The Yeshiva Boy

Isaac Bashevis Singer
Barbra Streisand

  • Irene Lieblich

The folklore and traditions of Ashkenazi Jews from eastern Poland became an important part of American culture. Their culture was based on Yiddish, a language derived from High German. The most prolific writer of Yiddish literature was Isaac Bashevis Singer (1903- 1991), who published exclusively in the language. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978 and two U.S. National Book Awards. He migrated to the US in 1935 and settled down in New York. After he achieved success as a writer, Singer and his wife began spending their winters in Miami, Florida. Eventually, as senior citizens, they moved to the city, where Singer would pass away. Singer used his mother’s first name in his first literary pseudonym, Izaak Baszewis (Isaac Bashevis), which he later expanded. On his mother’s side he was the grandson of the rabbi of Biłgoraj, a small town located in the ethnically mixed region of Eastern Lublin. The city was part of the Kingdom of Poland in the Middle Ages. Due to its border with the Ruthenian lands, the town became home to many Poles and Ukrainians, as well as a considerable Jewish population. Singer spent his childhood in Biłgoraj. Jewish communities from the Eastern Lublin region and Chełm land, located to the east of historical Kyivan Rus’, became the main protagonists of Singer’s short stories.

Yentl the Yeshiva Boy is one of Singer’s best-known works. In 1983 it was adapted into a movie in the US as a romantic musical drama. The film was directed, co-written, and co-produced by Barbra Streisand, who was also the film’s star actor. Streisand is an American singer, actress, and filmmaker. She became the first woman to write, direct, produce and star in a major studio film. The film incorporates humor and music to tell the story of Yentl Mendel, a woman living in an Ashkenazi shtetl named Pechev, which is located somewhere in the Eastern Lublin region or Chełm Land. Yentl’s father, Rebbe Mendel, secretly taught her the Talmud despite traditional Jewish customs that only encouraged men to study the texts. She also refuses to be married off to a man. After the death of her father, Yentl cuts her hair short, dresses like a man, takes her brother’s name, and enters a yeshiva, a Jewish religious school.

Barbra Streisand has enjoyed a career spanning seven decades and has achieved success in multiple fields of entertainment. She is one of the few entertainers who have been awarded an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony Award (EGOT). Her accolades include two Academy Awards, 10 Grammy Awards (including a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and the Grammy Legend Award), five Emmy Awards and nine Golden Globes. Streisand’s interest in Singer’s short stories and the Jewish culture of the Eastern lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was likely influenced by her family roots. Streisand’s grandparents came to the US from Eastern Galicia and Central Ukraine, where her grandfather had been a cantor, a person who sings and leads people in prayer during Jewish religious services. Moreover, Streisand began her education at yeshiva in Brooklyn when she was five. 

The Synagogue in Zamość, Source: Wikipedia, Author: MaKa~commonswiki

Streisand was not the only prominent female artist related to Singer’s works. Irene Lieblich (1923-2008) illustrated two of his books for children. A Holocaust survivor, Lieblich was from Zamość, a historical town located in Chełm Land. As her memories of shtetl life were so similar to his own, Singer found Lieblich’s drawings particularly suited for his texts. Singer wrote that “her works are rooted in Jewish folklore and are faithful to Jewish life and the Jewish spirit”. On the other hand, Lieblich once said that “My vocabulary is too limited to describe Mr. Singer’s genius”. He personally selected her to illustrate his works after seeing her paintings at an Artists Equity exhibition in New York City. Lieblich recalled that she saw a man who peered at her paintings and who commented that the houses in them depicted his own shtetl. Indeed, the painting in question did recreate a row of houses from Biłgoraj.