Barbra Streisand’s 1983 film classic and the mysteries of form.
Last week I wanted to watch “Yentl” but my wife claimed we had already seen it together. She is often right about these things. Then my daughter and I happened to watch a record shopping video on YouTube by a hip musician who calls herself Japanese Breakfast. In the video she talked for a long time about how great the movie “Yentl” was and how much it had meant to her as a kid. Her coincidental endorsement provided the decisive tie-breaking vote that ended our family deadlock.
In our house we tend to watch movies over three nights because the child always has homework she needs to do. This makes me angry because she could undoubtedly learn much more by watching television with her father.
After the first third of “Yentl” we were all hooked but we took a break. The next night we watched the second third. I was planning to wait until we had finished the movie to read the short story it is based on but I had time to kill that day. Even though I own Singer’s Collected Stories, I wound up reading it off of the website of Commentary Magazine, where it was originally published. By the time we sat down together to watch the last third I was pretty confused, trying to remember the previous two parts of the movie as well as the story I had read that morning.
Normally, I can predict the end of any Hollywood movie. When my daughter had pointed out the confusion about whether Avigdor’s brother had died of tuberculosis or pneumonia, I was dismissive at first, telling her that tuberculosis used to be called consumption. But then, as our inquiry continued, I guessed correctly that the error indicated a lie and that the lie was intended to cover up a suicide.
Now with the short story and two-thirds of the movie all rattling around in my head I could not predict how the movie would end. What I wanted was for Yentl to realize that the wisdom of books is meant to serve life, as her father had told her. I wanted her to give up her endless Talmudic disputation and give herself over to earthly love, the greatest adventure available to us in life. But she didn’t. Streisand kept Singer’s resolution of the love triangle, in which Avigdor and Hadass are united at last and Yentl leaves the scene, though the movie tacks on a happy ending in which she takes a long singing boat ride heading to a wonderful place called America where seemingly anything is possible.
“Yentl” is a great movie and deserves to be treated as a classic piece of film-making. So, what does it actually say? It is the story of a girl who wants to study and so disguises herself as a boy. Underneath her clothes, however, she is still very much a girl, trembling with desire for her male study partner and embarrassed by female attention.
The original story by Singer is something a little stranger. In it, Yentl is not motivated by her love of study but rather by contempt for women and their silly lives. Her feelings for Avigdor, her study partner, are like the intense friendship of one young man for another, and after she finally reveals herself to him, she says that they cannot marry because she is “neither one nor the other,” not a man or a woman. I don’t think it is my place to try to describe Singer’s conception of his transvestite protagonist using today’s terms like “non-binary”; I leave that to the new generation. I only wish to point out that there is more to his tale than a Shakespearean comedy of errors which can be resolved with a climactic shedding of disguises.
Singer’s Yentl is motivated partly by a desire to hurt the beautiful Hadass, and she feels herself risking surrender to a demonic power that her father and her ancestors all believed in, an evil force which is clearly not the power of sex. Singer’s story is a tale of the uncanny, of a young person who makes an unconscionably false pact, and who at the end vanishes in the same way as might a traveling devil who has passed through a village and left chaos in its wake. This is more Faustian than feminist. Like Woolf’s mock-epic Orlando, it is not reducible to a broadside in the battle of women against men. It is not the “anything you can do I can do better” of “Annie Get Your Gun.” Streisand’s Yentl does not want to be a wife but Singer’s does not even want to be a woman. Instead, his text traces the outline of mysteries that cannot be reduced to the gender politics of 1904 or 1962 or 1983 or 2022, mysteries of spirit and of form.