I have only watched Barbra Streisand’s film Yentl once in my life – as a teenager, actually! – but it made such a deep impression on me that I still think about it regularly. I believe it was the first time I saw anything explore gender expression and identity with such emotional depth, and I recall feeling simultaneously deeply uncomfortable and deeply resonant with the story and main character (who, for those unfamiliar with the story, is a Jewish girl who creates a male persona (Anshel), so that she can study Talmud, and finds herself entangled in a love triangle of sorts with a fellow student (Avigdor) and the woman he hopes to marry (Hadass)).
In the scenes that have stayed with me most powerfully, Anshel sits at a dining table with Hadass, sometimes alone and sometimes with Avigdor and Hadass’s parents, watching the other woman and pondering her femininity. There’s almost a disgust for it, at times – for the lack of intellectual conversation, for the trivial concerns of cooking and making oneself attractive – and yet also an envy: a two-fold desire both to be the object of this womanly attention and to be able to win the love of another by playing this feminine role. The camera focuses on the beauty and delicacy of Hadass’s face and clothing, on her submissive care for the man she loves, on the softness of her hands as she hands him something. This happens three times in the movie, and while you can find clips of the first two on YouTube, the final brief reprise which has always been the most meaningful to me is apparently stringently protected. In it, Streisand sings of Hadass:
She’s mother, she’s sister
She’s the wonder of wonders
No man can deny
So why would he change her?
She’s loving-she’s tender-
So am I.
In that moment, caught up in the emotional sweep of the film, I may have wept. “So am I.”Continue reading “identity”