“Yentl” Spotlight on Pesha: More Than a Bully!

Just a few of the many, many comments posted last weekend about YENTL–and here are a few focussing on Pesha, the hectoring wife to Avigdor–with our new student subscribers making keen insights as to what marks Pesha as an accomplished woman of commerce, even while chasing Avigdor around the shop with a frying pan for his commercial negligence! The students ask strong artistic questions of playwright Leah Napolin’s choice to present Pesha the way she does, and of our production as to why Pesha comes out characterized so unsympathetically, in contrast to Yentl.  Is it necessary to have a villain (of a sort) in this tale?  Is there more to Pesha than what some are seeing?

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing "I Hate Girl Things"

Judith Ingber (who plays Pesha), Amy McWilliams and Shanta Parasuraman sing “I Hate Girl Things”

We share reactions to these observations about Pesha from Susan Wiedman Schneider, founding editor and publisher of Lilith Magazine, a media sponsor on this production, and from the show’s director, Shirley Serotsky.

First two excerpts from the show.  First at their betrothal ceremony:

ZLATEH. What my Pesha needs is a husband to help out in the store. If you’re smart you’ll do it. No one ever got rich from sitting and shaking his head over the Talmud all day! (Party Guests agree.)

AVIGDOR. I’m not a shopkeeper.

PESHA. I’ll teach you how to be one.

AVIGDOR. A shopkeeper is born a shopkeeper.

PESHA. You’ll learn as you go along. The first rule in business is—buy cheap and sell steep!

FEITL. (Proudly) See, what did I tell you? She’ll be a good provider!

…Contrasted with this snippet, from later in their relationship:

PESHA. Put away the soap.

AVIGDOR. Where shall I put it?

PESHA. On the shelves.

AVIGDOR. But the shelves are filled with pots.

PESHA. So take down the pots and put them somewhere else!

AVIGDOR. (With an armload of pots) Where shall I put them?

PESHA. On your head! (AVIGDOR lets the pots drop.) What’s the matter with you? Pick them up!

AVIGDOR. If you speak to me like that again, I’ll walk out!

PESHA. Ha! See how far you get with no money in your pocket.

AVIGDOR. You never give me any.

PESHA. You don’t earn it! (She notices a fish on the floor.) Who’s been in the herring barrel?

AVIGDOR. A woman came in and bought some soap and herring. She said she’d come back and settle with you later.

PESHA. You let her take them without paying? (Screams) Fool! (She runs out.) Help, thief! Thief! (She runs back in.) Idiot, idiot! You’ll be the death of me! (She grabs a ladle and starts to chase him.)

AVIGDOR. Pesha, please …

PESHA. I’ll murder you! I’ll tear you to pieces! (AVIGDOR tumbles over the stool and sits on the floor holding his head.) Who’ll save me from this half-wit?

And now our student comments:

Timothy Sell | September 5, 2014 at 11:58 pm

What is particularly interesting to examine in Leah Napolin’s play adaptation of “Yentl” is the character of Pesha. Pesha is introduced from the very beginning as a widow, whose husband died within the first year of marriage, which is a sign of bad luck. However, more than this, Pesha is seen in the town as a force to be reckoned with when it comes to running a business. She is referred to as more-or-less the breadwinner of her and Avigdoor’s marriage and even publicly scolds Avigdoor when he commits an error at the store. Also, when it comes to the night of their wedding, Pesha is not described as the tender and loving woman to Avigdoor that Hadass strived to achieve with Anshel; Pesha instead seemingly wishes to speed through sex and not bother with Avigdoor’s songs. This is of significance because Hadass was advised by other women of the town to give herself to Anshel in any way he wanted. It can be reasonably inferred then that Pesha, as a woman, was given similar advice. This dynamic Pesha is allowed to maintain in a very strict Jewish society with stringent gender norms intrigues me. After all, whether they are serving meals or being referred to as “footstools,” women are largely seen as servants to men in this play. However, Pesha seems to slightly break free from this as the more traditional role of men to provide for their families falls to her, as she runs a business and receives praise for her ability to make money.

I wish to add a quick note here to say that Pesha definitely does not take on all the stereotypical gender roles of a man in her marriage to Avigdoor. After all, the way Avigdoor and Anshel sexually objectify Pesha’s breasts to compare them to large melons demonstrates they primarily see her for her physical appearance and not for her intelligence in running a business. Pesha is also never seen being allowed to participate in studying or religious practices. But, when compared to the roles of Hadass and the other minor female characters, we see that Pesha certainly takes more liberties as she navigates a society dominated by men and masculine desires.

The question that remains then is why? One speculation is the fact that Pesha has already been married once before. In the time between her first and second marriages, Pesha may have had to provide for herself and consequently prove herself to be a successful businesswoman. Or, since Pesha grew up with a father who was a praised leather dealer, she might have inherited the “family gene” for business and society simply allows her to maintain this role. In any case, although minor, Pesha is a complicated character who, through her actions of the play, provokes much thought on gender roles in a religiously-charged culture.

layne vandenbergSeptember 6, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Reply | Edit

While I had not considered it before, TJ brings up a very interesting argument regarding the character of Pesha. Pesha does seem to break the female norms of Jewish society in a separate way than Yentl, yet because her form of rebellion does not involve the study of sacred texts – as prohibited by Jewish law – she is accepted for taking on more masculine characteristics. Instead of being persecuted for her more “masculine” qualities, she is, as TJ mentions, revered for her ability to run a business and bring home the bacon (figuratively, of course). My speculation as to why Pesha is more accepted into the folds of society is somewhat a contradiction. Perhaps Pesha is accepted because she, in lieu of fulfilling more feminine qualities, fulfills the other highly-valued characteristic of being economically-savvy alongside maintaining her obligations to get married (once, twice…) and serve her husband by making money for the family. This seems to somewhat align with Yentl as well, as Yentl studies the Talmud in lieu of feminine pursuits, therefore fulfilling the highly-valued characteristic of being a Jewish scholar. The outlier of Yentl’s case, beyond her physical transformation, then must be that she denies her female “responsibilities” of marriage to a man and the resulting obligation to live to serve him. If this is the case, is it the intention of their respective actions, Pesha’s and Yentl’s, that determine why they are accepted or denied by society? Perhaps because Pesha supposedly takes on masculinity with the end goal to serve her husband, she then is granted clemency for rejecting some female norms.

Sera Adler | September 6, 2014 at 9:53 pm | | Edit

It is interesting that while Peshe and Yentl/Anshel both traverse the feminine/masculine world, society accepts Peshe but not Yentl/Anshel–yet the author/playwright clearly want us as the audience to accept Yentl/Anshel and not Peshe. Peshe is portrayed as ugly, mean, brutal, and un-loving. None of us walked away from that production liking Peshe, no matter how good of a business-person she is. Yentl is an oddball, but one the audience can sympathize with. Yentl is kind and un-offending, and most everyone can relate to her–women can relate to her, men can relate to her.

It’s clear to me why they need to make Peshe an unlikeable character. But why, in such a feminist under-toned story, did they make her dislikable due to her masculine qualities? Is the character of Peshe contradictory to the overall theme of the play?

from Susan Weidman Schneider, Editor in Chief Lilith Magazine: (independent, Jewish & frankly feminist)

Adding my $0.02 re Pesha:

I think an important point is missing from the students’ understanding of traditional male and female roles in the Jewish world of “Yentl.”

Advanced Jewish study was closed to women, but not the world of commerce. Pesha is not such an outlier! Women were often the breadwinners, sustaining the family while the husbands “learned.” Women, who out of necessity traded with the locals, more often than men spoke the vernacular language of the surrounding peoples–Ukrainian, Polish, e.g.–while the scholarly husbands knew only Yiddish and biblical Hebrew. (The memoir of Glukl von Hameln is the most prominent example.)

Pesha in the play is a bullying, scowling, unlikable individual, but her role as a successful shopkeeper would have been pretty familiar in the shtetls and even in the larger communities of Jews, as I understand. The learned husbands were often seen as impractical dreamers, admired for their scholarship, while the practical, entrepreneurial wives kept the family books and tended to financial affairs.
This dynamic is not entirely unknown even today in similar “yeshivish” communities.

from Shirley Serotsky, Associate Artistic Director, Theater J

Interesting comments all around. And Yes—to quote a memoir by Yekhezkel Kotik that we used as reference (“Journey to a Nineteenth-Century Shtetl”):

“All the stores were run almost exclusively by women—older and younger wives, their daughters and daughters-in-law. The women usually sat outside, opposite one another or side by side, scarcely able to hide their mutual anger or envy if one of the numerous young wives pulled or dragged in potential customers by their sleeves, mainly peasants or their womanfolk. The better kind of customers—the Jews or the gentry—usually patronized particular stores and nobody dared drag them into one’s own store like a herring. But under their breath, the women fired curses at them and the storekeepers who made a profit from them.”

So—it sounds like Pesha would have fit right in!