DEFYING TRADITION: Yiddish Literature On Film–Part 2: YENTL (1983)

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 cuts her hair in preparation for posing as a man.

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!


8 responses to “DEFYING TRADITION: Yiddish Literature On Film–Part 2: YENTL (1983)

  1. What an interesting post, Lara! I’ve never seen Yentl, but my mother is a HUGE fan of the movie (and of Barbra Streisand), so I’ve always thought it must have some merit. I’m not a musical fan, generally speaking, so I may never check it out, but I was really fascinated by the differences in the novel, and how the novel ended! Wow!

  2. You should check it out! It’s a really interesting movie, even if you don’t like musicals. Isn’t that fascinating, how a Yiddish story written in the 1950s could be more progressive than a Hollywood movie from the 1980s?

  3. Nice followup to your first installment about Fiddler. I actually did not know how the original Singer story ended, but I never liked the ending of Yentl. It struck me as not only too Hollywood, but also almost exactly like the similar number in Streisand’s Funny Girl. I always wondered why she would do such a mirror image number in what was a profound story. Not very good judgment, as I see it. Despite that, I liked Yentl, and usually do like anything with Streisand…

  4. Good point about the ending of Yentl being like “Don’t Rain On My Parade!” I think she did it to remind everyone that she’s Barbra 🙂

  5. Lara,
    I was pretty young when I saw Yentl. Obviously, the message of the film was lost on me.
    With your astute observations, do you think others also look back at it differently now? The message it so subtly presented? In a way it reminds me of Cat On A Hot Tin Roof and how Brooks had to let the viewer come to their own conclusions. Of course, Barbara’s character, visually takes on an identity we would all recognize and with today’s LGBT community having acceptance, hopefully the film’s influence, impact will change.

    Another enjoyable article, Lara!

  6. Thank you, Page! Well, I think you bring up an interesting point, because my perception is that the movie character of Yentl is NOT transgender. She’s more of a feminist character, a woman who wants to study and is willing to do anything she can to do so. Whereas in the story, it’s pretty clear that Yentl is a transgender character and is unhappy in a woman’s body. I think it has to do with the way the story was filmed, and they would have to change the movie drastically to fit the story. Isaac Bashevis Singer was very unhappy with the movie. I don’t blame him–he wrote a very specific story, only to have it appropriated and filmed with a completely different narrative.

  7. Lara,
    Maybe, given how our views, acceptance has evolved, the story can be re-written and told properly, the way Singer intended, hoped it would be told. Would that be something you would be interested in? Of course, I don’t have a lot of faith in Hollywood and the power players these days. Not when we get films like, Carrie, Arthur and Fame re-makes.

  8. I think it definitely could be retold today in the way Singer intended. I would be interested in that, but I don’t think it would necessarily work with huge stars. I think it would work magnificently as an indie film, where concerns about making millions of dollars are secondary to the integrity of the story. Because whether we like it or not, as we know, this kind of story wouldn’t play well in certain parts of the country and big producers would probably want to give it the Hollywood treatment. And we would get another YENTL.

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