‘Yentl’ Made Me Want to Be a Jew

When I watched Barbra Streisand and Mandy Patinkin all those years ago, I learned two things instantly: I am Jewish, and men are attractive.

A version of this essay originally appeared on Thread.

I was standing naked in a bathroom with a stranger pointing a needle at my penis and I thought, you know, life is weird.

Don’t get the wrong idea: I am a Southern gentleman. The stranger was a rabbi, a mohel, but my Johnson was definitely in his hands and he was absolutely about to poke it. It didn’t matter that he was a man of God, that this was his job, or that I had paid for this service. As I looked at the florescent lighting above us, all I could think was, “Oh! The places you will go!”

I didn’t necessarily plan on ending up in a bathroom with an old man cradling my junk while chanting Hebrew. How could I? I am from the Mississippi Delta, where the singing of Hebrew of any sort isn’t exactly on the list of traditional activities. The people I grew up with want to find a new place to go deer hunting and cross-stitch Bible verses onto pillows. My journey to Judaism was more than a little off the beaten path, but when I think back to my early, more impressionable years, no one should be surprised. Where else could I possibly be?

Judaism came to me the way it would for anyone strangled with Southern fire and brimstone. It was beamed down from satellites and zapped across cotton farms and eventually found its way into my living room and onto my television set. No, there wasn’t a weird telethon on the Shalom Network. The chosen people paid me a house call via my babysitter: HBO. There is no proselytizing like marinating in the glow of a TV when you’re 8 years old and it was there where I found my people.

What I obviously mean to say is Barbra Streisand — and more specifically, Yentl — had a very lasting and powerful influence over my life choices. I stand before you as living proof of what watching Yentl 36,000 times can do to a person. To my little virgin eyes, she was the most amazing person who had ever lived. We were a perfect match, Babs and I. She sang and danced and talked to God with candles while cross-dressing in the forest, and so I sang and danced and talked to God with candles while cross-dressing in a locked bathroom.

The more I watched the movie, the more obsessed I became. I was some sort of Yentl in reverse. The movie is about a young Jewish girl who disguises herself as a boy so she can study Torah. I was a young boy from Arkansas who had to disguise himself as a girl so he could openly adore Mandy Patinkin. I eventually stopped hiding in the bathroom and brought my show to our living room. I needed a bigger stage and a more complicated wardrobe and hair selection than bathrobes and beach towels could offer. I started hijacking my mother’s dresses, nightgowns, and heels. Parents, beware! These are the things that happen when you tell an only child to go entertain himself.

Speaking of parents, mine were perplexed. They were good Christian people. What had they done to deserve a cross-dressing, Jewish 8-year-old? They focused on my religious instruction and plied me with every masculine toy they could get their hands on. I received basketballs, Bibles, guns, a model of the Millennium Falcon, anything and everything.

8-year-old boys were supposed to play with in 1983. I was disgusted. All I wanted was Barbie’s Dream House and a set of decent Shabbat candlesticks.

None of these parental tricks worked, of course. I found sports baffling. Guns aren’t pretty. I had been praying for years, begging to be turned into a girl, and it got me nowhere, so God was useless. I was heavy into Star Wars; I just wanted a metal bikini for myself, not to stare at the person wearing it.

Growing up is hard and being different is a challenge. Kids are the meanest, especially if how you express yourself cannot be ignored. I was forced to pack away my Yentl obsession — the nightgown, the towel hair — and close my living room drag show. I focused my attention elsewhere, namely on making it out of my hometown in one piece. I made it my mission to blend in, to be invisible.

It’s that last part I could never wrap my little head around. I’d let my guard down for one minute and the next thing I knew Talulah Bankhead or some other glitter bomb would come flying out of my mouth. I was the gayest. And like anyone with a flair for the dramatic, I was led kicking and screaming to a theatre department.

It was there in college while fluffing my dreams of staring in Yentl: The Sequel that I discovered the next best thing to Barbra Streisand: a whole gaggle of Jewish girls. I was completely enamored. I watched as they sang all the songs and felt all the feelings. They were everything I wanted to be: loud, brave, and busty. Those girls accepted me and took me in as one of their own. They reconnected me with the mini-Yentl I was as a kid and I vowed to be just like them one day.

While my characteristic Talmudic shrug, hand talking, and generalized anxiety disorder usually keep my Christian past a secret, I quietly think of my Yentl years when questions arise. I wish I could tell you I had a far more mystical Jewish beginning than dancing in my mother’s nightgown while listening to “Papa Can You Hear Me?” on repeat. That sounds far more like the birth of a drag queen than a Jew — it certainly isn’t the sort of story you share with a panel of rabbis if you want them to approve your conversion.

That’s right, Jesus people: My Jewishness had to be questioned and reviewed by a board of rabbis. How Jewish is that? Converting is more complicated than a simple prayer or declaration of allegiance to matzah balls. It is not easy; becoming Jewish is a full-time job, especially for a Southern Baptist. I had to read and study Jewish literature and immerse myself in all things Jewish as if I were defending a dissertation. It was intense.

My conversion was a year-long process complete with essays and a monthly meeting with a rabbi. I was prepared for the reading and endless questions. What I wasn’t expecting was for my homeschooled religious studies program to culminate in a penis slicing and skinny-dip.

To be fair, you should know I am circumcised. I was before I converted. (I suddenly feel like you should buy me dinner.) But in Judaism, the circumcision is considered to be the physical symbol of the relationship between God and the Jewish people, so it is customary to perform the ritual on new Jews as a way to affirm this new bond. What this means is I paid an old man a lot of money to sing some Hebrew while poking my wiener until it bled. A drop of blood was collected and then presented to a group of rabbis. This is where I should admit this ceremony is suggested and totally not required. That’s right. I got my penis carved for my people, just for fun.

Like I said, life is weird. Who knows why we choose the things we choose. All I can tell you is when I watched Yentl all those years ago, I knew two things instantly: I am Jewish, and men are attractive. I was obsessed with the movie as a kid because in Yentl’s story, I saw myself. I knew, even at 8, I was different.

But knowing who you are is the easy part. Finding a way to be the person you are supposed to be (and learning to love that person in spite of everything you’re taught) is a whole other universe. Maybe it’s a coincidence or a side effect of my Streisand obsession, but the people who got me to the other side are Jewish. When you find your tribe, you have to hold on to them, and that’s why I became a Jew.

The final scene of Yentl is my favorite. As a kid I would get myself all wrapped up in my mother’s overcoat, hat and scarves like a freezing immigrant from Eastern Europe. I’d stand there in front of the television picturing myself on a boat coming from the old country. I looked just like a mini version of Barbra Streisand. I’d sing the final number over and over until my mom had had enough.

There’s one line that knocks me out every time I hear it: “With all there is, why settle for just a piece of sky!” I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, but I’ll tell you, there’s no need to worry — I won’t.

Read More