Who can live with a volcano?

Dear Esther,

How can one read a volcano? Your semi-autobiographical novel Deborah (Der Shaidim Tantz, 1936, tr. Maurice Carr) can be subtly misleading: behind its veil of domesticity, we can hear your raging voice against the thwarted dreams of intelligent women forced to consign their lives to housework and motherhood.

Deborah, the protagonist, is a young Jewish girl who has a strong desire to study and become a scholar. Sadly, within the confines of her Orthodox upbringing, in Poland in the early years of the twentieth century, she is not allowed to receive the same education and opportunities as her less talented brother Michael. Her father, the devoted Reb Avram Ber, is very much a failure as a rabbi, unable to improve his family’s impoverished life in any aspect. Raizela, Deborah’s mother, is herself an embittered woman, who, having had the luck to receive formal education, wasn’t able to pursue her scholarly talents any further. While Reb Avram is a mystically inclined simpleton, Raizela is rationalistic, the real backbone of the family. We follow this clan through their struggles, as they move from their shtetl life in an impoverished and tiny Polish village, to a Hasidic court in a slightly larger town, and finally to the degraded metropolis of Warsaw, where Deborah comes of age.

Whenever she can, amidst her many household chores, Deborah studies in secret, hiding her books behind the kitchen stove. Despite the fact that she does not accept the role she had been given, Deborah tries dutifully to fulfill the expectations of what a rabbi’s daughter should be. This combination of external conformity and internal rebellion only fuels her hunger for experience and knowledge, which ends up by driving her to the brink of madness – like a bird too big for the small cage it has been given to live in, restlessly banging himself  against the bars.

Each of the characters projects his own weaknesses into Deborah: her father, fustigated by the fact that his wife is more intelligent than him, tries to keep Deborah under his submission by denying her any education; Raizela, embittered by her own frustrated talents and jealous of the fact that, unlike Raizela herself, Deborah doesn’t choose resignation, barely speaks to her daughter, relegating her to the most desultory household duties; Michael and his father call Deborah a ‘nobody’.

Trying to escape this oppressive environment with the only means she had, Deborah renounces her clandestine feelings towards a young socialist rebel, and agrees to an arranged marriage to Beirish, a Jewish diamond-cutter. She moves to Antwerp, only to discover that she had leaped into another very small cage. Her only options are resignation, or madness.

There is turmoil both inside and outside: such as Deborah tries to fulfill two contradictory expectations – her family’s and her own – , people are caught up in a contradictory time, where tradition and modernity begin to clash; in parallel to Deborah’s downfall into desperation, hunger and madness, we watch Europe’s descent into World War I. The antisemitism of those times is also subtly alluded to in the book:  here and there we see traces of a world that merely tolerates Jewish people, but does not really approve of their presence.

The protagonist’s name is also curious, considering that this is a tale of repression of the female creativity and intellect: ‘Deborah’ is the only female Judge mentioned in the Bible. The Song of Deborah (Book of Judges 5: 2-31) is perhaps the earliest sample of Hebrew poetry. It celebrates a military victory helped by two women: Deborah and Jael. “Awake, awake, Deborah: awake, awake, utter a song (…) and lead thy captivity captive (…).” (Book of Judges 5: 12-13)

Charles Zacharie Landelle. "Deborah"

The original title of the novel, “Der Shaidim Tantz” (“The Devil’s Dance”), refers to the demonic gyrations Deborah believes to have seen at her own wedding party, and which torment her from then on. This title is far more appropriate than the more tamed “Deborah”, which sounds as if we were about to read another sweet domestic tale such as Heidi, or Pollyanna. The roiling tension of your book sounds very much like a devilish dance, in its depiction of a woman’s ever mounting rage at her lack of opportunities. Deborah’s desire for self-expression is often dismissed by her family as hysteria: she is the black sheep, the bad daughter, the one who acts as if possessed by a dybbuk.  In order to reassert herself, Deborah has to fight against forces that seem to be beyond her control, like otherworldly devils. As the novel draws to an end, we are thrown into this ‘Dance’, moving faster and faster, as we watch desire turn into desperation, than into resentment and rage, and finally into madness.

So how should one read this volcano, my dear? Are you seeking liberation from the past, or are you trying to crystallize it? This book reads so much as a revenge that it ends up also being a meticulously self-inflicted injury, at times. I read that you were the inspiration for your brother’s book “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”, about a woman from a traditional background who wishes to be able to study. Unlike your brother’s more conciliatory tone, though, you depict with devastating clarity the loneliness of female intellect in oppressive environments, and the many costs of it. You show us how this devil’s dance has scarred you, but you do it by opening up your wounds again and again and refusing any consolation. Something remains airless, in eruption.

I know this was one of your brother’s rhetorical sentences about you, so I will twist it into a perhaps more interesting one:  How can you live with your volcano?

Yours truly,


Amedeo Bocchi. "Mélancolie"
Amedeo Bocchi. “Mélancolie”

“She loved me with a great love that often seemed to me exaggerated and frightening… Even those who could not get along with her praised her good-heartedness and refinement. But who can live with a volcano? After a few days of listening to her  complaints and blame, I became weary. She could literally drive a person crazy.”

–  Isaac Bashevis Singer about his sister Esther Kreitman (In: Hadda, Janet, Isaac Bashevis Singer: A Life,University of Wisconsin Press, 2003, p. 137)

About the book

Women’s Classic Literature Event

11 thoughts on “Who can live with a volcano?

    1. Yes, I recommend this book. I came to it because of Jane’s review over at Beyond Eden Rock, so I already had high expectations. And I do not regret having read it! Esther should be rediscovered. Thank you for coming by, Cathy 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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