Yesterday, when I received my copy of Barbra Streisand’s long-awaited memoir, “My Name is Barbra,” I knew what had to be done.
Despite finding my love of reading at a very young age, studying literature in college and working in an industry which centers around reading, I am a glacially slow reader. Reading all 970 pages of Babs’ autobiography in one day to find all the juiciest Jewy details for you, our dear Hey Alma readers, was simply not going to happen.
So, I opened up to the table of contents, found the chapters on “Yentl” — Barbra’s retelling of how she brought to life the classic movie of a 19th century Jewish girl in Poland who pretends to be a yeshiva boy — and started there. (For anyone who thinks this is sacrilege, don’t worry, I’ll be starting from the beginning very soon.) In my mind, that was simply the most natural place for good Jewish content to be — and folks, let me tell you, these chapters are Jewish gold.
Here are the biggest Jewish takeaways from the “Papa, Can You Hear Me?” and “Directing ‘Yentl'” chapters of “My Name is Barbra“:
1. Being Jewish is “essential” to Barbra’s identity.
“I’ve always been proud of my Jewish heritage. I never attempted to hide it when I became an actress. It’s essential to who I am,” she writes.
2. She decided to make “Yentl” after an eerie encounter with a Jewish housewife and spiritual medium from Long Island.
This is perhaps my favorite anecdote of the entire section. Essentially, Barbra explains around the same time she was trying to decide if she wanted to make “Yentl,” her brother met a woman who was able to contact their late father. (Emanuel Streisand died when Barbra was only 15 months old and she tragically never knew him.) Intrigued, Barbra had her brother, whom she adorably calls Shelly, set up another meeting with the psychic.
The next time she was in New York, Barbra met with the medium. But first, she made a point to visit her father’s grave for the first time in Mount Hebron Cemetery. She then had Shelly take her photo at the gravesite, which she calls “the only picture I have of me with my father.” Sob. Later that evening, Babs met with the medium and she was able to make contact with Emanuel Streisand, who identified himself as “Manny.” Manny apparently spoke directly to Barbra through the medium, saying, “Sorry. Sing proud.”
In that moment, where Barbra says she felt her father’s presence, she was able to release herself from any anger she felt towards him. A week or so later, Barbra opened a package from Shelly and looked at the photo of herself at the gravesite and she immediately noticed something. The tombstone next to her father’s was marked with the name Anshel, an important name in Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” the basis for the movie.
“This was the sign I was looking for, telling me that I was meant to make this movie. Here I was, exploring all the ideas that could be part of ‘Yentl’, and discovering my father at the same time. He was in love with learning, too, just like Yentl. They were made of the same cloth. So was I.”
She went on, “His life was cut short, and in a sense, this was my chance to extend it. In order to play this part, I would have to put on the clothes of a man and become my father, in a way. He would live on in me, and in Yentl. I now knew I would make this film.”
3. Researching for “Yentl” inspired Barbra to continue her Jewish education.
“My religious education had basically stopped at the age of nine, when I left the Yeshiva of Brooklyn and enrolled at P.S. 89,” Barbra explains, saying that working on the script for the movie made her realize how little she knew about Judaism. “Like Yentl… there was so much I wanted to learn.”
Because she’s Barbra fucking Streisand, she didn’t consult with just one rabbi, she consulted with three: Conservative Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Reform Rabbi Laura Geller and Modern Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller. (Of the latter, Barbra writes, “What really endeared me to him was that he had taken his wife’s name and added it to his own when they married. He was a feminist and a rabbi… my kind of guy!”) With them, she read passages of the Torah and discussed them like she were actually a yeshiva boy to better understand the world of “Yentl.”
4. She was fascinated with how Jewish texts talk about sex.
Portraying Yentl as a normal person falling in love and experiencing sexual attraction for the first time was important to Barbra; so, some Jewish study sessions that resonated with her the most were about sex. Barbra points specifically to The Song of Solomon and how it presents sensuous beauty and sexual attraction as completely natural and nothing to be ashamed of. Additionally, Barbra says that she was amazed by a Talmudic commentary from the scholar Nachmanides about sex, which says, in part, “Begin with love, and when her mood is ready, let her desire be satisfied first. Her delight is what matters.”
“Initially I thought, How lovely and generous… he wants her to have an orgasm first!” Barbra writes. She goes on, “And then I realized there was actually a very practical motive behind this advice. It would make it easier for her to get pregnant. Those little spermatozoa will have a smoother ride up to the egg! (So this Nachmanides really knew his biology.”
I don’t know if that’s actually true, but I never knew that I absolutely needed a bio lesson from Barbra Streisand.
5. Babs wanted to cast Carol Kane as Hadass.
“She had an antique face… she looked like someone from another century… and then this unusual squeaky voice. I thought it had comic possibilities,” Barbra writes. “But the studio wouldn’t let me have her. They said no. Absolutely not. You can’t have three Jewish people as the leads.”
“I was shocked. What difference does that make?” Barbra continued, adding, “And by the way, had nobody noticed this was, after all, a movie about Jews?”
So true, queen!! Amy Irving did a fine job as Hadass, but as a Jew, I have to mourn the Barbra Streisand-Mandy Patinkin-Carol Kane trifecta that could’ve been.
6. She almost had to replace Mandy Patinkin because he wanted to have an affair with her.
It gives me no pleasure to report this. When I read this section, my initial reaction was to screech, “MANDEL, NO!” Here’s the deal:
A short while into the shoot, Mandy couldn’t look Barbra in the eye during a scene and was acting angrily and rude. She took him into her dressing room to talk to him, where he confessed that he thought she hired him because she wanted to have an affair.
“I looked at him as if he were crazy… 1) I would never have an affair with an actor I was directing, 2) he was married, and 3) I wasn’t at all attracted to him,” Barbra writes. Apparently Mandy then began to cry. She goes on, “I said, ‘Mandy this kind of behavior can’t continue. I’m prepared to replace you. We’re only two weeks in. I can reshoot all your scenes if you can’t be more professional. I’ve waited fifteen years to realize my dream and I will not let you destroy it.”
Ultimately, they made it through shooting and Babs herself admits that Mandy was wonderful as Avigdor. Years later, Mandy reached out to ask Barbra for a favor. After rejecting the request because of how awful he was to her, Mandy replied, “Well, I was scared.” Though that doesn’t excuse his behavior and Barbra never said she forgives him, she writes, “It was nice to finally hear the truth.”