It’s no secret that Isaac Bashevis Singer did not like the film adaptation of his story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” about a young woman in 19th century Poland, in Singer’s words: “so hungry for learning that she defies Talmudic law by disguising herself as a man in order to attend a yeshiva.” He was not alone. I was never a fan of the movie, yet after attending an open rehearsal for the Cameri and Haifa Theatres’ co-production of “Yentl”, which will premiere in Tel Aviv on November 4, at a gala event celebrating 25 years to the Israel Women’s Network – I think that even Singer would enjoy this new musical adaptation directed by Moshe Kaftan and starring Ola Schur-Selektar.
In a witty self-interview in the New York Times (published January 29, 1984) Singer critiqued the musical adaptation, saying: “I never imagined Yentl singing songs. The passion for learning and the passion for singing are not much related in my mind. There is almost no singing in my works. One thing is sure: there was too much singing in this movie, much too much. It came from all sides. As far as I can see the singing did nothing to bring out Yentl’s individuality and to enlighten her conduct. The very opposite, I had a feeling that her songs drowned the action. My story, ”Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” was in no way material for a musical, certainly not the kind Miss Streisand has given us.”
A superficial reading might accuse Singer of harboring a prejudice against singing, due to his religious upbringing, and perhaps against women singing, in particular. But an attentive reader (which is the kind of reader Singer deserves) will note that his main objection is not to the singing itself, but that “the singing did nothing to bring out Yentl’s individuality and to enlighten her conduct.” His complaint is dramaturgical rather than ideological, and one that this viewer of the movie heartily supports.
The current version is based on Bashevis Singer and Leah Napolin’s play which premiered in 1975, translated and adapted by Dan Almagor and Director Moshe Kaftan, with Musical Director Yossi Ben Nun, produced by Haim Sela. While the movie and its star remain a mythological monolith for many, director Kaftan has found his own path into the story, choosing to focus on Yentl’s love for Avigdor. Commenting on the musical, he said that although he made life difficult for Ben Nun by insisting that they retain Michel LeGrand’s “Papa Can You Hear Me”, he believes the musical director “succeeded in grappling with the myth and creating music that is ours.”
Seeing the opening number in rehearsal, I was struck by the effect of hearing the dialogue and songs in Hebrew, which along with the choreography, immediately create a very intimate mood. Yes, this is the shtetl I know and love, a place where people live, love and argue. I admit that it was with great trepidation that I awaited the famous number, but Ola had me at “Aba”. In her slightly disheveled yeshiva boy clothes, hair tucked into a brown cap, she conveys the tangle of love, fear, respect and strength of will that is Yentl. Through the song, Schur-Selektor creates a sense of intimacy, a look into a private moment that gives a different understanding of Yentl and her inner thoughts and feelings – just what Bashevis Singer felt was missing from the film. Schur-Selektor brings modesty to her portrayal of Yentl, which, combined with a strong and lovely voice, creates an unforgettable experience. Irit Kaplan and Yoav Bar Lev add another pleasurable dimension to the theatre experience with their comic presence as Hadassah’s parents.
The fun doesn’t stop here – this production of Yentl not only tells the story of a woman who wishes to study and develop to her full potential, it is also dedicated to achieving that goal in Israeli society. On November 4th the play will premiere at the Cameri Theatre in Tel Aviv in a gala event to benefit the Israel Women’s Network, an organization founded in 1984, dedicated to promoting women’s rights and equality. Their activities include a hot line for women facing gender-based discrimination and sexual harassment in the workplace, litigation initiatives combating discrimination in the workplace and empowerment and leadership training to help women enter and advance in the workforce.
Nurit Tsur, General Manager of the Israel Women’s Network said of the musical, “Yentl is a woman who wants an education. Today in Israel, women constitute the majority of university students; the problems begin when they enter the workforce. For example, only 20% of university professors and lecturers are women. I hope that this event will raise public awareness and support so that we will all have a more just and egalitarian society.”
Yentl, Gala Benefit for the Israel Women’s Network
Wednesday, November 4 at 19:00
The Cameri Theatre, Tel Aviv
Tickets: 03-6123990, firstname.lastname@example.org
Image credit: Gerard Alon