www.bangitout.com Jordan Hiller rocks out the top ten of his 25 essential Jewish Movie hit list:
Barbra Streisand, as writer, director, producer, vocalist, star, and all around supernatural force behind the adaptation of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story about a young independent Jewish woman who poses as a male yeshiva student to fully realize her love of Talmud, deserves all the credit and all the blame for the charming yet disturbing, courageous yet shallow, poignant yet somehow uninvolving film experience that is Yentl.
First, the credit. Anything that moves the feminist agenda in relation to orthodox Judaism into the spotlight is an imperative accomplishment. When Yentl laments her inability to study Talmud or actively participate in ritual Judaism; when she longingly stares at her father at prayer from her spectator seats in the balcony; when a bookseller calls out to the crowd “Holy books for men! Picture books for women!” the character reflects all the bitter frustration Jewish women must have felt and contained ever since the day Sarah watched Abraham take Hagar into his tent.
Though the western world has made tremendous strides in the past half century in terms of women's rights and equality, the eastern world (and its religions) remain a seemingly unconquerable frontier. The three most formidable representations of capable orthodox women competing – Yentl, Nechama Leibowitz, and Blu Greenberg – each made their strongest case over twenty years ago. No one has staunchly assumed the mantle or taken up the unpopular cause. Nowadays, if anyone appears to be fighting for religious women in Jewish law, it’s “progressive” male scholars trying to broach a controversial subject. One might cynically suggest, judging by the overwhelming silence, that Jewish women have grown satisfied with the under the radar freedom and anonymity of second class.
Throughout the film, Yentl soliloquizes her volcanic feelings of confusion and resentment in song, and although she is from a shtetl in Europe, she sounds a lot like a certain diva from Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Yentl is not so much a character as a means to an end for one ambitious and well intentioned filmmaker. A filmmaker who likely witnessed and experienced a culture of male dominance and female compliance throughout her formative years. Streisand belts out, with passion and dramatic flair, her emotional inner turmoil. She does so to the fields, the constellations, the spirits of the dead, and finally the ocean. Yentl is never alone with such a voice and such a heart. And her accusations are not necessarily venomous or disparaging. She approaches the material with a sense of reason and justice, appealing to the powers that be to realize past wrongs and make amends.
In the anthem Where Is It Written, the underlying and essential theme of the film is mapped out.
Why have eyes that see and arms that reach unless you're meant to know there's something more? If not to hunger for the meaning of it all? Then tell me what a soul is for? Where is it written what it is I'm meant to be, that I can't dare to have the chance to pick the fruit of every tree or have my share of every sweet-imagined possibility?
Well, on paper and on screen that is a sound protest, however, if someone is truly wondering where in orthodox Jewish texts it is written what a woman is meant to be, what her eyes and arms are for, there are plenty of sources to point to; none providing the answer Ms. Streisand is looking for. In Judaism, it is not that a woman’s status has been ignored, but rather that it has been so thoroughly defined and explained and justified by pretense. With Yentl, the character alone is nothing more than an extraordinary exception, and since she is depicted as a well versed and learned woman, making her oblivious to the halachic position is untenable. She should never have asked: Where is it written? But the more confounding and acute: Why is it written?
And really, the lack of an accurately phrased argument trips up Yentl as it does most films aiming to depict and comprehend authentic orthodox Jewish culture. Yentl is the kind of film where an allegedly pious scholar has romantic physical contact with a woman without repercussions or excuse. The sort of film where a deep, challenging passage of Talmud (which could just as easily been referred to as “Gemarah” to score some authenticity points) is represented on a number of occasions by simplistic philosophy straight out of Pirkei Avot. It is the kind of contrived affair where a woman can dress up as man and live for a long period in a confined and close knit yeshiva society and fail to be discovered. Then do the same for months while married! All these breaches in credibility are acceptable sacrifices in order to allow the story to play out and engage the audience (in fact, the Once Upon a Time opening suggests a fable), but for the critical audience – orthodox Jews who are being asked to examine a troubling situation – such inconsistencies do the movement no favors.
While the movie is on target in terms of noble intent, so much about Yentl is self defeating, and the legendary ego of Streisand can safely be deemed the culprit. A valid position is delivered in such a self-indulgent showcase way that one can’t but scoff at the message. In one set piece after another Streisand stares off into the distance to melodically mourn her woe is me role as subjugated woman. The songs wander, rise and fall, swell, but never manage to strike a nerve. It makes you wonder whether Streisand is trying to stake a claim in the world for women, or just for one woman.
Once Yentl’s father dies (providing cause for her to sing the inconic Streisand ballad, Papa Can You Hear Me?) she flees home, masquerading as a boy to study in yeshiva. Streisand at forty was probably just a bit too old for the part, as Anshel (Yentl’s male alter-ego) in real life would have been spotted as a transvestite by even the most myopic bochur in seder. Instead, Avigdor (a gushing Mandy Patinkin), the yeshiva’s prize (yet renegade) pupil latches onto Anshel as a chavrusah and best friend. An uncomfortable love triangle worthy of Shakespeare ensues as Anshel falls for Avigdor who is engaged to and enamored with Hadass (Oscar nominated Amy Irving), but Avigdor is also strangely drawn to Anshel in a way that is not exactly kosher. In a movie that continuously panders and generally chooses shtick over substance, it is actually thrilling to find that the character of Hadass is presented as a fully realized human being who represents the notion that, given the proper nurturing environment, even the most hopelessly deferential woman will express some hidden sparks of autonomy and individualism. And perhaps this unintentional byproduct is the legacy of Yentl. The feminist agenda is best argued, not by the title character who boldly and melodramatically espouses grandiloquent positions making us want cover our ears, but by quiet, unassuming Hadass, who just might have drawn the men in before surprising them with her sudden metamorphosis.
Spoken like a true chauvinist.
The status quo for women has changed and will change because today girls in yeshiva are educated equally if not better than the boys. Yentl’s era is certainly alive and well in some Jewish communities, but evolution has a knack for taking us to the right place. In some stubborn circles, the process just takes longer.
Despite its faulty transmission, the Jewish community should see and discuss the issues raised in Yentl, but Streisand’s biggest blunder may have been making the film a quasi-musical. Those most in need of seeing it won’t be permitted due to Kol Isha.