Yankl Boyle (Der dorfsyung)

[Yankl Boyle (The Village Lad)]


Act 1

A hot summer’s day in a tiny village next to a big lake in Ukraine. Two fishermen talk about how when Yankl Boyle sings, everyone cranes their necks to hear – especially the non-Jewish women in town. Together with other fishermen, they begin to work on the boats. A young Russian woman, Natasha, comes to bring a samovar for the workers. When Yankl returns from the lake, Natasha’s face lights up. They flirt. Yankl watches as another fisherman, Zalmen, tries to kiss Natasha. Yankl asks Natasha if she’s seeing Zalmen and confesses his love for her. Natasha replies that she loves him too, but she is jealous because Yankl is engaged to marry Khayke, the Jewish girl his family betrothed him to. Yankl protests that he hates Khayke and only loves Natasha. Khayke enters and tells Yankl that his father, Yishayahu, is dying and he must come quickly.

Yishayahu’s tavern. The old man is dying, surrounded by his family. Yishayahu is concerned that God will punish him for turning away from Judaism, begs Yankl to say Kaddish for him, and asks him to promise that he will marry Khayke. Yankl refuses. His parents and uncle pile on the guilt, and Yishayahu promises to haunt Yankl from beyond the grave if he does not marry Khayke. Yankl leaves, furious. Yishayahu and Khayke’s father finalize the engagement agreement, and Yishayahu dies, muttering “Be a Jew, Yankele.”

Act 2

Outside the fishermen’s hut, two months later. Natasha and her father, Prokop, are working, but Natasha can’t stop thinking about Yankl. They find each other near the lake and embrace. The other fishermen remind Yankl about his promises to his father. Yankl says Kaddish to quiet them but he pronounces all of the words wrong. Khayke shows up and Yankl tells her off. Two fishermen take Yankl aside and tell him that his father visited his mother in her dreams last night and told her that he was being punished because Yankl isn’t acting like a proper Jew. Yankl is shaken by this, and tries to explain his feelings to Natasha, but she laughs off his fears.

Later, Yankl and Natasha quarrel, then dance. The other fishermen taunt him for disrespecting his father’s wishes. Yankl and Natasha quarrel again, then make up and dance. Yankl’s mother enters and chides him for dancing with a non-Jewish girl. Suddenly, Yankl hears his father’s voice from beyond the grave: “Yankele, be a Jew.” Terrified, Yankl promises to do as his father asks.

Act 3

The same hut, a few days later. The fishermen discuss their concerns about Yankl’s mental health – he keeps hearing his dead father’s voice everywhere he goes. Khayke tells Yankl that his father came to visit her in her dreams with the same demand. Yankl promises to become a pious Jew and to marry Khayke tomorrow. But suddenly, he changes his mind, vows to marry Natasha, and punches Zalmen. The other fishermen leave, afraid that he’s gone mad. Yankl and Natasha embrace with reckless abandon. But then Yankl turns on her, calling her a temptress and a devil, and tells her that he will marry Khayke. Natasha tells Yankl that she is pregnant with his child. She urges Yankl to marry her immediately; if not, she says, her father will kill her. Yankl does not know what to do and runs away. Natasha tells her father, Prokop, that she is pregnant with Yankl’s child. Prokop chases Yankl with an axe and insists that he marry his daughter and convert to Christianity at once. Yankl refuses. Natasha intervenes and takes the axe from her father as Yankl continues to refuse.

Act 4

Yeshayahu’s tavern. Yankl’s mother and Khayke are preparing for the wedding. A fisherman tells them about Natasha’s pregnancy. Prokop is also at the tavern, drinking his sorrows away. When Prokop leaves, Yankl creeps in. He has heard that Natasha is leaving town to stay with her mother and asks friends to give her money for the baby. Suddenly, Natasha enters the tavern, looking to say goodbye to her father. They fight. Natasha begs him to marry her and convert to Christianity. He refuses again. Yankl hangs himself. A drunken Prokop begs Yankl’s mother for more liquor as the curtain falls.