It’s a big month for Barbra Streisand fans. Her 970-page memoir, “My Name Is Barbra,” came out on Nov. 7. Here at Hey Alma, we published a style retrospective celebrating her iconic fashion over the decades. And tomorrow, Nov. 18, her gender-bending masterpiece film “Yentl” turns 40.
While discussing Babs in depth in our Hey Alma office Slack, as you do, the entire team realized something shocking: None of us had ever actually seen “Yentl.” How could this be?! We agreed that to celebrate its upcoming 40th anniversary, we owed it to Babs and to ourselves to watch and discuss. And then we felt we owed it to all of you to let you know how we feel about every aspect of the film: the plot, the music, how it holds up by today’s standards and the very important issue of Mandy Patinkin.
Below, behold the conversation we had. Who is we? Molly Tolsky, editor of Hey Alma; Vanessa Friedman, deputy managing editor of Hey Alma; Evelyn Frick, associate editor of Hey Alma; and Avital Dayanim, audience engagement associate and graphic designer of Hey Alma. Spoiler alert: We all think as soon as you’re done reading this roundtable you should go watch “Yentl”!
This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed.
Vanessa: Is this your first exposure to the Babs cinematic universe?
Avital: Yes! I’m devastated it took me this long. Like, I feel vaguely betrayed by my own Jewish parents. This film was from my grandparents’ generation, not my parents’, so I think they just didn’t think to expose me to it? The closest I got to watching Jewish musical films was “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” and “The Prince of Egypt”… and the VeggieTales Purim Film, I guess.
Molly: I watched “Funny Girl” a few years ago and really loved it, for the most part, and was surprised it had taken me so long to watch it. So I really don’t know why I waited so long to watch “Yentl.” I have no excuse.
Evelyn: I’ve only ever seen “What’s Up, Doc?” which my parents randomly showed me when I was a kid. I really have no memory of the movie besides Barbra wearing a paperboy hat and ordering room service to a hotel room that was not her own.
Vanessa: “Yentl” is my first exposure to the Babs cinematic universe which feels wild because my mom is a huge fan!
Molly: I have of course also seen her in the timeless classic, “Meet the Fockers.”
Evelyn: I feel like I should’ve seen “Meet the Fockers” but also haven’t.
Avital: I watched “Funny Girl” the night after I watched “Yentl” and I honestly didn’t like it nearly as much?? Maybe because Mandy [Patinkin] wasn’t in it.
Molly: It’s funny because I feel like our generation is kind of obsessed with her, but maybe not because we’ve all seen her movies? Are we just obsessed with the idea of Barbra Streisand?
Evelyn: YES, I think that’s exactly it.
Vanessa: I am definitely obsessed with the Idea of Barbra Streisand (and her Basement Mall).
Molly: With her cloned dogs and her basement mall.
Evelyn: I watched “Glee” as a teen (lol) and was exposed to the idea of Babs via Rachel Berry before Babs herself, really. And so watching “Yentl” I was kinda like… eh. But maybe that means I just need to watch “Funny Girl”?
Avital: Yeah I think I heard Rachel Berry sing “Papa can you hear me” before I heard Babs sing it.
Molly: Lea Michele would be THRILLED with that statement.
Evelyn: Put this on the record: I do not like Lea Michele and I’m so mad that she stole Beanie’s moment.
Vanessa: I also do not like Lea Michele and am furious about the “Funny Girl” stuff. But as for “Yentl,” let’s get to our next question: Did you like this movie? I have to be honest — I was SO STRESSED the entire film I couldn’t really enjoy it!
Avital: I’m a little biased as I’m a huge sucker for the unrequited love trope.
Evelyn: I thought “Yentl” was fine! I love a Jewish pop culture moment so it was fun to watch for those reasons and to see how Jewishness was portrayed, but it didn’t really do it for me. I was also stressed! The entire time I was like, “Yentl, babe, what’s the end game here?”
Molly: I really liked the movie! I watched with my husband Joe, who had not only never seen it but knew nothing about the plot, so it was also really fun to watch him realize what was going on. As an editor at a Jewish media company, I had of course edited upwards of 18 articles about “Yentl” before actually seeing it so I knew what to expect. I agree it was crazy stressful. I know a lot of people think it’s super sexy, and I get why (Mandy), but I was too stressed to feel much of anything else.
Evelyn: Very important: did Joe like it?
Molly: Joe really liked it and was super bummed that he wasn’t going to be participating in this roundtable.
Vanessa: Aww Joe! Come participate! I am like Joe and went in with ZERO knowledge of the film but I couldn’t get past the IMMENSE stress.
Avital: I feel like the moments of comedy did help balance it out though, like her using the “it’s written” excuse for literally everything. The bed scene made me laugh a lot — both bed scenes. The one where she is practically falling off [while sharing a bed with Mandy] and the one with Hadass where they just bounce up and down and make a mess and giggle like in “Easy A.”
Evelyn: That made the movie age really well for me. Like for a movie made in the ’80s, the discussions of consent Yentl as Anschel had with Hadass was wild — in a good way.
Vanessa: Yes, all the bed scenes were very good. But I don’t know… I think it goes back to Evelyn’s point about the end game — I just couldn’t figure out how the movie was going to end, and that made the “hijinks” portion sort of unenjoyable to me.
Molly: The swimming scene was excruciating.
Vanessa: I think this is a fair time to ask the question on everyone’s mind — is Mandy Patinkin hot in this movie?
Avital: Hello??? Mandy’s whispered mentions of the Torah and how it prioritizes the wife’s pleasure??? Mandy’s EYE CONTACT?
Evelyn: He is so hot in this movie.
Avital: The arguing! Why is arguing so hot?
Vanessa: Because you’re Jewish.
Vanessa: I will say as a lesbian — Mandy is SO HOT in this movie. Would ruin my life for Mandy in this movie.
Avital: The Jewfro is also a particular highlight.
Molly: He is very hot in this movie. I think we can all agree — except for Barbra herself.
Evelyn: To be fair to Yentl though, I think Avigdor was the only hot man at that yeshiva.
Vanessa: Listen, I respect Babs for not wanting an affair but I draw the line at pretending Mandy is not hot in this film!
Evelyn: Agreed, Vanessa.
Vanessa: I think Avigdor’s intense desire for knowledge is part of what makes him so hot.
Molly: Does his misogyny take away from the hotness?
Evelyn: Men these days do not go to Breschev and study Talmud like they used to.
Vanessa: HAHA EVELYN. Molly I’ll say — spoiler — at the end he immediately became un-hot to me. So… yes? His misogyny does take away from his hotness.
Evelyn: Yeah at the end he became just a regular dude.
Avital: Just a regular dude. *disappointed face emoji*
Molly: I think you may have been blinded by his hotness (and butt cheeks) because he was pretty misogynist the whole movie through.
*Evelyn and Avital send peach emojis.*
Vanessa: Say more!!!
Molly: Like Anschel asked him if he wondered what Hadass was thinking ever and he was like, “What? Why? She’s a woman, she l i t e r a l l y does not think.”
Vanessa: OK yes fair. I think I didn’t notice his misogyny for the majority of the movie because I felt it was a gay love story between two men, so I wasn’t focused on Hadass!
Evelyn: I think for me there was a potential for him to change because of Yentl and he remained hot because of that. And then when the reveal happens and he’s still a misogynist I was like, OK nevermind.
Vanessa: Is this movie queer?
Evelyn: Deeply, deeply queer, yes.
Vanessa: I agree. In my mind this is both a gay male love story a la “Brokeback Mountain” and a lesbian love story a la “Carol,” sort of.
Evelyn: Yes 1000%.
Molly: But then it takes a pretty sharp anti-queer turn at the end, right?
Evelyn: I really wanted Yentl and Hadass to actually end up together.
Vanessa: Also yes!
Molly: Oh that would have been beautiful.
Avital: They had a really beautiful relationship.
Vanessa: In a different world, Yentl and Hadass are 100% together.
Molly: Let’s remake this now and have that happen. Someone call Emma Seligman!
Evelyn: I was just going to say!
Vanessa: All roads lead back to Emma Seligman!
Avital: I really adored Yentl’s love for Hadass and the way she didn’t write her off as less than just because she wasn’t interested in learning.
Molly: And she got her interested in learning, in the end! A girl’s girl!!!
Vanessa: Yeah. I mean to be honest everything Hadass says she loves about Anschel, I felt was coded very lesbian. “You listen to me! You notice things! You care about what I think! You treat me like a person!” No offense to straight men but like… lesbians do have a stronghold on many of these traits. (I’m kidding. I’m not kidding. Etc.)
Evelyn: Also, every queer couple in the world looks like Yentl as Anschel and Hadass at some point in their relationship. (In my relationship I am the Yentl.)
Vanessa: (In my relationship I am the Hadass.)
Vanessa: I want to go back to what Molly said re: queerphobic at the end. I think that was the real moment Avigdor became not hot to me. Because of the trans-panic scene.
Avital: I mean he literally calls her a monster. Like, a lot of times.
Vanessa: I know Yentl isn’t trans, but the whole “you lied to me” and shoving her against the wall and yelling. Like… my dude. No.
Molly: Right. Also, “I thought there was something wrong with me that I was somewhat attracted to this man.”
Avital: All he could think about were how many laws had been broken, how many sins had been committed.
Evelyn: From a script perspective that was the only part that didn’t hold up for me. It was hard for me to believe he would get that angry and upset and then calm down so quickly.
Avital: Yeah the calming down and transition to talking about how soft her skin was was very abrupt.
Vanessa: It was very stereotypical trans-panic and was very painful to watch, even though I’m not sure Babs saw herself making a powerful statement about queerphobia.
Molly: I haven’t read the “Yentl” chapters of her memoir yet — does she talk at all about any of the queer themes/implications in the movie? I agree I don’t think it was intentional at the time. Intentionally feminist, yes.
Evelyn: I don’t think there was anything about queerness in those chapters. I can see Babs not wanting to touch that because it’s out of her depth. Apparently, there was supposed to be a sex scene with Avigdor and Yentl and Babs cut it because to paraphrase her, even she was not that good an actor.
Molly: O M G
Vanessa: WHY DOES BABS HATE MANDY
Evelyn: Yeah she really does not like Mandy. But makes a point to say that he was great in “Homeland.”
Avital: “Princess Bride” erasure???
Vanessa: I’m cracking up.
Evelyn: Just imagining Babs watching “Homeland” is very funny to me.
Vanessa: OK I have so many places to take us with these questions but I want to linger on this thought for just a moment — is this movie (not just Mandy, the movie as a whole) sexy?
Evelyn: Knowledge is sexy. So yes.
Avital: Banter is sexy.
Vanessa: Honestly Babs dressed as a Yeshiva boy… sexy.
Avital: The glasses!
Molly: That scene in the beginning where she’s draping herself in a tallit while backlit so all you see is her silhouette? Sexy.
Avital: Can I ask if this is the “Jewish Mulan” now?
Evelyn: Hadass’ dad is also sexy, just want to get that in there. Go ahead, Avital.
Avital: Is this the Jewish “Mulan?”
Molly: Here’s where I’ll admit I’ve never seen “Mulan” but I did perform a tap dance to “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” when I was like 11.
Vanessa: Wasn’t the whole thing with “Mulan” how her dad didn’t approve? Yentl’s dad really wanted her to be herself. But actually I think at the end of “Mulan” her dad approves of her being herself after all, so maybe… yes, this is the Jewish “Mulan.”
Avital: I thought the way her dad is present throughout the rest of the movie even when he only really appears so briefly in the beginning was lovely. The way her inner monologues address him and how the film is bookended by her calls to him.
Vanessa: Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. What do we think about… the music? I’ll go first: It’s distracting and bad.
Evelyn: I love the climax of “A Piece of Sky,” otherwise it’s completely unnecessary and made the movie less strong in my opinion.
Avital: I appreciated the lyrics. But as a musical, the songs weren’t, like, fun or catchy obviously. I loved that climax too. I sobbed at the finale, that final note!!!!!
Molly: I agree that climax actually gave me chills that I was not expecting.
Avital: I liked the song she sang about Hadass that started off a bit snarky and then transitioned into something more appreciative.
Molly: The rest of the music didn’t do much for me but I acknowledge that Babs is gonna Babs and if she wants to sing, we must let her sing.
Evelyn: I heard execs told Barbra that it had to be a musical, otherwise they wouldn’t make the movie. I’d have to fact check that though.
Molly: Oh well now I feel bad, like she was being pigeonholed.
Avital: I do think the movie could’ve stood on its own without the music. And I’m saying that as a musical theater girly.
Vanessa: To me it was a drama, not a musical.
Molly: Counterpoint — the only thing I could quote from this movie before seeing it was, “Papa can you hear me?”
Vanessa: I do wish that this movie was a musical because Babs wanted it to be one, not for any other reason. Like, Babs gets what Babs wants energy.
Evelyn: Babs gets what Babs wants except Carol Kane as Hadass!!!
Vanessa: LET’S TALK ABOUT CAROL!
Molly: I have to say, it’s hard to imagine Carol Kane as Hadass.
Evelyn: I agree. In the memoir Barbra said that it was mostly for her look and her voice has comedic potential.
Avital: Who would you cast?
Vanessa: Unfortunately I think [Amy Irving as] Hadass was… kind of perfect? Like I do want three Jewish leads and I also… love Hadass as is.
Evelyn: But on principle because the execs said they couldn’t have three Jewish leads I’m mad it wasn’t Carol.
Evelyn: But agreed Amy Irving was great. And maybe it helped her prepare for “Crossing Delancey.”
Molly: Amy Irving walked so Rachel Sennott could run.
Vanessa: Put that on a bumper sticker IMMEDIATELY. What message do you think this movie wanted us to walk away with?
Avital: That women are allowed to want more!
Vanessa: Yeah, the line at the very end when Yentl simply says “more” in response to Avigdor asking what she wants in life was the most powerful moment in the film for me.
Evelyn: I also see it specifically saying that women have a place in Jewish study.
Molly: Also, sometimes following traditions for tradition’s sake is not right.
Evelyn: Take that, “Fiddler”!
Molly: Or, you can have a love for tradition while still wanting to question it and fight against it.
Evelyn: From a queer perspective, the message is that gender is a performance. So actually, in a way, Babs got there before Judith Butler did.
Avital: Also that there’s strength and value in both homemaking AND more “cerebral pursuits.”
Molly: It is really beautiful that she made this movie about a woman wanting to enter a “man’s world” and succeeding — and then became the first female to win Best Director at the Golden Globes.
Vanessa: Do we think this movie could have been made today, in 2023?
Evelyn: I think it would be so fun for there to be a remake.
Avital: “Yentl II.”
Evelyn: “2 Yentl 2 Furious.”
Molly: I feel like it would have to more explicitly address the queerness of it all.
Evelyn: Yes totally.
Vanessa: I agree — she really went there in terms of feminism but a remake could really go there in terms of queerness. And I do think it could conclude with Yentl and Hadass together!
Evelyn: They both go to America!!
Avital: Fine, I’ll take Mandy.
Avital: If I MUST.
Vanessa: Do we think more young Jews should watch this film? Does it stand the test of time?
Molly: I think absolutely yes, more Jews (and non-Jews!) should watch this movie. We talk a lot about Jewish representation in media these days and sometimes get excited over, like, a piece of matzah in the background of a scene. This movie is SO Jewish, through and through, and didn’t take time to explain what certain things meant or hold non-Jewish viewer’s hands.
Vanessa: That’s a really good point Molly. It’s JUST JEWISH. Like that’s the whole point. You know what? When we went into this roundtable I thought I was gonna be really negative, but I’ve concluded feeling really positive about the whole film! Even the singing!
Evelyn: Oh wait, did we address Mandy singing? Why didn’t he sing?!?
Vanessa: Great question! WHY DIDN’T MANDY SING!
Avital: I think it was groundbreaking as a musical where the female protagonist is the only character who sings. Like, for once, she’s the only one with a voice.
Evelyn: It is interesting from an Orthodox Jewish perspective that we only hear a woman sing.
Avital: Really good point, Evelyn.
Evelyn: I don’t think Babs intentionally made that point, but it pushes way back against norms.
Molly: I think it would be funny if there was a moment when Mandy started to sing and Yentl shushed him and was like, “Men don’t sing, it is written.”
Vanessa: OK I’m rethinking how I feel about the music!
Evelyn: Now with this symbolism we sussed out, I’m more into it.
Vanessa: This is why film criticism is important!
Molly: We are not your Papa, Yentl, but we hear you. We really do.