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The Unabashed Jewishness of Barbra Streisand

In the history of Hollywood schmaltz, few moments quite beat the sight of Barbra Streisand dressed as a yeshiva boy, on her knees in prayer as the night sky swirls around her, plaintively singing in her buttery soprano, “Papa … can you hear me?”

In 1983, Barbra was at the height of her stardom, a well-established diva with Funny Girl, A Star Is Born, and The Way We Were behind her. A silhouette of her nose was enough to identify her. She used that accumulated capital to make this: a musical adaptation of an Isaac Bashevis Singer story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” about a girl in the old country who wants to study Talmud and disguises herself as a boy to do so. The film has always had the taint of a vanity project and remains, as a result, vaguely embarrassing. When Streisand wasn’t nominated for best director and Yentl itself was barely recognized at the 1984 Oscars, a demonstration was staged outside the ceremony, with protesters carrying signs that read Barbra Was Robbed and What About Babs?? The outcry was a genuine objection on behalf of a rare woman director—but it was also kind of a joke.

Yentl is worth another look. I had forgotten that this was the first film from a Hollywood studio to be written, directed, and produced by a woman, who also starred in it. The account of how Yentl came to be falls smack in the middle of Streisand’s new, nearly 1,000-page memoir, My Name Is Barbra, and for that reason alone is an important keystone for understanding her. This moment—she turned 40 while making the film—was when a famously controlling star had total power over a creative project for the first time, launching her into a new stage of her career. Pitching the movie to studio executives, she writes that she felt “as if I were eighteen years old again, auditioning for a Broadway show.” Lost in the decades since has been her bravery in choosing to stake it all on a film that was unabashedly feminist and Jewish.

Streisand first read Singer’s short story, translated from Yiddish, in 1968, when it arrived in her slush pile of potential projects. What hooked her initially were its four opening words: “After her father’s death …” Streisand had never known her own father; he died just after her first birthday. Her mother told her that, even long after the funeral had passed, Streisand would wait for him to come home—“In some ways, I’m still waiting,” she writes. She pined for him. The story of Yentl, a young woman in prewar Eastern Europe who is set adrift after her father’s death and decides to pursue her illicit love of learning (her “soul thirsted to study Torah” is how Singer put it) spoke to Streisand.

It took 15 years from that day until she was finally able to make the film. Along the way, all manner of people cringed when she would describe her passion for the project. Even Singer, who appeared to her to be an “angry imp,” with the gall to serve her “hard, dry Social Tea biscuits” when she paid him a visit, seemed deeply skeptical. Her boyfriend at the time, Jon Peters, portrayed maniacally by Bradley Cooper in the film Licorice Pizza, thought that she could never pull off playing a man. (When she tried to disprove him by showing up at their house dressed in drag, she was so successful that she worried he would grab his gun and shoot her as an intruder.)

Among the studio heads, in rejection after rejection, she began to sense a common theme. The whole project appeared too Jew-y to them, she recalls:

When the studio executives refused to see beyond the Jewish context of Yentl to the larger themes of gender equality … This was about a woman who simply wanted the same opportunities as a man … Their real concern was unspoken but I could feel it. They did not want to draw attention to Jews and their world. As I wrote in my journal, Jews were apparently considered too “different, alien, especially now, and again, and it seems always …”

She was finally able to persuade a studio to green-light the film when she agreed to sing in it, and even then she encountered a version of the same problem. After casting Mandy Patinkin as Avigdor, the yeshiva student whom Yentl falls in love with, she wanted Carol Kane to play Hadass, the third member of the movie’s love triangle. But she was told that three Jewish leads was too much. “Did they expect me to vet actors according to their religion?” Streisand writes. “And by the way, had nobody noticed that this was, after all, a movie about Jews?” When Streisand ended up casting Amy Irving as Hadass, she kept from the studios the fact that Irving had a Jewish father. (One of the juicier revelations here is Patinkin’s bizarre expectations about what would happen on set; at one point, he cried to Streisand because, he said, “I thought we were going to have an affair.”)

The experience of making the film enhanced Streisand’s connection to her Jewish identity, though it had always been “essential to who I am.” She began studying with three different rabbis to understand better what Yentl might have been drawn to in the Talmud. When Patinkin signed on to co-star, Streisand sent him the seven volumes of Louis Ginzberg’s The Legends of the Jews.

The struggle to make a film about Jews dovetailed with her struggle to be taken seriously as a woman director. Streisand constantly needed to affirm her power and assert her ideas for the film. She studied Rembrandt’s paintings and wanted Yentl to have the same old-master look, with shafts of light dramatically illuminating faces and contrasting sharply with a thick background darkness. To make this happen, she was set on hiring the cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, who had worked on Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1970 film, The Conformist. Storaro came with a steep price tag, which the studio refused to pay. Streisand covered the difference herself, though she recalls being attracted to Storaro and worrying that her “crush” would affect their work. Once she began describing how she would want certain scenes shot, she realized another reason she couldn’t work with him. Early in the film, Yentl is up in the women’s balcony of the synagogue; Streisand thought the camera should pan from her to her father sitting down below. Storaro thought the camera should move the opposite way, from the father to Yentl. Streisand went along with his suggestion because “I didn’t quite have the confidence to disagree with him.” Then she realized the dynamic, and fired him. “If I was going to make this film, it needed to be my vision,” she writes. “And I didn’t want to have to fight for it.”

She did seem to have to fight, however, throughout the shoot in Czechoslovakia and into the editing booth, all the while dealing with misogynistic whispering in the press about her being a control freak. Many of these stories do show a director intent on getting exactly what she wants, even if it means driving her crew crazy—she had to have the shot of sunlight falling on a stream in exactly the way she imagined, even if it meant doing it over and over again. But every auteur director is like this, including Kubrick and Spielberg—they’re just men.

Is Yentl a good film? I rewatched it this past weekend for the first time in many decades and found it much more enjoyable than I thought I would. It suffers from the too-muchness of Streisand’s approach. I could have done without the ever-present singing voice-over or the moments when the message that “nothing is impossible”—the film’s kitschy tagline—becomes as exhausted as a yeshiva student after a whole night of disputation. But after reading her memoir, the aspect of the film that is a pure expression of Streisand’s will came through and marked Yentl in new ways for me.

When you consider Streisand’s own lifelong pain at never having known her father, “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” becomes truly sad. In Yentl, the character, Streisand is channeling her own desire to be seen and heard; the daughter is looking to be loved, and the artist to be appreciated for her artistry. One of the rare positive reviews of the film was by Pauline Kael, who understood this. “There is something genuinely heroic in the mixture of delicacy and strength that gives this movie its suppleness,” Kael wrote. “Within the forty-one-year-old star-director are the perfectly preserved feelings of a shy, frightened girl of twelve.”

One narrative turn in the film struck me as freshly significant. When Yentl reveals to Avigdor that she is a woman and is in love with him, an intense scene erupts. As Avigdor, Patinkin is in full method-acting mode; he rages and thrashes and yells at her before collapsing to the floor and admitting that he, too, loves her and wants to be with her now that he knows who she really is. Before they can ride off together in standard storybook fashion, Avigdor tells Yentl that now that she has dropped the guise of being a boy, she can do what women are meant to do. “I’ll do the thinking; I’ll take care of everything,” he tells her. The passion immediately deflates. This is not what Yentl had in mind, so she leaves him.

The end of the movie finds her on a boat headed, presumably, to America. I didn’t love the Funny Girl–style musical number that suddenly starts up, with Streisand at the ship’s stern belting out her last song, “Piece of the Sky,” and the camera sweeping over the ocean as the music rises in a cheesy crescendo. But Yentl is now alone. And no one is going to tell her what to do.

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