‘Yentl’ writer Leah Napolin dies at 83


Leah Napolin, whose adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” found fame on the Broadway stage, died in her Sea Cliff home last Sunday after a long battle with breast cancer. She was 83.

Napolin was born on April 27, 1935, in Brooklyn. She moved to Sea Cliff with her parents when she was 15. Her father, Morris, owned a lamp shop in Glen Cove. At the time, Sea Cliff was something of a resort town for Russian families migrating away from the crowded confines of the city, according to Napolin’s daughter, Jessica Starke.

“For her, Sea Cliff was a great place to grow up,” Starke said. “She remained in touch with friends from childhood up until just a few months ago.”

Napolin’s interests in reading and writing took her to Alfred University upstate, where she joined the theater club. After she graduated in 1956, she acted and directed in various summer stock productions, both at Alfred and in Sea Cliff. After teaching English in Venezuela for a year, she moved to Manhattan, where she met Bertram Katz. They married, and had two daughters, Margo Katz, now 56, and Starke, 54.

Margo Katz regarded her mother as “a woman before her time.” “She found a way to synergistically be a mother and find her own way through her creative life,” she said. “As a writer, I looked to her for that balance. She was someone who very clearly found and defined her voice, and not just in ‘Yentl,’ but in other plays she wrote.”

In the 1960s the family relocated from their residence on Riverside Drive to suburban Ohio, where Leah and Bertram taught at Ohio State University. Napolin, who was an adjunct professor of comparative literature, found being a “faculty wife” unsatisfying, Katz said, which prompted her to teach creative writing classes for inmates at the Reformatory for Women in Marysville, Ohio.

Around the early 1970s, a yearning for Sea Cliff brought Napolin back to the village. “Her roots were in Sea Cliff,” Starke said. “She wanted to come back, and we’ve been here ever since.”

Napolin was encouraged by an old friend, Robert Kalfin — who founded the Chelsea Theater Center in New York City — to write a stage adaptation of “Yentl.” It took her seven weeks. The story focuses on a young Jewish woman who disguises herself as a man so she can study the Talmud. The original production opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1974. A year later, in October 1975, it moved to Broadway, where it ran for 223 performances.

Starke was 10 when her mother wrote the play and recalls attending auditions and readings for “Yentl” before it premiered. “It was amazing to be part of that at such a young age,” she said. “I don’t know any other kid that experienced that. It marked a very untraditional upbringing.”

Just as untraditional were the “sister Seders” Napolin held for fellow women writers. “She had an eclectic group of friends,” Starke said, and the guests included notables like Gloria Steinem and Esther Broner.

And feminist leaders weren’t the only ones enthralled with Napolin’s play. “Our subject [is] love, which transcends categories, which goes beyond gender,” she said in the 1991 book “Chelsea on the Edge: The Adventures of an American Theater,” written by Davi Napoleon.

Napolin’s romantic life offers proof of that claim. “My mother was true to herself, and that wasn’t always easy,” Starke said. In 2000 she divorced Katz, and she married Barbara L. Murphy 13 years later. “Her legacy is love,” her daughter said, “and she really welcomed and accepted that.”

Katz can recall the sparkle in her mother’s eyes and the gracious way in which she embraced the world, full of life and love. “Every one who met her was drawn to her,” Katz said. “She asked you meaningful questions, she wanted to engage — she was the most curious person I ever knew.”

That inquisitive nature made her own mortality difficult to deal with. “It was not an easy thing for her. She felt there was so much more to do,” Katz said. “She wanted to keep creating and learning.”

As a mother and a feminist, Napolin never faltered in raising her daughters with the strength that was essential to her. “She always stressed the importance of having something outside of the home, and maintaining your own identity,” Starke said. “That’s the best advice she ever gave me.”

Napolin’s memoirs will be published later this year.