Life & Culture

'Yentl' actor writes new spin on Jewish classic for Radio 4

Kerry Shale, who appeared in the 1983 Barbra Streisand film, has penned a fresh take on Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic short story


A fresh take on Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic short story 'Yentl the Yeshiva Boy' is set to be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday, penned by an actor from the cult film.

Kerry Shale, who appeared as a Yeshiva student in Barbra Streisand's 1983 musical film 'Yentl', says he wanted to find "a different angle" on the classic, based on deep research of Singer himself, and his relationship with his sister.

In the original story, set in a Jewish shtetl in Poland, 16-year-old Yentl knows that she will never be a wife and mother, as was expected of her, so her father allows her to join him in morning prayers, and when he dies, she dons her father's clothes and becomes a young man called Anshel who takes to the road in search of a religious seminary.

Speaking to Mina Anwar on BBC Radio 4's Front Row this week, Shale said: “In my research, and I did a lot of research, because I wanted to find a different angle than the Barbra Streisand film. She took the original and turned it into a kind of feminist epic, and a musical, which Singer didn’t really approve of, and so I wanted to find a different angle."

He realised that Singer's story was not written out of nowhere, but was based on his own life “I discovered about his sister, Esther Kreitman, who was a pretty unrecognised novelist; I realised that he’d actually said in print that the story of Yentl was based on a frustrated, brilliant young woman who couldn’t study the bible, and that was his sister. She wanted to be a rabbi.”

“[Singer] was haunted by a lot of mistakes that he made in his life, and I think he felt enormous guilt at the way he treated his sister. Women were second-class citizens, certainly in his household, and she was discouraged from doing anything except being a wife and mother. She did become a wife and mother, but she also became a novelist, and I think in retrospect, he saw the bravery and the guts that took. I think after she died, he felt horribly guilty, so I’ve incorporated that into my adaptation.” 

Shale himself is an atheist Jew, but with the help of the UK's only orthodox Jewish stand-up comic, Rachel Creeger, he was able to ensure that the accents reflected the correct pronunciations: “She helped to standardise the pronunciations, for instance, so they’re all Ashkenazi European Jewish pronunciations, whereas my pronunciations are North American.”

Many of the accents are British accents, somewhat nondescript, which was in a bid to get away from the Americanness of the Streisand film.

One of the powerful tools that radio plays allow is the ability to explore the internal monologue of human beings, and by extension, the characters: “I was very taken when I read a lot of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short stories that his belief in the devil and God, even though he didn’t attend a synagogue and on one level he was an atheist, that his stories are permeated by devils and otherworldliness. And so, I came up with the idea of calling a character Yentl II as the voice that you hear in your head, that we all hear in our head, suggesting or possibly forcing us to do things that go over the edge, that take us over a boundary that we wouldn’t maybe have nerve to cross.”

Summing up the new adaptation, presenter Mina Anwar said: “What I found really powerful about your adaptation is how it is convincing of a world in which, as you say, feminist ideas that you could go off and live your chosen life are just not possible, but how a mind could exist in that world which yearned for something more."

Yentl the Yeshiva Boy will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday at 3pm

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