Yentl (1983) is the film adaptation of the short story, “Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. It is set in a Polish shtetl in 1907, where Rabbi Mendel, a widower, is secretly giving his daughter Yentl the sort of Talmudic education that only boys were allowed to have. Yentl has a passion for Torah, and when her father dies, she disguises herself as a boy and travels to the yeshiva in the nearest town to study. Barbra Streisand co-wrote, co-produced, directed and starred in Yentl; work on the film re-energized her own interest in Jewish study.
It is thus far the only major motion picture that focuses on a Jewish woman living a specifically Jewish life, and raises questions about the limitations of gender roles in traditional Jewish communal life. Yentl is contrasted in the film with Hadass, (played by Amy Irving) who conforms to the social ideal for young women, and with the men who take their life in the yeshiva for granted. Streisand made no secret of her own personal identification with Yentl. Just as Yentl strove to succeed in the “man’s world” of the yeshiva, Streisand saw herself striving for success in the “man’s world” of the Hollywood film industry.
Singer hated Streisand’s treatment of his short story. He felt that it had been over-expanded into a star vehicle, with unsuitable music and a ridiculous ending. Certainly that is one valid point of view on the film.
However, Streisand has perfectly conveyed the passion for Torah that is at the center of the scholar’s life, that fueled so much of the development of Jewish tradition and sacred literature. She conveys the frustration that women have felt and still feel when they are excluded from access to the highest levels of study. While many of Singer’s complaints are valid, her command of the Jewish details of Yentl’s life is impressive.
Yentl makes an interesting companion to the other big Jewish musical, Fiddler on the Roof. They are set in the same period, they begin in the same sort of place (a tiny shtetl in the Pale of Settlement) but they depict different classes in Jewish society. Where Tevya and his daughters are peasants, Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter and Hadass is a city girl, daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant. How are the women’s lives similar? How are they different? Do you notice any other interesting similarities or contrasts between the two films?