Barbara Streisand's Yentl

The 1983 film is finally being released on DVD.

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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.