Originally published in the Jerusalem Post (November 18, 2005).
In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf famously envisioned the life of William Shakespeare’s imaginary sister, Judith. Like William, Judith is a gifted child with literary impulses. But unlike William, she is denied an education, forced to marry against her will, and laughed away from the theatre.
“This may be true or it may be false,” wrote Woolf, “but what is true in it, so it seemed to me, reviewing the story of Shakespeare’s sister as I had made it, is that any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century would certainly have gone crazed, shot herself, or ended her days in some lonely cottage outside the village, half witch, half wizard, feared and mocked at.”
Though she probably didn’t know it, Woolf had a modern Judith living in her own backyard.
Esther Singer Kreitman (1891-1954) was the sister of two successful Yiddish writers, Israel Joshua Singer and the Nobel Prize winner Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like Woolf’s Judith, Kreitman was denied the education of her brothers and never attained their level of literary prestige. Yet Kreitman did achieve a measure of professional success.
Kreitman’s first book Der Sheydim Tants (The Devils’ Dance) was published in Yiddish in 1936 and in English, as Deborah, in 1946 (this translation was republished in 2004 by David Paul Books, London and The Feminist Press, New York). Deborah is a semi-autobiographical work about a girl with an intense curiosity about life and learning who is, nonetheless, sheltered and belittled by her family. Deborah’s father is a rabbi, and the book follows the family as it moves from small town to small town, before finally landing in the bustling metropolis of Warsaw. Here Deborah pursues independence by, among other things, experimenting with socialism, but eventually she is instated in a loveless marriage with a man from Antwerp.
In considering Woolf’s imagined Judith, it’s tempting to do our own imagining. Kreitman was living in England when Der Sheydim Tants was published. What would Woolf have thought if she’d paid her a visit? Perhaps Woolf would have been encouraged by Kreitman’s writing, but no doubt, she would have been disturbed by Kretiman’s predicament, as well.
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