Esther Kreitman: More Than Just “The Other Singer Sibling”

At Tablet Magazine – though when I conceived and wrote and revised the piece, the place was still Nextbook – my essay on Esther Kreitman and her greatest work, the novel Der Sheydim Tants (published here first as DEBORAH, now reissued as THE DANCE OF THE DEMONS) appears today. I’d been wanting to write about Kreitman for years, not just because she was the eldest sibling of a family of notable Yiddish writers, but because her work had a certain feral quality to it, inspired as it was by a mix of her unhappy upbringing and adult life and the supernatural quality that appears in a lot of Yiddish literature.

Here’s how it opens:

“There are two Singers in Yiddish literature, and while both are very
good, they sing in different keys,” wrote Irving Howe in 1980. He was
right about the brothers’ literary cadences; Israel Joshua died
prematurely in 1944, but not before producing multigenerational sagas
that dealt equally with Jewish themes and larger historical and
socioeconomic concerns such as The Family Carnovsky and The Brothers Ashkenazi (recently called “the best Russian novel ever written in Yiddish” by Joseph Epstein). Isaac Bashevis, nine years younger, earned a Nobel Prize
for novels and short stories where playful and demonic archetypes clash
against the stark reality of 20th-century Eastern European Jewry.

Howe was wrong, however, on one major count. There was a third Singer, Hinde Esther,
oldest of the Orthodox clan that spent its formative years in the
Polish shtetls immortalized in Bashevis’s oeuvre. She, in fact, was the
first of her family to set her ideas down on paper, but her early work
is lost—she burned it not long after she was married—and only two
novels (Der Sheydim Tants and Brilyantn) and a short story collection (Yikhes, published in English as Blitz and Other Stories) from later in life, survive as testament to her talents.

  Read on for the rest. I really do hope <em>Der Sheydim Tants</em> gets re-translated in a more up-to-date fashion so that it properly reflects not only the Yiddish text, but the cauldron of emotions contained within.