Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Sister

Esther Kreitman’s influence on the oeuvres of her two younger brothers – Isaac Bashevis and Israel Joshua (captured above, with Esther between them, in a painting by Hazel Karr) – was profound. She was the first in the family to write fiction, and the first to create thinly-disguised autobiography. She was also the first to question the strict orthodoxy of her parents, and rebel against what she regarded as the unfair and untenable strictures of their world.

Esther’s first act on reaching Antwerp as a married woman was to throw away her sheitl (wig) and persuade her husband to shave off his beard. On hearing of these atrocities, her father-in-law, Gedaliah, cut off his financial support, condemning the hapless Avrom and his family to a future life of poverty and financial struggle. They would move from one damp, rented flat to another, across the Jewish neighbourhoods in North Islington and Hackney, for the rest of their lives.

Esther was a prototypical feminist; in her rebellion against the position of girls in strictly orthodox households, and her demand for equal education with boys. In her writing, she also hesitantly and delicately explores female sexuality and the gendered roles of married men and women, as well as the permissibility of extra-marital affairs; in Esther’s Der Shaydims’ Tants (later retitled Deborah, by her son), one of the first major cases the rabbi of Krochmalna Street has to decide is the question of a married Jewish woman who has had an extra-marital affair.

It was long after Esther’s death, sixty years ago, that her older brother, Isaac Bashevis, acknowledged his literary debt to his sister. One of the short stories in his collection, Mayn Tatns Beis-din Shtub (In My Father’s Court) is titled “My Sister”, and gives a brief glimpse of the young Hinde Esther; it’s also widely accepted that his story that inspired Yentl was based on his sister’s character and aspirations. But during her lifetime, Isaac, and his brothers Israel and Joshua, showed no interest in their younger sister, her writings, or her impoverished life in London.

Esther’s first publications, as a young woman in Poland, were translations of classic English stories into Yiddish: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (1929) and George Bernard Shaw’s The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism and Capitalism (1930). The two choices exemplify both Esther’s radicalism (a Christmas story in Yiddish?) and her intellectual restlessness.

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