Yentl, Me, and 1983

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.