Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936)

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.’

DeborahHer 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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21 thoughts on “Deborah by Esther Kreitman (1936)

  1. What a frank & honest review Jane… it sounds a desolate yet compelling read. Certainly piqued my interest for both author & protagonist and a sample of history new to me too. Great choice for #WITMonth.


  2. That’s how I found it. I had never heard of it but it was a Virago so I bought it. When I found out the connection to Singer I was so glad I had and now with your review I can’t wait to read it. So happy you’re back, Jane.


    1. It’s lovely to be back in this world of people who understand and love the same books. This isn’t the most polished of VMCs but it is a fine piece of writing and it sits very well with the old Virago ethos.


  3. I have only read a little bit of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s work – just enough to know a little about the setting for this book, but enough to make me want to read it!


  4. I’ve never heard of this author but will look out for her work in light of your excellent review. I love those green Virago editions, too; the cover image seems prefect for the poignant story you’ve described.


    1. Thank you – there seem to be affordable copies out there, and you’ve reminded me that I forgot to mention that this has been published with a different title that’s a more literal translation of the original Yiddish – The Dance of the Demons.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, I wonder how the two translations hold up against each other. Do you know anything about that? Would I go for a literal translation or one by a translator who knew the author like no one else? Either way, I’d really like to read this book. Thanks for introducing me to it.


  5. Excellent review Jane – sounds like a really powerful insight into a world that’s gone. That’s why I love Viragos so much!


  6. This sounds a wonderful and harrowing read, from an author I had not heard of, though I have read IBS.

    PS Jane, have you been listening to a radio 4 series this week , The Misogyny Book Club – 15 minutes broadcasts about how writing influences perceptions of women, both self-perception and perceptions about women. Should be available on iPlayer. Fascinating!


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