THE BLOG
10/08/2014 04:04 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy : A Modern Transgender Hero

There is one Jewish short story (later made into a play and a film) to which I can very intimately relate. It's Isaac Bashevis Singer's Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy. I had the pleasure of attending an updated, klezmer/pop version of the play, directed by Shirley Serotsky, with music by Jill Sobule, last week at Theatre J in downtown Washington, D.C.

As a young trans girl growing up as a yeshiva boy in Queens, New York, I found that this play resonated deeply within me. The eponymous Yentl, who goes by the name Anshel as a yeshiva boy, challenges the gender norms of that extinct European world of the Jewish Pale and its predominantly Orthodox Jewish communities. Yentl, the daughter of a rabbi, studies with her father as if she were his son. Her father says, "Yentl -- you have the soul of a man." She asks, "So why was I born a woman?" He replies, "Even Heaven makes mistakes."

Jewish men and boys, in their morning prayers, have said this "blessing" for generations: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord, our God, King of the Universe, for not having made me a woman." I said that every morning until I was 14, feeling like I was swallowing crushed glass, believing there was no escape.

Singer rooted this story in Yentl's recognition, and her father's perception, of her soul as male. "Soul," in this case, is just a more elegant term for the sexual attribute of the incorporeal essence we call "gender identity" today. "Transgender" didn't exist in 19th-century Europe as a medical condition or concept, though Singer probably knew of the modern phenomenon when he wrote the play in the 1950s, as Christine Jorgensen was in all the New York tabloids when she returned home in late 1952. He certainly knew of the rabbis' understanding of physical intersex conditions, and of the variable manifestation of those conditions in a spectrum of gender roles. He wrote, in the words of Avigdor, Yentl's male study partner, "She [Yentl] had the soul of a man and the body of a woman."

Singer had Yentl deal with her ongoing gender dysphoria by creating conditions where she can live as a man, not only by wearing men's clothing but by taking on the male role in its most respected form: as a scholar. Even though Yentl is in love with Avigdor, and he with her, the language of the story implies not only that the couple is perceived as a same-sex couple but that they feel that way as well. Interestingly, the contemporary production I recently saw uses the musical lyrics to make evident the deeply queer nature of the situation. Whereas Singer had the two study partners describe their bond as similar to that of the patriarch, Jacob, and his beloved son, Benjamin, the lyrics switch to the David-and-Jonathan story from the Book of Samuel, David and Jonathan being two men widely seen today as having been in love with one another.

Given the opportunity to escape the dilemma of being in unwanted marriages (and Yentl does indeed love her wife, Hadass, though she has deceived her as to her physical embodiment), with Anshel reverting to living as Yentl and marrying Avigdor, they both agree that that is simply not an authentic solution. Yentl leaves the community and lives out her life as Anshel, and Avigdor returns to town, presents Anshel's writ of divorce to Hadass and eventually marries Hadass. The story ends with the birth of their child, a boy they name Anshel.

Singer concludes the story with a deeply subversive understanding that the three protagonists -- Yentl/Anshel, Avigdor and Hadass -- are fully aware of all the gender bending in their lives. The Theatre J production could have been truer to its queer musical spin (other songs played up gay male and lesbian love) by having all three end up living polyamorously in some cosmopolitan European city, but instead it took a safe, heteronormative way out, with, once again, the trans person miserably on the margins while the ostensibly straight couple have their baby. Yet they do name their son Anshel, undoubtedly shocking their tightly knit religious community. And they play their roles cognizant of the fact that their romantic desires are both homosexual and heterosexual, whether or not they intend that to be the case.

Singer, winner of the Nobel Prize and National Book Award, and considered by many to be the greatest writer in the Yiddish language, was a modernist with his heart deeply rooted in his Orthodox Jewish culture. I had the pleasure of meeting him in Miami when my wife interviewed him, and I remember her asking him why he always wrote about the Orthodox Jewish world and never the Conservative, Reform or secular ones. His answer: "When those worlds have survived as long as the traditional one, then I'll write about them." But he wrote about the humanity of his characters in an insightful way that has rarely been matched in stories about that community.

Singer's Yentl, written in the 1950s, brought forth a trans character before its time. Leah Napolin, who wrote the play with Singer, converted her into a feminist icon. Barbra Streisand then put her own iconic stamp on the character (and Singer was not happy about it at all). Serotsky's play, which at times feels like a take on Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, remakes this Yentl as authentically Anshel, strongly rooting the productoin as a queer statement in the manner of Singer. Jill Sobule, the composer, shares my interpretation. We stand in contrast to Ms. Napolin and Ms. Serotsky, who see this version as another variation of the feminist interpretation. This is not surprising, given that in 1975 Napolin dismissed viewing Yentl as "suffering from some hormonal predisposition to masculinity." Too often some feminists of that era still refuse to acknowledge trans persons' humanity, contributing to their continuing invisibility. Recognizing the reality of the trans experience in no way minimizes the feminist critique of society. Trans women are generally more inclined toward feminism than cisgender women, and trans men know existentially what it means to be oppressed as women. I hope future productions emphasize Ms. Sobule's reading and make this a story that Jewish trans children and adolescents can absorb to help them make the archaic, sexist morning blessings a thing of the past.