Isaac Bashevis Singer was known as an American Jewish writer, winner of two National Book Awards and the winner of a Nobel Prize for Literature. Born in Poland to a hassidic rabbi, he lived in Poland until he was 32, when he immigrated to New York City.
He worked as a journalist and columnist for the Yiddish-language Jewish Daily Forward and wrote 18 novels, 14 children’s books, memoirs, essays and articles but is best known as a writer of short stories. He always wrote in Yiddish.
Some of his works were adapted to films, including Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy, adapted into a stage version and the basis for the film Yentl with Barbara Streisand. Singer died in 1991.
The Khan Theater in Jerusalem is the major creative repertory theater in the capital. The theater maintains a permanent company of actors, and is committed to producing three to four shows each year, in addition to its repertoire of about 10 ongoing productions. These include original Israeli plays as well as classical and modern European and American plays.
The Khan Theater is located in a 19th-century Ottoman period inn that served travelers who arrived in Jerusalem after nightfall when the gates to the Old City were locked. It also served as a beer cellar and carpentry workshop in later years.
At the initiative of former Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, it was restored and opened as the theater in 1967. The new theater company was established in 1973. One hall seats 238 and the other seats 70.
Recently, the Khan Repertory Company presented Teibele and her Demon—a Song and Fiend-Filled Jewish Tale (originally written as a short story in 1963). Singer collaborated for the play with Eve Friedman, an English teacher and playwright, whom he met at a P.E.N. reception in New York. (P.E.N. is a worldwide association of writers, founded in London in 1921 to promote friendship and intellectual cooperation among writers everywhere.)
The play premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis for their 1978-’79 season and appeared briefly on Broadway in 1979. Habimah presented it in Israel in 1985. In this version, songs and new characters have been added.
The play takes place in the 1880s in a Polish Jewish village, where Teibele, an attractive Jewish bride, has been deserted by her closeted gay husband shortly after their wedding, leaving her an aguna who can neither divorce nor remarry until proof of the runaway husband’s death is offered.
Her girlfriend, Gitel, shares her secret of believing in ghosts. Into the plot comes Alchonon, a teacher’s helper, and the narrator who is really the devil. The village prankster, Alchonon one day overhears Teibele’s fascination with a story of a woman seduced by a demon, and he devises a scheme to take advantage of her beliefs.
One night he appears in her bedroom claiming to be the demon, Hurmizah, says he knows her husband is dead, charms her with tales of the demon world, and is welcomed into her bed. Teibele gradually becomes dependent on Hurmizah’s biweekly visits.
When winter comes, Alchonon takes ill and a passing funeral reveals he has died. Teibele then is doomed to live the rest of her life alone with the secret life she lived.
As one analyst of Singer’s short stories relates, “so long as people believe in demons, their existence is real enough, but the love that results is not without its price.” That is the “untimely death of Alchonon,” and “for Teibele, it is the burden of sin, mystery, and desertion.” (Nasrullah Mambrol, November 22, 2019, literariness.org)
The play asks us how desperate do we become when we are lonely? How are we affected by spiritual things? How do we find comfort? Where is the line between fantasy and reality?
Another analyst has described this as a “charming and tender, albeit bizarre tale of loneliness and naiveté. It is a magical tale but one with nothing supernatural aside from an unlikely romance between two otherwise unloved and abandoned characters.”
For visitors to Jerusalem, a trip to the Khan is a delightful adventure. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for more information about forthcoming productions, and which are in English or have subtitles projected. ■
Sybil Kaplan is a journalist, lecturer, food writer and author who lives in Jerusalem.