When I picked this book up I knew nothing of the title or the author; I took it on trust, to add to my collection, because it was a green Virago Modern Classic.
“All the world has heard of the great Yiddish writer Isaac Bashevis Singer and of his brother Israel Joshua. Few have heard of their sister Hinde Esther who lived in obscurity and also wrote novels.”
This is an autobiographical novel, set in Poland’s Jewish community in the early years of the twentieth century. Deborah was the daughter of a rabbi, raised to dedicate her life to one thing: ‘the bringing of happiness into her home by ministering to her husband and bearing him children.’
Her father was mystical, impractical and almost fatally unworldly; her mother was educated, sceptical, but accepting of the role she had been given. Deborah was less accepting. She was bright and curious; she saw her brother being encouraged to study, being allowed to speak freely, being allowed to come and go as he liked; she wanted the same things, but she could not have any of them.
It was clear that this would be an unhappy story, but it was utterly involving though, because the whole of Deborah’s world – the people, the places, the way of life – were so richly evoked, so utterly real.
Life takes the family from a tiny village, to a Hasidic court in a larger town, and finally to Warsaw. It is there that Deborah comes of age, and when she meets other Jews who are prepared to stretch or break the rules of their society she thinks that she has found her place in the world. But she encounters things that her life has not prepared her for, she is confounded by expectations of what a rabbi’s daughter must be, and things go terribly wrong.
Heartbroken, almost completely broken, Deborah submits to an arranged marriage.
It is a disaster, and story ends as Deborah descends into madness and Europe descends onto war.
Esther Kreitman told her story wonderfully well. She was clear-sighted and intelligent, she understood why the world was what it was, why people were what they were. But that didn’t stop her being angry about her situation, or passionate about the things she believed in.
She pulled me right through the story; I was involved with Deborah, I cared about her, I wanted to know how her story would play out, from the first page to the last.
I wish I could say more but I can’t, because this novel is almost too vivid, too real. It makes me feel horribly inarticulate.
This book is a wonderful profound testament; catching a life and speaking of an aspect of women’s history I have never encountered in fiction before.
I wish I could tell you that the author found the place that she wanted in the world; but sadly I can’t.
I’m so pleased though that she did have a son, and that he translated this book that she wrote in Yiddish, many years after the fact, into English.
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