March 31, 1891, is the birthdate of Yiddish writer Esther Singer Kreitman, the older sister of the far better-known writers Israel Joshua Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Her entire life, Esther had to fight against a family and society that recognized neither a woman’s right to an education nor to artistic expression.
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She channeled her frustration, however, into her stories and novels, which, though they received little recognition in her lifetime, were rediscovered in more recent decades, and subject to critical acclaim.
Kept under a table
Hinde Esther Singer was born in Bilgoraj, in the kingdom of Poland. Her father, Pinchos Mendel Singer, was a Hasidic rabbi; her mother, the former Batsheva Zylberman, was the daughter of the town’s former rabbi, of non-Hasidic bent. Hinde Esther grew up there, and in Radzymin and finally on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw, which I.B. Singer described with memorable nostalgia in his writing.
Esther, as she called herself as an adult, was neither happy in nor nostalgic for her childhood. Her mother, who was apparently more gifted than her husband, was frustrated at being relegated to a menial role. But, instead of empathizing with her daughter, who shared Batsheva’s thirst for knowledge, she was determined that Esther would go no further than she did.
Shortly after Esther’s birth, she was delivered to a wet nurse, who kept her crib under a table, and touched her only when feeding her. Once a week, for a period of three years, she had a visit from her mother.
The lack of love and physical contact, and being denied an education, took an emotional toll on the daughter, who later in life suffered from serious depression.
But Esther educated herself. In her first novel, “Der Sheydim Tants” (published in English as both “The Dance of the Demons” and “Deborah”), from 1936, Kreitman described a protagonist who lives for the periodic visits of a traveling bookseller in town, even as she keeps her reading a secret from her parents.
Arranged marriage to a schlemiel
In 1912, Hinde entered an arranged marriage with Avraham Kreitman, a diamond-cutter from Antwerp, whose own son would describe him as a “schlemiel.” On the train ride to meet her groom, she revealed to her mother that she was carrying with her hundreds of pages of stories she had been writing since childhood. Batsheva’s mother’s response, according to the same son, was to tell her to “tear them up and throw them out the window,” which she did.
Neither marriage, nor living in Antwerp, brought her much satisfaction, and the couple eventually separated, though not before the birth of Morris, in 1913. Morris grew up to be a journalist and writer (professionally, he wrote under the names Maurice Carr and Martin Lea), and eventually moved to Israel.
During World War I, the family moved to London, which is where Esther spent most of the rest of her life, though she returned to Warsaw for several long periods, for family visits. After the start of World War II, Esther’s parents and a third brother, Moshe, were evacuated forcibly by the Soviet government to Siberia, where they died under unknown circumstances.
Esther’s other two brothers both made it to New York. Israel Joshua succeeded early and died early, in 1944, whereas Isaac Bashevis took a while to became known, but eventually won the Nobel Prize, and became fabulously popular.
Kreitman supported herself by translating into Yiddish such English works as Dickens’ “Christmas Carol,” and G.B. Shaw’s “The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Socialism.” But it’s the fiction she wrote that is remembered today.
In addition to “Dance of the Demons,” she published another novel, “Brilyantn” (“Diamonds”), in 1944, set in the Antwerp diamond trade, and a book of short stories called “The Blitz and Other Stories,” in English (1949).
She died on June 13, 1954, in London, and was cremated, per her request.
As Clive Sinclair, who wrote about her in Lilith magazine in 1991, when it published her story “The New World,” intuited, "She said that she dreaded what the devils that persecuted her in life might do to her body in the grave. She wanted to confound them all, and have some victory, some peace."