In 1982, 11 years after the filming of Fiddler On the Roof, Barbra Streisand set out to film Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, a story about a young woman who poses as a man in order to study Talmud. Written in the 1950s by Nobel Prize-winning Yiddish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, the original story sheds light on gender inequality in Orthodox Judaism and the forbidding of women from participation in religious life, as well as issues of gender dysphoria and a transgender character.
Yentl, a smart, passionate young woman (with “the soul of a man”) who has been instructed in secret by her rabbi father (who has told her that “even heaven makes mistakes,” implying that Yentl may be transgender), decides to cut her hair and pose as a boy in order to avoid marriage and continue her studies after her father’s death. Yentl, as “Anshel,” is accepted into a yeshiva where no one knows her true identity as a woman. There she meets Avigdor, another passionate scholar, and she falls in love with him–though he is oblivious to her true sex. She learns that Avigdor has been rejected by the woman he is in love with, Hadass, because Avigdor’s brother had committed suicide. As an act of revenge and to be as close to Avigdor as possible, “Anshel” marries Hadass. The only person to ever learn that “Anshel” is really Yentl is Avigdor, toward the end of the story…but ultimately, Yentl decides to abandon her identity as a woman and live completely as a man.
This differs greatly from the narrative in the 1983 film. Much to Isaac Bashevis Singer’s chagrin, Barbra Streisand’s film was a multimillion dollar Hollywood blockbuster musical, subject to the moral codes that Streisand and her company thought the general public would accept. This required an almost complete overhaul of the original ending, and the ending of the movie sees Yentl returning to life as a woman and moving to America in search of greater religious freedom. The exploration of Yentl’s gender identity crisis, and the themes of gender fluidity that punctuate the original story, all but disappear from the film version of Yentl.
In essence, Bashevis Singer’s story was too progressive for a public still wrestling with the concepts that Bashevis Singer puts forth so confidently in Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. This was the height of the AIDS crisis in America, and LGBT issues were just beginning to be recognized and dealt with on a national level. A mainstream, high-budget film about a character who may be considered a trans man was certainly not on the horizon, and as such, the film version of Yentl weaves a completely different narrative. Where in the story, Yentl finds her greater freedom in remaining a man and continuing her religious studies, in the movie she finds herself returning to life as a woman and venturing to America to find greater gender equality. It is a narrative that fits nicely with a mainstream American moviegoing audience in 1983, but ignores or outright negates a very important issue worth exploring.
Knowing Barbra Streisand’s take on LGBT rights, I have a feeling that if she were to have waited to make Yentl and instead have had it released alongside such contemporary films as The Dallas Buyers Club, it would have been a completely different movie and perhaps it would have been more to Bashevis Singer’s satisfaction. But as it is, Yentl is a feminist movie that speaks to the place of women in Jewish religious and social life. And in that sense, taking Yentl for what it is as a film regardless of the original source material, the movie is a success.
Thank you for reading!