Live from the Lilith Blog 1 of 2

April 23, 2013 by Helene Meyers

Yentl, Me, and 1983

imagesYesterday, April 22, Barbra Streisand received the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Chaplin Award.  In announcing the award on behalf of the Film Society, Ann Tenenbaum cited Yentl as representative of Streisand’s achievement, a “milestone film.”   Yentl was the first flick to have an American woman serve as writer, director, producer, and star.   But Yentl also was and is a milestone film because it gave voice, loudly and unrelentingly, to the frustrations and longings keenly felt by a generation of smart, mouthy Jewish women.  Born of the old world, Yentl spoke to new world Jewish feminists. 

Of course, long before Yentl, Babs had become an icon for Jewish women.  A great deal of attention has been paid to the ways in which Streisand made Jewish beautiful.  While some of us don’t regard her being featured on the cover of Playboy in 1977 as a compliment, her refusal of nose and surname changes have always been cause for kvelling.  The drama of her hair from wild Jewfro to WASPY wisps and back again in The Way We Were struck some of us as a form of talking back to culturally dominant standards of beauty (and I know that I’m not alone in thinking that she was more beautiful before her makeover in The Mirror Has Two Faces).  Those of us who hail from Brooklyn, Babs’s old stomping ground and the site of her recent Barclays Center homecoming, also felt the power of identification born of Jewish geography.  But Yentl was different.  That milestone film indirectly projected on-screen the experience of a generation that was confronting and transcending the impediments to living a full intellectual and spiritual Jewish life.

Yentl came out in 1983.  Just a year earlier, I had been a college senior.  The director of Hillel, who was also my academic advisor, recommended that I attend an institution where I would be likely to find a nice Jewish husband who would give me the Jewish children I had a responsibility to bear to counter the genocidal work of Hitler.  I refrained from cursing this kosher pig out loud, but I left that office feeling at odds with my tribe and wondering whether feminism and Jewishness might be another marriage I didn’t want–or worse, couldn’t have.  

In the early 1980s, I was far from alone in feeling Jewish feminist frustration and yearning.  On Being a Jewish Feminist, the groundbreaking volume edited by Susannah Heschel, appeared the same year as Streisand’s Yentl.   In 1983 Amy Eilberg was two years away from breaking the rabbinical barrier in the Conservative Movement (Sally Priesand had done so in the Reform Movement just over a decade earlier).  In 1983 Drisha Institute for Jewish Education, committed to providing women with traditional Jewish learning without requiring them to adopt male names or clothing, was only 4 years old and still gestating its kollel for women. 

At this juncture in history, it was thrilling to see Babs wrap herself in a tallit even before she reinvented herself as Anshel and donned the masculine wear of a yeshiva bocher.  Rather than seeming overbearing, her omnipresent voice in song sounded to me like the return of the repressed, a defiance of the literal and figurative silencing of women.  While the shrill bookseller recommending romances reminded me of my own recent encounter with educational gatekeeping, the father who taught her Talmud and inspired “Papa, Can You Hear Me” now brings to mind my own father, Alfred Meyers, of blessed memory, who sadly did not live long enough to see me earn tenure or read any of my published books. 

Yentl’s loneliness in crossing the gender divide, her failure to interest Hadass in Talmud, struck me not as a failure of sisterhood but rather as an honest acknowledgment that women are not necessarily feminists just as men are not necessarily pigs.  And when Yentl reveals her female body, endures Avigdor’s rage, and refuses his very modest proposal to do the studying for both of them, I understood this as the painful realization that even the men we love won’t always get it and that we betray ourselves if we settle for less than full Jewish personhood. 

When Deborah Kass’s Warhol-inspired images of Streisand’s yeshiva boy-girl first appeared under the title “My Elvis,” I saw the beginning of Yentl’s feminist afterlife.  Yentl’s Revenge, an anthology of Jewish feminist third-wave writings edited by Danya Ruttenberg and with a foreword by Susannah Heschel, codified the feminist fertility of a film once dubbed “Tootsie on the Roof.”

Of course, the yearnings of Yentl were originally penned by Isaac Bashevis Singer in reference to a complex world of Talmudic learning largely lost to the crematoria.  In a conversation with himself that appeared in The New York Times, Singer revealed that he was no fan of Streisand’s Yentl.  He objected to all the singing and her flight to America: “What would Yentl have done in America?  Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning?  Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter?  This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation.” 

But adaptation, which necessarily entails continuity and real change, is at the heart of Jewish tradition and has been a key to Jewish survival.   Singer’s projected stereotypical unhappy ending for Yentl in America dismissed the feminist revolution being fought in the contemporary Jewish world, a revolution overlaid on Singer’s text and Yentl’s cross-dressed body.  That’s the way historical novels and films work–they represent the past, not necessarily accurately, and speak to the present.  Just as Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s Lincoln is an indirect meditation on the Obama age, Streisand’s Yentl needs to be understood as part of the still incomplete process of women shattering Jewish and non-Jewish glass ceilings. So as Babs is honored with the Chaplin Award in her native New York, we might remember that Yentl was a milestone not only for Streisand and for Hollywood, but also for nice Jewish girls for whom singing dayenu was never enough. 

Helene Meyers, Professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University, is the author of Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness.  She is writing a book on Jewish American cinema.  

For more about Babs in Lilith, read Rachel Kranson’s The Myth of La Streisand.