Exploring Divine Fluidity: Yentl, Gender, and Time

Murkiness does not persist for long in biblical narrative. For only one verse, “the earth was unformed and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the spirit of God hovered over the face of the waters.” After that, God begins a program of dividing [“va-yavdilוַיַּבְדֵּל]: light from darkness, waters above from waters below, water from dry land,….six days of work from the hallowed seventh. The theme of division continues throughout Genesis, in the stories of Noah, Babel, Abraham and descendants. Exodus and Leviticus stress divisions relating to food, sex, and other topics: this is kosher; this is not.

The biblical concept of “holiness” is all about separations; and the ancient Rabbis further pursued divisions and borders, beginning with the first words of the Mishnah: “From what time may one recite the Shema in the evening?”

Murkiness is studiously avoided in Jewish tradition. And deceptive or confusing characteristics are particularly reviled, as when a pig “pretends” to be kosher by showing its split hooves (a characteristic necessary for a kosher animal) while hiding the fact that it does not chew the cud (also required).

How, in such a worldview, can an individual who is “neither one nor the other” — like the title character of the I.B. Singer’s 1962 Yentl the Yeshiva Boy — function?

And how is Judaism, with its separations and borders, to respond to the murkiness of gender-fluidity?

Photos: Stan Barouh

Photos: Stan Barouh

Yentl, in referencing Jewish sacred text, becomes part of the age-old conversation on those texts, their interpretations and implementations. Like commentary in every age, Theater J’s Yentl brings contemporary perspectives, needs, and questions into dialogue with centuries of existing material. This happens partly as the tale — set in late 19th Century Poland — interacts with music aware that the shtetl is no longer the only model for Jewish gender roles. In addition, the set, designed by Robbie Hayes as an open book, urges us into the dialogue as well.

Theater J‘s presentation combines the 1975 play, co-written by Singer and Leah Napolin, with newer music from singer-songwriter Jill Sobule. This “play with music” (not “musical” for legal reasons), directed by Shirley Serotsky, differs substantially from the 1983 film created by Barbra Streisand. And, while it comes closer to the original story in many ways, it differs from that, too, in interesting ways.
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