Barbara Streisand's Yentl

The 1983 film is finally being released on DVD.

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A peddler pulls a cart full of books into the ramshackle main square of an Eastern European shtetl. "Storybooks for women," goes his mantra-like call for customers, "sacred books for men." The careful divide--scholarship for men, frivolity for their wives and daughters--is never to be breached. The time and place is "Eastern Europe, 1904"--no specifics, please! And Yentl, the lone daughter of the scholarly Reb Mendel, is chafing at the limits of her constricted mental universe.

Imprisoned behind the bars of the synagogue's balcony, forbidden to enter the men's study hall, Yentl is a bird whose wings have been clipped before she has even had the chance to take flight.

A Unique Blend of Musical, Comedy, & Drama

Based on Isaac Bashevis Singer's classic short story, the Barbra Streisand-directed, much-loved, and much-lampooned 1983 film has only now received its much-belated DVD release, in 2009. Alternating madly between screwball comedy, full-throated MGM-brand musical, and drama, Yentl never entirely settles on a genre, or a tone. It seems content to leave things that way.
Barbra Steisand in Yentl
The irrepressible Yentl (Streisand) dreams of devoting herself to the study of the Talmud, but finds herself barred by her sex. "They're talking about life, the mysteries of the universe," she complains, "and I'm learning how to tell herring from a carp!"

So Yentl learns Torah by following along with her father's lessons to the town's boys,--where she mutters (and occasionally shouts) the answers to the questions proffered--and in late-night study sessions with her father, conducted with the windows closed and the shades drawn. When her father sleeps, Yentl takes out his tallit and wraps herself in it, the light from the lamp behind her revealing an unmistakably feminine silhouette under the ritual garment.

Hiding Her True Identity

After her father's unexpected death, Yentl flees to another town, cloaked in the soft black cap, glasses, and tzitzit (fringes) that mark the unmarried religious scholar, in order to be granted the masculine privilege of learning Torah, and escape the feminine burden of crushingly boring domestic work.

On her journeys, she falls in love with Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin), a hearty fellow student who takes an immediate liking to the frail, seemingly pre-pubescent boy. Yentl, now having taken the manlier name of Anshel, is accepted at Avigdor's yeshiva and taken in by the family of Avigdor's fiancée Hadass (Amy Irving).

Avigdor is not just a compatriot; he is the man of Yentl's dreams, the mate and intellectual partner she yearns for. Yentl's dramatic scenes are fairly restrained, but Streisand knows no restrain as a singer. Like diary entries, Yentl's songs offer a glimpse of the private, unfettered sentiments of her life in hiding. But arriving like clockwork every 15 minutes or so, the film's musical interludes (written by Michel Legrand, with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) seem recklessly over-the-top, leaping from crescendo to crescendo.

Like the circling seagulls Streisand enjoys cutting to as symbolic counterpoint, Yentl is now free as a bird. Yet, she is forced to stay in the air, sacrificing all corporeal heft. Her obsessive pursuit of the intellectual pleasures in Jewish scholarship have denied her access to the tangible pleasures of life. While the other yeshiva bochurs (boys) clap each other heartily on the back, share beds, and bathe in the nude, Yentl shrinks in the corner, desperately wishing her body away. This proves to be trickier than anticipated.

A Bit of an Awkward Marriage

Hadass' family dismisses Avigdor as a suitor when they learn that his brother had committed suicide. Mental frailty is not an attractive attribute in a future son-in-law, and so nets are cast for a new husband for Hadass. And who better than the polite, intelligent new scholar in their midst?

Now Yentl is trapped in marriage to another woman who only faintly grasps why her new husband is so jittery about the act of consummation. Hadass is flirtatious when Yentl is studious, only perking up when "making love" is mentioned as a subject of talmudic inquiry.

Yentl was released during a brief flurry of cross-dressing films that included Tootsie and Victor/Victoria, both of which had been enormous critical and commercial successes the prior year. Like those other films, it is a feminist parable cloaked as a raucous adventure.

By briefly masquerading as a man, Yentl is granted the opportunity to understand the limitations imposed on women in a way no other woman could. "While your books argue about chickens," Hadass snaps at Yentl-Anshel, "I've had to pluck them." Yentl, too, has only narrowly avoided the same fate of having her intellectual life subsumed beneath the labor of housekeeping.

Why It Is Relevant Today

Yentl's shtetls and yeshivas are hardly the stuff of documentary rigor, owing more to Fiddler on the Roof than the photographs of Roman Vishniac. However,  its fundamental question regarding Jewish religious life--where do women fit in?--has lost none of its burning relevance. In her awkward, overly melodramatic way, Streisand had latched on to the enduring central question of Judaism's acclimation to contemporary life.

The movie's continued significance, some 100 years after its events are supposed to have taken place, speaks volumes about traditional Judaism's foot-dragging attitude toward women's full partnership in religious life. "My father says a woman who studied Talmud is a demon," a student of Yentl's father blurts out to her. Even the sympathetic Avigdor expresses polite disinterest in the interior life of his soon-to-be-bride. Contemporary viewers wonder: How much has changed for Jewish women?

When Yentl finally, firmly, breaks free of her constraints, it is by escaping into another film. Her ship sets sail, and a song breaks loose: "Papa, watch me fly!"

Next stop: America.
 

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Saul Austerlitz

Saul Austerlitz is a writer and film critic in New York.