The Myth of La Streisand

It has happened to all of us at least once. Someone (a neighbor, a coworker, someone on line at the movies) sees you, an Ashkenazic Jewish woman who looks like an Ashkenazic Jewish woman. Suddenly your true features disappear, morph into hers, like a freaky special effect from “The Matrix” or the singers from Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” video.

“Has anyone told you that you look just like Barbra Streisand?” They ask, even though your eyes are brown and not blue, your hair is almost black, your nose has its bumps in completely different places.

“Yes, many times,” you reply, truthfully. There is nothing you can do. She is the icon, she is the paradigm, she is the definitive representation of all Jewish women. The rest of us can only deviate from the standard that Barbra set.

And now Babs is retreating from the spotlight. In September, at two sold-out farewell concerts at Madison Square Garden, she discussed her decision to retire from live performances. Granted, she made a similar announcement in 1994—but rumor has it that she means it this time. Her departure leaves us with many questions: What really connected us Jewish women—with our widely varied noses, personalities, concerns—to her? What made her stand out as the quintessential Jewish star? And, as the real Barbra retreats into myth, will we find anyone to take her place?

Judaism According to Jewhoo
What makes any celebrity into a Jewish celebrity, and why is Barbra Streisand the most Jewish of them all? While these questions may lead others to think deep thoughts about the nature of Jewish ethnicity, it leads me to A parody of the Yahoo search engine and the stereotypical Jewish obsession with discovering famous Jews, Jewhoo is, in essence, a list of Jewish celebrities. The editors of Jewhoo make it their business to dig deep into the biographies of famous people to find out if they have Jewish ancestry. It’s an invaluable resource for those of us who are fascinated by Jewish ethnicity, new media and popular culture.

The Jewhoo website is a telling text on many levels. First of all, it highlights the fact that Jews can “pass” in American popular culture. After all, if it were completely obvious who the famous Jews were, we would not need Jewhoo to point them out.

While Jewhoo may not be the most scholarly place to look for definitions of what “makes” a Jew, the site’s sense of Jewishness does help establish the ingredients of Jewish celebrity. According to Jewhoo, Jewish ancestry or conversion are the “primary” identifiers of Jewish women—the factors that make her “really” Jewish. Other factors—a Jewish “name,” (or change to a non-Jewish stage name), “look,” “sound” (nasal voice, New York accent) or the performance of Jewish characters—do not make a celebrity Jewish, but are relevant to how much a celebrity may be associated with Judaism. Renee Zeellwegger makes it to the Jewhoo list not because she is Jewish (the editors make it clear she is not), but because of her Jewish sounding last name and the fact that she starred as a religious Jew in “A Price Above Rubies.”

As Jewhoo has shown us, there is a difference between celebrities who may be Jewish by ancestry and celebrities who look, sound or act in ways that the popular culture thinks of as “Jewish.” Consider, for example, actress Gwyneth Paltrow. While Paltrow does have a Jewish father (marking her, according to Jewhoo, as Jewish), she has never played a Jewish character. Her portrayals of white, Christian women (consider “Emma,” “Shakespeare in Love”) are not viewed as parodies. She is not marked as Jewish by her name, her look, her voice. As her pop icon persona does not “perform” Jewishness, she can perform characters of other identities; in fact, her blonde, thin image is so stereotypically un-Jewish that having her portray a Jewish character seems like quite a stretch. If we think of her as Jewish at all, she is a Jewess in some serious WASP-y drag.

Compare Gwyneth Paltrow to our beloved Barbra, for they are opposite sides of the pop-cultural Jewish image. Streisand has rarely (if ever) played a non-Jewish character. What is more, her Jewishness is not incidental to her roles (“Funny Girl,” “The Way We Were,” “Yentl,” “Prince of Tides”). She has two Jewish parents, a “Jewish” name, look, voice, and the roles that she plays. She is Jewish by every definition; she is the quintessential Jewish popular icon.

The Way we Were
I did not grow up with Barbra. She grew to super-stardom before I was born. By the time I could talk, I could already refer to Barbra by first name (or nickname), and everyone would know who I meant. I knew that if a woman was “just like Barbra Streisand,” it meant that she looked Jewish. It also meant that she was fabulously talented, well-dressed, liberal, melodramatic and slightly outdated. The only times that Barbra made it into the top 40 in my lifetime was when she performed duets with other (not very hip) popular singers, like Bryan Adams or Celine Dion. She was becoming campy, the darling of gay men (do they love her for not passing, for being so “out”?) even as she was, to girls my age, becoming a fading diva from another generation.

For those of us who grew up in the eighties, Barbra was always slightly out-of-date; part of something glamorous and tragic, compelling and nostalgic, that was very close to us but always part of the recent past. She is a representation of American Judaism from when Jewish ethnicity truly seemed like the stuff of difference, when Jews seemed to experience a pain and passion that no one else could understand, when Jews seemed like the liberal conscience of white America and the true martyrs of history.

When Barbra played Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl,” her talent far outshone that of her great-looking gentile husband (played by Omar Sharif); in the end, her great (Jewish) passion and commitment proved incompatible with his apathetic playboy lifestyle. It was likewise preordained that Barbra would never find happiness with Robert Redford in “The Way We Were”—she was too passionate, too dedicated and too outspoken for her “gorgeous goyische guy”; he did not have her (Jewish) capacity to suffer for righteous causes.

By the time my generation came of age, things seemed more complicated. We have seen too many happy interfaith marriages, too many images of Palestinian refugees, too many Jews turn comfortable and Republican, to understand Barbra’s characters as contemporary representations of ourselves. We have seen the “Jewish-looking” women around us lighten their hair, get nose jobs, and—as in the sad but true story of “Dirty Dancing’s” Jennifer Grey, who, pre-nose job, might have done for the ’80s what Barbra did for the ’60s and ’70s—become indistinguishable from the rest of the population. Websites like Jewhoo may be interesting curiosities for those of us who hold on to the myths of Jewish difference, and yet the information it uncovers is also strangely insignificant. Knowing that younger stars like Gwyneth Paltrow or Winona Ryder have Jewish fathers does not make either celebrity seem any more Jewish, and the myth of Barbra fades farther and farther into the distance.

In a 1977 interview with Playboy, Barbra mentioned that she had thought about having a nose job operation. In the end, she rejected the idea after being told that surgery would affect the sound and resonance of her voice. For me, this anecdote is the essence of the myth of Barbra. Her Jewish nose is a perfect vessel crafted by the Almighty, with bumps and hollows uniquely capable of creating the resonance of her remarkable voice. For Barbra, the things that make her ethnic are the keys to her great talent; without the Jewish nose, there could be no Barbra.

For the rest of us, things are not so simple. For contemporary American Jews, Judaism exists as a choice, even when we feel as if we have no choice. We choose whether or not to be active in the Jewish community, to keep our Jewish noses, to work on behalf of the downtrodden or to suffer for righteous causes. We also realize that none of these characteristics is an essential quality of being Jewish: Jews are many things, and can look, act and live in the most “goyische” of ways.

The myth of Barbra is the myth of the essentially Jewish Jewish woman. According to the myth, Jewish women are passionate, outspoken, liberal, talented, Semitic looking, and from Brooklyn. Even before Barbra’s retirement, the myth seemed like a thing of the past—and we know that it never really existed. And yet the myth still resonates, as richly and as melodramatically as the ballads that flow forth from the chambers of Barbra’s glorious nose …the misty watercolor memories of the way we (never really) were.

Rachel Kranson recently received her Masters in Jewish Women’s Studies from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently watching a lot of Streisand movies and looking for a full-time job.