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.
Continue Reading

Yentl at Theater J, Post-Show Panel on Women and Religious Tradition

yentl

UPDATE: Change of panelists for September 14

Theater J’s new production of Yentl, based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, explores issues of gender and religious tradition. Panel discussions following Sunday matinees extend the conversation.

Virginia Spatz, co-organizer of Washington Friends of Women of the Wall, is joining a post-show panel on Sept. 14, so Theater J is offering a discount to friends WfWOW and their friends for any date of the run:

Tickets: Visit Buy Online or call Box Office Tickets at 800.494.8497.

Find out about ticket discounts here.

SPECIAL OFFER: Use coupon code ‘YENTL10’ and save $10! Buy online or call and mention the code.

 

“Jewish Women and Religious Tradition”

September 14 panel, post-matinee, approximately 5:30 p.m.

  • Sarah Breger, managing editor, Moment Magazine
  • Bonnie Morris, Professor of Women’s Studies, George Washington Univ; Author and Historian
  • Virginia Spatz, writer, educator, activist and WfWOW co-organizer

 

YENTL

AUGUST 28 – OCTOBER 5, 2014

Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”

Adapted for the stage by Leah Napolin and Isaac Bashevis Singer

With new music and lyrics composed by Jill Sobule, additional music by Robin Eaton

Directed by Theater J Associate Artistic Director Shirley Serotsky

As a girl in 19th Century Eastern Europe, Yentl is forbidden to pursue her dream of studying Talmud. Unwilling to accept her fate, she disguises herself as a man. But when she falls in love, Yentl must decide how far she’s willing to go to protect her identity. Invigorated with a bracing klezmer/pop/rock score from Jill Sobule (the original “I Kissed a Girl,” “Supermodel”), Yentl asks up-to-the-minute questions about gender and sexuality.

For more on this production, see Exploring Divine Fluidity