborah living a boring existence in a tiny Polish village. She wants nothing more than to be educated, but is relegated to performing household chores. Her father is a beloved rabbi, though he is entirely dependent upon his wife to make decisions; her mother, Raizela, is a frail but intellectually capable woman who married beneath her station. She is ineffectual at physical labor, spending much of her days reading on the couch, but her opinion carries a great deal of weight in the household.
Deborah’s father proclaims that her brother, Michael, will be a great Talmudic scholar one day. When Deborah asks her father what he thought that she was going to be when she grew up, his response set the tone for her life.
“Reb Avram Ber was taken aback. It was an accepted view among pious Jews that there was only one achievement in life a woman could hope for — the bringing of happiness into the home by ministering to her husband and bearing him children. Therefore he did not even vouchsafe Deborah a reply, but when she pressed him, he answered simply: ‘What are you going to be one day? Nothing, of course!’”
The low expectations her father had for her, plus a lifetime of maternal disapproval, shaped her entire life and the choices that she made.
When Reb Avram Ber is offered a job as a teacher at a new yeshiva several towns away, he jumps at the chance, as more money is promised him. His children are thrilled, as they are bored of their own sleepy village, but Raizela doesn’t trust the offer of employment.
Indeed, Raizela’s predictions come true, as the employer is nothing more than a scoundrel, who reneges on promises and practically leaves Deborah’s family destitute.
In the first half or so of the book, Deborah tells the story of her family through an observer’s eyes, rather than as a participant. Her own value is so diminished, her spirit so squelched, that she can do nothing more than scrutinize her surroundings with an outwardly disaffected demeanor.
Eventually, the family moves to Warsaw, a larger city that excites Deborah, but she feels inadequate to walk around town until she is in possession of the proper wardrobe. She meets a few friends and dabbles in socialism, but she feels unwanted by the group.
Internally, Deborah is in pain, and the second half of the story focuses more on Deborah’s perspective. She suffers from unrequited love and the perceived disdain by her parents, eventually settling into an arranged marriage to a man she has never met, convinced that nothing better is on the horizon. Too late, Deborah realizes that she has made a terrible mistake.
Replete with pathos and a touch of humor, “The Dance of the Demons” is a literary accomplishment by a woman who, unfortunately, did not receive much acknowledgement in her lifetime. The writing is powerful and gives the reader an authentic glimpse into the role of women in a religious European Jewish family in the early part of last century.
Deborah’s story mirrored the author’s own. Kreitman had a thirst for knowledge that was never quenched. In fact, she was the inspiration for her brother Isaac’s short story, “Yentl,” later turned into a movie starring Barbra Streisand, about a girl who disguises herself as a boy so she could attend yeshiva.
Entitled “Deborah” when it was published in the original Yiddish in 1936, the title was changed to “The Dance of the Demons” upon translation into English in 1946. Maurice Carr, the author’s son, was the translator; Feminist Press released the English version in 2009.
Like the protagonist, Kreitman was born in Poland in 1891. Her parents denied her the education that she had longed for her whole life. She and her family escaped to London on the heels of World War II, where she settled into an unhappy arranged marriage.
Kreitman suffered from mental disturbances throughout her life and had strained relationships with her famous brothers. Her depressed state is evident in Deborah’s character, particularly toward the book’s end.
It is reported that when Kreitman revealed to her mother that she had been writing stories in secret, her mother advised her to throw them away … and that is what she did. It is not clear what prompted Kreitman to begin writing again, but, although she never knew success in her time, she did publish two other books entitled “Diamonds” and “Blitz and Other Stories.”
Though she had been eclipsed by her brothers’ fame and success during her lifetime, it is time for modern Jewish readers to discover the lesser known, but equally talented, Singer sister.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.