Barbra Streisand spent fifteen years of her life trying to get Yentl on the screen. Every cynic in the film industry told her it could not be done. In the end she co-wrote the film, produced it (with a great deal of her own personal financing) and directed it herself.
Set in Eastern Europe in 1904, this is a time when the world of study in the Jewish faith was restricted to men. Women read storybooks and picture books. Men read about religion, philosophy, and politics. Any woman who studied the Talmud was considered a demon.
But Yentl is not like the others. At her papa’s funeral, she shocks the whole village by saying the Kaddish herself. This is only the beginning.
There are 2,555 pages of the Talmud to learn and Yentl walks for miles with dogged determination to Hebrew school with her identity masked forever to become a yeshiva boy.
Her capacity for knowledge is great, but in addition to maintaining her equality among the other students, she must now also grapple with her inner feelings as a woman when sexual emotions are awakened in her for the first time by her best friend and fellow student Avigdor (sensitively and forcefully played by Mandy Patinkin).
Yentl loves him so much that she even marries the girl Avigdor pines away for but cannot have, just to make him happy. The scenes in which Yentl cleverly manages to capitalise on the wife’s innocence and postpone consummation of the marriage vows are tender, funny, and endearing.
But it is later, when Yentl, consumed by the fire inside, reveals her true gender to the gentle Avigdor, that the film packs its undeniable emotional wallop.
At last they realise how much they’ve loved each other, but the terrible irony is that once stripped of the role-playing that goes with gender, Yentl can never be the same.
Her final confrontation with her own conscience gives the film its emotional core, and the story of the girl who dared to be different its poignant appeal.
The Czechoslovakian locations, with their mud puddles, fish markets, and bearded old men in heavy wool caps, rub a burnished patina on the Jewish canvas that resembles museum prints of old masters.
The rich wheat and coffee textures in the cinematography by the brilliant David Watkin, who photographed Chariots of Fire (1981), give Yentl the period flavour of fading, yellowed old newspaper clippings.
It was a deeply personal film for Streisand (she dedicated it to her father) and it is rare to see a film nurtured with so much care.
But finally, it is more than just a fable of ethnic struggle. Yentl is about love and sacrifice and learning to stand up for what you believe in, even if it’s painful.
Reb Alter Vishkower
David De Keyser