Yentl, the daughter of a rabbi, so excels at studies of the holy texts that clearly she is more man than woman. When her father dies, Yentl cuts off her braids, dons her father’s clothes, and leaves her village, in flight from the fate of all young married women: domestic drudgery. Yentl takes a new name, Anshel, to complete the male disguise.
In Bechev she studies at the Yeshiva, a boy’s school. She grows close to Avigdor, another student, who confides the reason he is still single: The betrothed’s family rejected him. Anshel boards with Hadass, the lost love of Avigdor, and her family, where she learns that Avigdor was rejected because his brother committed suicide in a fit of melancholy.
Anshel loves Avigdor for his male like-mindedness. He is her ideal companion, and she is his. She increases the confusion in her life by reasoning that a marriage of Hadass to herself will exact vengeance for Avigdor’s rejection by Hadass’ family and bring Avigdor by association closer to Anshel. Anshel marries Hadass, sustaining the illusion over months while the stress of deceiving so many people becomes unbearable. Meanwhile, Avigdor marries Peshe, a materialistic shopkeeper abandoned by her husband.
Singer swiftly concludes the story without resolving the conflicts or revealing Anshel’s true identity, except to a surprised Avigdor. The conflict between law and unpredictable nature provides the tension. Life will not be legislated, even by a Jewish society whose ancient legal code has apparently covered all situations. We see it operating in the consciences of the main characters but not controlling their action, a fact that Singer relishes. Even natural boundaries and enclosures, such as Yentl’s physical sexuality, prove ineffective against human desire.
The story provides a drama of longing, but light drama, told for the fun of such confusion more than for its meaning. Singer’s telling moves swiftly and lightly, unburdened by lengthy description or comment. The story has a meaning, but it works as the meanings in fairy tales. If you want to find it you must look for it. The real reason the story exists, as any child knows, is for the telling and hearing, the pictures and the people.