There is no way to meaningfully parse the role of Jewish women in film without talking about Barbra Streisand. She’s the game-changer, the pivotal figure who made it acceptable to be sexy, successful, charming, talented, and have a distinctive nose and a penchant for Yiddish-inflected exclamations. As Patricia Erens wrote in her piece chronicling Jewish women’s contributions to Hollywood for the Jewish Women’s Archive, Streisand “proved that an openly Jewish story could be a blockbuster hit.”
It took 15 years for Streisand to make Yentl, her directorial debut and groundbreaking film about a young Jewish woman in turn-of-the-century Poland who poses as a man in order to pursue a religious Jewish education.
Fresh off the success of her 1968 Oscar-winning role as Jewish vaudeville and Broadway star Fanny Brice in Funny Girl, Streisand pitched a short story by famed author Isaac Bashevis Singer to her agent as her next movie. “Are you kidding me? We already turned that down for you,” she remembers him saying. “You’ve just played a Jewish girl, and now you tell me that you want to play a Jewish boy?”
Yentl was finally released in 1983, with Streisand listed as director, producer, writer, and star. It won an Academy Award for Best Adapted Score, and earned nominations for Best Supporting Actress (for Amy Irving), Best Art Direction/Set Design (for Roy Walker and Leslie Tomkins) and two Best Song nominations (for “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “The Way He Makes Me Feel”). It also earned Streisand a Golden Globe for directing (making her the only woman to receive the honor to this day) and took home the award for Best Motion Picture — Musical or Comedy. The five Oscar nominations for Yentl are among the fourteen Academy Award nominations for the three films Streisand has directed, which also include The Prince of Tides and The Mirror Has Two Faces.
In an interview conducted over email for Jewish American Heritage Month, Streisand told Refinery29 why portraying complex Jewish women has been such a priority over her nearly six decades in show business, overcoming pressure to change her appearance, and why she’s a big fan of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.
Refinery29: What was your Jewish upbringing like?
Barbra Streisand: “I was raised in a religious home. The Sabbath was always honored, candles were lit. My grandfather went to synagogue every Saturday and he would take me along, when I was about 5. I would sit next to him, with the other men, while the women sat somewhere else. I could follow the Hebrew because I went to the Yeshiva of Brooklyn, where half the day was spent on English studies and the other half on Hebrew culture. They taught us how to read the words, but I didn’t know what they meant. Still, I felt like a big girl, sitting beside the men. Maybe that’s why it was so easy to imagine myself as Yentl.”
Who were your Jewish women role models growing up? How about on screen?
“I wanted to be an actress, so naturally I was interested in a great actress like Sarah Bernhardt. And when I found out she was Jewish…well, half-Jewish…I related to her even more. I went to the 42nd St. library in Manhattan and looked up all the plays that she had done. She was fearless. She had no qualms about taking on a man’s role, playing Hamlet when she was 55, and she was still playing Joan of Arc and Juliet well into her 70s. Nothing could stop Sarah, and that was very inspiring.”
Was Fanny Brice’s explicit Jewishness always a part of Funny Girl? Or is that something you brought to the character?
“It was always a part of Funny Girl. Fanny Brice was a beloved Jewish comedienne who made her mark in vaudeville and had quite a range…she could make people laugh, and cry. That was intriguing to me, but it wasn’t easy to relate to the broad Jewish humor in some of her skits. I didn’t do that, and besides, I wasn’t interested in merely doing an imitation. I wanted to find my own connection to her. In some ways, we were kindred spirits, and I felt if I could be true to that, I would be true to her.”
Your characters in Funny Girl, The Way We Were, A Star Is Born, and Yentl are all Jewish, and their identity is a big part of the stories. Why was that important to you?
“Well, being Jewish is a part of my identity, and of course I’d want to honor that heritage, when it’s relevant to the story. Fanny Brice was clearly Jewish.
“My character in The Way We Were, Katie Morosky, was inspired by a politically-active Jewish girl the writer Arthur Laurents knew in college. Since I was also politically active and equally intense, I reminded him of her.
“When I made A Star is Born in 1976, I wanted to update the character and the love story to reflect the times. It was the height of the women’s liberation movement, and my Esther was not passive and adoring, as she’d been in some of the earlier versions. And she was certainly not going to define herself in terms of a man. I also changed her last name from Blodgett to Hoffman. It was just one more thing I did to differentiate her from the others.
Finally, Yentl was based on a short story by a great Jewish writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and he wrote about a Jewish woman. But I’ve also done many movies…like On A Clear Day You Can See Forever, What’s Up, Doc?, Up The Sandbox, Nuts, The Mirror Has Two Faces, and others…where there was no emphasis on being Jewish. It was immaterial to the plot.”
Did you ever face pressure to change your appearance or tamp down your Jewish identity?
“At the beginning of my career, I kept hearing, ‘“Why don’t you fix your nose?’ By the way, I’ve never understood the nose thing. If you look at photographs, you’ll see that Jewish people can have all sorts of noses…big, small, narrow, wide. Big noses are not unique to our religion. Jimmy Durante was an Italian-American Catholic who happened to have a large nose. Arabs and Jews are all Semitic people, and they often have similar noses. I happen to like my nose, and I’m proud of my Jewish identity.
“But somehow long, hooked noses became part of the caricature of Jews over the years. For centuries, Jewish people have been thrown out of countries, attacked in pogroms, and then they faced annihilation during World War II, when 6 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Hitler hated the Jews and made them the scapegoat for his own shortcomings. Like others before him, he took away their rights…there were occupations they couldn’t hold;, land they couldn’t own. He even confiscated their bicycles. But the one thing he couldn't take away was their devotion to learning. Education was the primal thing in a Jewish home, and it led them to elevate their minds, which elevated their status in the world, as they became doctors, lawyers, professors. I think Hitler and his followers resented their success.”
What inspired you to bring Yentl to the screen, at the particular moment?
“From the moment I picked up Singer’s short story and read the first words, ‘After her father’s death,’ I identified with Yentl. My father died when I was 15 months old, and that loss profoundly marked my life. By the time I turned the last page, I was captivated by this young woman in turn-of-the-century Poland who had to disguise herself as a man in order to get an education. And then it took me 15 years to get it made.”
Did you face any pushback when you pitched the idea? What was the response like?
“When I first read the short story, I had just made Funny Girl and I immediately called my agent, David Begelman, and told him I had found my next movie. He said, ‘Are you kidding me? We already turned that down for you. You’ve just played a Jewish girl and now you tell me that you want to play a Jewish boy?’
“And the response from most studio executives over the next decade was equally discouraging. I’d watch their eyes glaze over in disbelief as I pitched the story. They had no interest in making this movie. To them, it was a movie about Jews, and even though some of them were Jewish themselves, apparently they did not want to see themselves on screen.
“I finally had to agree to sing in it…and turn it into a musical where Yentl’s songs function mostly as an interior monologue…in order to get it made.”
How did you prepare for the role? Did you pull from your own experience as a Jewish woman?
“Naturally, I used my own experience…that helps me relate to any role. But this story takes place in another time, another country, and I wanted to understand it intimately. So I did a lot of research…watching documentaries, poring over books, talking to various scholars.
“I got totally immersed in Jewish history and culture. I asked a lot of questions and consulted three different rabbis, ranging from Orthodox to Reform. One was the first female rabbis on the West Coast! I even studied the Talmud with a feminist rabbi who considered himself Modern Orthodox and took his wife’s name in addition to his own (rather than the other way around).
“This was my opportunity to indulge my love of learning, which is probably embedded in my DNA. My father was a scholar, like Yentl’s father, and I liked to imagine that he would have taught me, just as her father taught her.”
Yentl is about a woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated society. How do you see those themes resonating into today?
“I’ve always been a big supporter of gender equality. Yentl wanted to get an education but she was relegated to a certain role…to cook, clean, have babies and take care of the man. That’s still true in many parts of the world today. Yentl defied those expectations…and I guess I did, too, by wanting to direct this movie. Ambition and authority were great qualities in a man, but not in a woman…and I spoke about this in a speech I gave at Women in Film in 1992, when I talked about the different ways our society perceives men and women.
“Strong men were seen as leaders, and looked up to; strong women were seen as suspect and looked down on. He was assertive; she was aggressive. He was committed; she was controlling.
“Now we’re in the process of redefining our roles…and reexamining our values. We, as a culture, have enabled sexual harassment of women. We have normalized violence against women. We have accepted men legislating what we can and cannot do with our bodies. We have normalized the wage gap. Even when it comes to the treatment of women in medical research, we are not valued as equals. You would think, in 2019, that we would no longer have to be fighting for civil rights. But the current administration is overturning rules and regulations that protect voting rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, children’s rights, basic human rights, and our environment.
“Thank God for the many people who are standing up and speaking truth to power. We are saying that we will not sit by as our rights are stripped away. We will not stay silent as the freedoms of others are destroyed.”
Were you ever scared that your characters would perpetuate stereotypes about Jews, positive or negative? How did you avoid falling into that trap?
“I try to avoid stereotypes…by definition, a stereotype is oversimplified, and the truth is always more complex. So in Yentl, for example, which had a Jewish theme, there’s no stereotypical face. I cast people who had the qualities I wanted, and they didn’t conform to any one physical type.
I hope that I have succeeded in portraying Jewish people as I know them, in all their strength and diversity.”
How do you see your characters playing into the history of Jewish portrayals on screen?
“That’s kind of a lofty question...and I’d prefer to let other people answer it.
All I can say is that I always try to do my best work. And I learned something early on, when I was just 14 and taking my first acting classes. I would watch other people do a scene, and they were often more interesting when they were just being, rather than performing. Good acting is more than just pretending. Acting is believing, which was the title of one of the books I read when I was a teenager.
“You have to use the truth. I believe in the power of the truth. It has always worked for me as an actress and a singer. An audience can always sense when you’re telling the truth.”
Are there any Jewish women characters on screen today that you admire? Why? (For example: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Broad City, and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.)
“I wish I could say I’ve seen all those shows, but I just don't have the time. I have watched a bit of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, because they asked to use my music, and I thought it was funny and smart. It reminds me of when I was starting out and living through that era.”
Do you think that the culture has shifted when it comes to Jewish women onscreen?
“I’d like to see the day when you don’t even have to ask this question, because it would be totally normal to see all sorts of Jewish women on screen. It’s clear, just from the shows you cite, that Jewish people can be very funny. And that’s interesting. Going back in time, Jews had to develop a sense of humor in order to survive.
“Jews always question everything…it’s our way of learning. And there’s an inherent question in the cadence of Jewish speech that works well for a joke. We also happen to be very good at self-deprecating humor. Maybe that’s why so many of the greatest comedians were Jewish…Groucho Marx, Jack Benny, Mel Brooks, Woody Allen, Joan Rivers, Judy Holliday, Madeline Kahn, Gilda Radner. And it’s great to see more amazing women like Sarah Silverman, Maya Rudolph, and Amy Schumer join their ranks.”