Were you to walk the streets of Cullman (AL) on a night in 1975, you would find yourself in a very quiet place. Cullman is small, surrounded on all sides by farmland and clumps of sweetgum trees. On that 70s night, it would have been dark, and, save the radio of an occasional passing pickup, quiet. But if you followed the right street down into a flat residential area, a voice could eventually be made out, just over the din of the cicadas. The voice is strong, its power rising as you near the window from which it flows.
Within the glass’s frame, a teenage girl lays flat on her stomach, staring hard at the record player inches in front of her nose. As if, by focusing just hard enough, she could see the music notes hanging in the air—or even their singer. Littered around her are album covers which feature the same confident, blue-eyed artist. Those same glossy albums, now soft around the edges, covered the floor of my childhood home many decades later. They are love letters, testaments of the longest affair of my mother’s life: the one with Barbra Streisand.
Children like me, raised by a Barbra Streisand-obsessed mother, have a very particular relationship with Babs. Our mothers never use her full name, but refer to her familiarly as “Barbra” (as if she were an aunt who lives down the street). “Did I tell you what Barbra said?” my mother texts me some nights (as if Barbra had just left dinner five minutes prior). “Did you see what Barbra did?” Sometimes, my father joins in too: “Bad day for your mom,” his text says. “Barbra’s dog died.”
Barbra was a fixture of my mother’s childhood, teens, and, now, adulthood. Every new release Barbra has, my mother gets. Every film, we watch and rewatch. (Was anyone else’s first PG-13 film in a theater 2012’s The Guilt Trip?) We sing with Barbra in the car, and we quote her out in public.
And yet, despite all this, I had never seen Yentl. But knowing today would mark the fortieth anniversary of the first screening, I knew the time had come. So last week, I finally watched Yentl.
Last week, I finally watched Yentl.
If my viewing was perhaps not how Barbra intended—projected onto a dorm room wall—it could not have been any less spectacular than in a theater. I do not know what I expected of Yentl. I knew what I hoped—Barbra singing in a suit, arguing confidently with men, and many, many shots of Mandy Patinkin. Yentl delivered on all these fronts, but also gave me much more.
Yentl, adapted from Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” tells the story of a Ashkenazi girl – living somewhere in Eastern Europe in 1904 – who disguises herself as a boy in order to pursue the Talmudic education denied to her as a woman. The film, which premiered in 1983, was Barbra’s passion project. She directed, starred in, co-wrote, and co-produced Yentl. That Yentl is a deeply personal film is apparent from the mesmerizing first opening notes to the last short (when Barbra’s dedication to her father lights up the screen). Defying the very concept of genre – a comedy, a drama, a romance, and, of course, a musical – Yentl is a heartfelt depiction of Jewish life and culture which takes place in pre-Holocaust Jewish spaces which are now long gone.
According to Barbra herself (in the chapters devoted to Yentl in her new memoir, My Name is Barbra) that is what made the film so challenging to make. To say this book – which finally hit shelves last Tuesday – was anxiously anticipated would be an understatement. I had to pick through multiple bookshops in Dublin (where I am currently studying) before finally getting my hands on a copy. I’m completely serious when I say that one employee in a bookshop told me: “It’s a nightmare. We can’t keep them stocked for a second.” Even across the ocean, readers are desperate to truly know Barbra.
No, I have not read all of My Name is Barbra yet. It’s 970 pages long!
No, I have not read the entire book yet. (It’s 970 pages long!) But the chapters on Yentl made for a very interesting afternoon holed up in the bookshop corner. What stood out to me most was the resistance Barbra met with during the creation of Yentl. By the time thoughts of “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” took hold in Barbra’s mind, I would have thought she was a big enough star to make anything she wanted. Wrong. Barbra makes it clear that from the start of the project, the studio believed Yentl was “too Jewish.” There were a thousand complaints. No one wanted to make the movie; no one thought Barbra should play the lead; and, when people finally did agree to fund it, Barbra could barely swing hiring the very Jewish Mandy Patinkin… so forget having a Jewish actress portray Hadass!
So, clearly, in her own mind, Barbra had to make this film, if only to prove all the naysayers wrong. In fact, Barbra herself claims the moment she decided Yentl must be made was when Jon Peters (her then-boyfriend) told her she could not do it. Barbra writes: “‘Just because you said that,’ I told him, ‘I’m going to make this movie no matter what! I’m going to make this movie over your dead body!’” And so, fed by spite and talent and passion, she did!
A few months later, Yentl won a Golden Globes in the “Best Motion Picture – Comedy or Musical” category, and Barbra became the first woman in the history of the Golden Globes to win in the Best Director category. But the members of AMPAS (the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences) snubbed her anyway. The only performer recognized was Amy Irving (remember that the non-Jewish actress chosen to play Hadass) in the Best Supporting Actress category. One nomination went to the Best Art Direction-Set Decoration team, and three nominations were for music. The only win of the night was the Oscar for Best Original Song Score which went to Michel Legrand (music) and Alan & Marilyn Bergman (lyrics).
The only win of the night – at the 56th annual Academy Awards on April 9, 1984 – was the Oscar for Best Original Song Score.
These facts were to haunt AMPAS for over a decade, right up to the night in 2009 when Barbra was accorded the honor of handing Kathryn Bigelow the Best Director Oscar (the first time a woman had ever won – or even came close to winning – the top prize).
So, what is the magic of Yentl? What makes it shine? Well, Barbra’s signature charm shines throughout, as always, though it takes a more subdued tone for most of the film. Yentl, though confident intellectually, is less so in love.
One trope which appears time and again in Barbra’s movies is her lack of confidence in her looks. Her most memorable characters, though cognizant of their own talent and wit, do not believe they are “beautiful.” They have internalized our culture’s anti-Semitic beauty standards, and find themselves unworthy. Her best-known films end, if not in tragedy, then in melancholy reflection, after the conventionally handsome co-star leaves her life. James Caan in Funny Lady, Kris Kristofferson in A Star Is Born, Nick Nolte in The Prince of Tides, Robert Redford in The Way We Were, and Omar Shariff in Funny Girl — these characters all leave her in the end (often for another “more beautiful” woman).
Knowing this, I predicted that Avigdor (the character played by Mandy Patinkin) would leave Yentl too. I knew their romance was doomed. As a Barbra fan, I was preconditioned to expect heartbreak…
SPOILER ALERT!!! Yentl and Avigdor do not end up together…
SPOILER ALERT!!! Yentl and Avigdor do not end up together, but that is because she leaves him. The moment comes when Yentl says nothing, she just looks at him. And in that moment, it’s as if she’s looking at the audience as well. She is saying to us: “Oh. This isn’t going to work, is it?” And I, overcome with the need to answer, shouted at the projection: “Run, Barbra!” And she listened.
“I can only make films about things that are very personal to me,” Barbra writes in her memoir. “But one thing I learned from directing this movie was that I had to be my own father. I couldn’t look for a man to save me. We make our own fate, and I was ready to take that responsibility.” And take it she did.
After its release, Yentl’s message reached around the world, all the way to my mother. She is a woman in a completely different place, a completely different culture, who nonetheless felt Barbra’s power, her strength, and her courage. The inclusion of Barbra’s essence, her Jewishness, her confidence and feminism, did not isolate her audience as the men who controlled the purse strings had feared. It united them, allowing people everywhere to connect with the experiences of a brilliant Jewish girl determined to live life on her own terms.
Thank you, Barbra Streisand! Thank you for Yentl, and for every moment I spent growing up with you. Thank you for opening the doors for all the women – women like me – also determined to live life on our own terms too.
© Reese Alexander (11/16/23) – Special for FF2 Media
LEARN MORE/DO MORE
Yentl is available on most streaming platforms. Consult the JustWatch list to find your favorite options.
My Name is Barbra is available in Hardcover, Kindle & Audiobook formats. Here’s the Amazon link if you just want Barbra to come directly to you at home.
Click here to read all about the 56th annual Academy Awards on Wikipedia.
Click here for Yentl’s complete cast & crew information on IMDb.
CREDITS & PERMISSIONS
Featured Photo: Barbra Streisand as Yentl reflects – in voiceover – on why Avidor loves Hadass instead of her in the “No Wonder He Loves Her” sequence from the film YENTL (1983). Photo Credit: Moviestore Collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: BKC0XM.
Bottom Photo: Filmmaker Barbra Streisand gives direction to Amy Irving (who plays Hadass) and Mandy Patinkin (who plays Avigdor) on the set of her film YENTL (1983). Photo Credit: Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo. Image ID: F6HGJY.