Barbra Streisand (director)
BFI Film (studio)
18 November 2019 (released)
20 November 2019
American multi-talent Barbra Streisand won a Golden Globe (‘Best Director’) for this musical drama adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s story YENTL The Yeshiva Boy. She also co-wrote, produced, directed and stars in the title role.
Streisand plays Yentl, a young Ashkenazi Jewess living in the Polish shtetl of Pechev, Poland, in 1904. Contrary to what is traditionally expected of her (marriage, kids, showing obedience towards her husband) Yentl is a darn side more interested in studies rather than whipping up culinary delicacies. Unfortunately the oppressive society in which she grows up forbids women to pursue a religious education (or any academic education for that matter). When the bookseller at the local market shouts: “Storybooks for women, sacred books for men”, Yentl obtains a ‘sacred’ book by pretending it is for her father, Rebbe Mendel (Nehemiah Persoff). Widower Rebbe is devoted to his daughter Yentl as she is to him, he even goes so far as secretly instructing her in the Talmud.
When he dies of old age, Yentl commits the first public ‘sacrilege’ by reading from a prayer book at her father’s funeral, something that is normally reserved only for men. Sensing that life in the shtetl would prove to restrictive (the women looking after her already have match-making plans on their collective minds), Yentl does the unspeakable: she cuts her hair, starts wearing glasses and calls herself Anshel after her late brother’s name. As Anshel she travels to the town of Bychawa to enter a so-called Yeshiva – a Jewish educational institute which primarily focuses on the study of the Talmud. After a bit of a rough start Yentl/Anshel gradually bonds with fellow student Avigdor (Mandy Patinkin) – outwardly open-minded but hopelessly in love with pretty Hadass Vishkower (Amy Irving), a picture-book fiancée whose only concern is to spoil Avigdor with tasty dishes and subservient gestures whenever he visits the house of her wealthy parents. Indeed, Papa Reb Alter Vishkower can’t imagine a more suitable husband for his treasured daughter and the wedding day is set – much to the growing disgruntlement of Yentl who begins to have feelings for Avigdor. Of course she needs to continue posing as a he in order to carry on with her religious studies, therefore any display of romantic affection towards her object of desire is strictly off limits. There are some funny moments when the unassuming Avigdor and fellow students strip off naked before jumping into a pond, inviting ‘Anshel’ to follow… Yentl escapes discovery at the very last minute by pretending ‘he’ can’t swim. Or the scene in which Avigdor and Anshel are forced to share a bed for the night and Anshel feverishly tries to avoid changing into a nightgown in front of Avigdor.
As the wedding day looms disaster strikes: Hadass’ family have found out that Avigdor’s brother did not die of illness but committed suicide instead. Worried that Avigdor’s entire family might be mad, Reb Alter calls off the wedding and by doing so leaves Avigdor devastated and heart-broken. However, he has a plan: Anshel is supposed to start courting Hadass and knowing full well that she will never marry the unassuming Yeshiva boy, Avigdor hopes that prospective new marriage plans will also collapse… and Reb Alter may give his blessings to a marriage between his daughter and Avigdor after all. At first the plan seems to unfold as hoped but then the unexpected happens: Hadass begins to fall in love with Anshel for real and the new wedding date is set, much to the delight of Hadass’ parents. The wedding night turns out to be another disaster as Anshel cannot reveal the he is in fact a she… while the young bride is eagerly sitting at the edge of the bed, wondering what’s going on. Yentl manages to put marital duties on hold for the time being by pretending to focus on religious studies and even instructs Hadass in the basics of the Talmud. At the same time, Yentl grows increasingly fond of Avigdor and knows she cannot carry on with her disguise for much longer… come what may. The film ends with Yentl (this time as a woman) boarding a ship to New York in the hope that a new life in the USA promises more freedom.
YENTL was a daring (and no doubt exhausting) journey for Streisand at a time when gender-reverse roles were few and far between, or often simply just clichéd comical roles (upon its original release some critics referred to YENTLS as ‘Tootsie on the Roof’). How Streisand would prove poisonous tongues wrong! Not only did she win a Golden Globe as ‘Best Director’ (the first time a female director had won such a prestigious award) but the film went on to receive an Academy Award for ‘Best Original Score’ (courtesy of composer Michel Legrand) and another Academy Award for ‘Best Motion Picture of 1983’.
Granted, the many songs (performed by Streisand, naturally) such as ‘Papa, can you hear me?’ or ‘The Way he makes me feel’ might not be to everyone’s taste. Whatever ones musical taste, Streisand really does deliver the goods here not only as singer but in a demanding role with feminist undertones, i.e. Yentl rebels against patriarchal Orthodox Jewish traditions and goes as far as cross-dressing in pursuit of her dreams. David Watkins’ terrific cinematography brings the lovingly detailed Yiddish shtetl (and later on turn-of-the-century Bychawa) to life, even though the majority was filmed in Czechoslovakia.
YENTL is now available as a 2-disc set in Blu-ray format with an array of Bonus Features including a highly informative and illustrated booklet.