Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 654
In the nineteenth century in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the villages populated almost entirely by Jews, the study of Torah and Talmud is prohibited to females. In the village of Yanev, however, Yentl has pursued such studies, the passion of her life, in secret under the tutelage of her father, who recognizes that his daughter is somehow different from all the other girls of the community. Yentl, tall and bony, has little interest in the running of a household. Rather than cooking or darning socks, studying her father’s books is the very center of her life. Yentl, it seems, has the soul of a man.
Dressing herself as a young man and calling herself “Anshel,” Yentl leaves Bechev after her father’s death to continue her studies formally in a yeshiva, a school for religious teachings. Meeting Avigdor at a roadside inn, she accompanies him to Bechev to study at the yeshiva there. As Anshel, Yentl forges with Avigdor a strong bond, the basis of which is their shared love of Torah and Talmud. Yentl learns that Avigdor has been engaged to Hadass, the loveliest girl in the town and daughter of its wealthiest citizen, that the marriage had been broken off by his prospective in-laws on learning that Avigdor’s brother was a suicide. The thought occurs to Avigdor that while he requires a wife and will himself marry the shrewish widowed shopkeeper, Peshe, Anshel should marry Hadass, ensuring that the girl he still loves will not end up the bride of a total stranger.
At first, Yentl dismisses the extraordinary idea, but finding herself drawn ever closer to Avigdor, she warms to his plan, realizing that it will strengthen the bond, now turning to love on her part, between herself and Avigdor. Once Avigdor marries Peshe and spends less and less time with Yentl/Anshel, Yentl asks Alter Vishkower for his daughter’s hand in marriage. Considering it an excellent match, Vishkower agrees, and the wedding takes place.
Being completely innocent in sexual matters, Hadass is unaware that her marriage to Anshel is unlike any other, especially since Yentl, in her own way, has even managed to deflower her bride. As time passes, however, aware that Hadass loves her as Anshel, that she loves Avigdor, that Avigdor—whose marriage to Peshe is a disaster—loves Hadass, Yentl realizes that her charade cannot continue. It had begun as a way of exacting vengeance for Avigdor and drawing him closer to herself, but the lives of three people are becoming ever more complex as their fates are further enmeshed. Because Hadass is not yet pregnant after the passage of some months, and Anshel never goes to the baths and never swims with the other men, the villagers begin to gossip about them.
At last, journeying with Avigdor to the nearby town of Lublin, Yentl reveals herself to him as a woman. Avigdor is thunderstruck; he even wonders if Yentl is some kind of demon. Eventually, more sad than angry, he suggests that they divorce their wives and marry each other. Yentl insists that that kind of relationship with him is impossible for her. They have been brought together by their shared love of Torah and Talmud. She can never be wife and housekeeper but must instead continue her studies. However, both of them have come to understand that Yentl must disappear from the lives of Avigdor and Hadass.
Yentl does not return to Bechev but instead sends divorce papers to a bewildered Hadass who takes to her bed, grief-stricken over the loss of her beloved Anshel. Time, however, heals her wound, and Hadass recovers to marry Avigdor, now divorced from Peshe. When Hadass bears him a son, the townspeople, who have been busily pondering the disappearance of Hadass’s former husband, can hardly believe their ears on learning at the ceremony of the circumcision that the child is to be named Anshel.