Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

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Isaac Bashevis Singer’s entertaining but hauntingly ambiguous little tale does not reveal its meaning easily, nor is it meant to do so. Near the end of the story, the omniscient narrator suggests that the village gossips who insist on prying into the details of Anshel’s mysterious leave-taking must finally accept any falsehood as fact: “Truth itself is often concealed in such a way that the harder you look for it, the harder it is to find.” This device may be Singer’s way of cautioning the reader not to pry too deeply into his characters’ motivations, to accept the tale at the simple level of its telling. The truth lies in the story’s title, by which the author proclaims that he is recounting the extraordinary circumstances of a girl, Yentl, who is at the same time a boy through her dedication to God’s teachings—an androgynous being with the body of a woman and the soul of a man. Yentl herself is confused by the urgings within her that drive her to dress as a man in direct violation of the proscriptions of the beloved Talmud, the words of which have become the very core of her being.

In Singer’s stage adaptation of the story, written in collaboration with Leah Napolin and first performed in New York in 1974, Singer clarifies the meaning of a tale that has intrigued but puzzled many readers. In the story, Yentl accepts Hadass’s love, but in the play Yentl clearly learns to love Hadass as deeply as she has come to love Avigdor. Singer’s intention, it would appear, is to portray in Yentl/Anshel a divided self that is becoming whole through the knowledge of love. Embracing the masculine part of her nature in her love for Hadass and the feminine part of her nature in her love for Avigdor, Yentl, paradoxically, reveals the depth of her love by her sacrifice of that love. Removing herself from the scene, leaving both Avigdor and Hadass, she frees herself for the transcendent love of God, for which she has at last fully prepared herself through a newfound understanding of the joys and despair that accompany human love.

With the birth of the child Anshel, both story and play offer the unstated possibility that Yentl, pursuing her study of Talmud and Torah, becomes an immortal figure to be reborn within the soul of each newborn Jewish child as Yentl herself is transformed into the mythical wandering Jew. The ending calls to mind a reverse myth in a poem by Matthew Arnold to which Singer’s story seems related, that of “The Scholar-Gipsy,” who deserts books and study to embrace the simple life in his immortal wanderings in the natural world. Yentl, having embraced life itself and released her hold, is finally ready to give meaning to her learning, to live fully the life of the mind as she explores the eternal verities of her God, who accepts her as she has become.

Singer’s story has been popularized by the film musical Yentl (1983), produced and directed by Barbra Streisand and adapted by her in collaboration with Jack Rosenthal as a vehicle for herself. The otherwise effective film version, however, reverses Singer’s original concept. The protagonist of the story is a being who is throughout a figure of androgyny—both Jewish girl, Yentl, and yeshiva boy, Anshel. The Yentl of the play is a young woman who is transformed into an androgynous figure, whereas the Yentl of the film is an androgyne who becomes at last—in the guise of Barbra Streisand—a modern woman with feminist inclinations.