Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Yentl vs. Yentl

When I was about eight years old, my grandmother gave me her copy of Isaac Bashevis Singer's "Yentl the Yeshiva Boy."  Being a prolific little reader, I read it with interest, although many of the references to Judaism, and all the references to "the marital relationship" flew right over my little head.  I also saw part of the movie, but fell asleep before the ending.  For some reason, I liked the short story, but could not stand the movie.  So, a little comparison.  For the record, the categories are for analytic purposes only, no score will be attached.
Yentl/Anshel:  Singer describes Yentl as having the "soul of a woman in the body of a man."  She has a prodigious talent for learning Talmud, but cannot handle basic domestic duties.  Even her appearance is masculine, such that she looks like a handsome young man in her father's clothes.  She is "tall, thin, bony, with small breasts and narrow hips."  Yentl wants as much as possible to be a man.  After her father's death, she cuts off her hair, dons her father's clothes, and leaves town secretly, going to the next town to find a yeshiva.  She (now styling herself as the male Anshel), meets Avigdor at the inn, and travels with him to the yeshiva at Bechev.
Yentl's inner conflict stems from her own quest for self-actualization.  Her father taught her in secret, and now she must disguise herself as a man to continue learning.  However, the deception takes its toll.  She has nightmares about being in both a man's body and a woman's body at the same time.  As she tells Avigdor, "I'm neither one nor the other."  She is in love with Avigdor, but married to his former fiancee, Hadass (the book implies that she finds other means to perform her duties as a husband.)  Although she is a woman, she finds Hadass desirable, at one point, thinking, "A pity I'm not a man."
Singer plays up Yentl's gender ambiguity, often using the feminine "she" when referring to the identity of Anshel.  Additionally, her behaviors towards Avigdor are described in very feminine terms before she reveals her identity (she buys him buckwheat cakes and sews buttons back on his coat), but very masculine afterwards (she uses the hand gestures associated with male yeshiva students, plucks at her missing beard, and even "seized Avigdor by the lapel and called him stupid")
Streisand's Yentl, however, is an active feminist.  Her conflict is not "Why was I born in a woman's body when I have the soul of a man?" but rather, "Why can't women learn the way men do?"  Unlike Singer's character, she is far less secretive with her activities.  She buys seforim from a vendor, and recites a passuk in the Mishnah while her father studies with a young boy.  After she's married, she teaches Hadass the Talmud, but avoids her advances.  At no time does Streisand feel any inner conflict over her identity.  In fact she sings about how she is a woman just before she reveals herself to Avigdor.  While Singer's Yentl is very masculine physically, the buxom Babs must work harder to downplay her femininity. 
Avigdor: Anshel's chavrusa and love interest, he was a promising Torah scholar with a melancholy streak.  He was engaged to Hadass before the news came out that his brother had committed suicide.  Afterwards, he was married off to the wealthy but mean-spirited widow Peshe.
Singer wrote Avigdor as Anshel's friend and mentor.  He respects Anshel's scholastic abilities, and the two begin spending all their time together.  At one point, Avigdor states that "my life is bound up in your life."    Avigdor compares favorably with the other men in yeshiva, to the point that after he left to get married, Anshel did not find a new chavrusa.  Avigdor is also the only person to whom Anshel revealed his (her) true identity.  However Avigdor's life is an unhappy one.  Peshe, his wife, was unattractive and neglected him.  She wanted him to give up his studies and go to work with her.  She would not feed him or give him clean clothing.
Mandy Patinkin's Avigdor came off as a chauvinist pig.  He frequently made comments about women's lack of ability to think, and, when the engagement was broken, cared more about not having sons than he did about losing Hadass.  While Singer's Avigdor truly loved Hadass, and would press Anshel for information about how she was doing, Patinkin's Avigdor really only thought of her in terms of function.  (Patinkin's character did not marry in the movie.)  Also, Singer's Avigdor reacted to Anshel's reveal with shock and disbelief, but continued to learn with him even afterwards.  Patinkin reacted with undisguised rage, then proposed marriage.  However, he made it clear that Yentl would have to give up learning to be with him.  (As he said, "I'll do the thinking for both of us!")
Hadass: A foil to Yentl, Hadass is the perfect woman--wealthy and beautiful.  Singer reports that she "ordered the servant girl around, was forever engrossed in storybooks, and changed her hairdo every week."  She is also in love with Avigdor, despite the broken engagement.  However, once she marries Anshel, she transfers all her affection to him.  Throughout the book, she only speaks twice--both times to Anshel.  Both times, she discusses Avigdor.  However, after the marriage, she clearly loves Anshel, and weeps when he divorces her.
Amy Irving's character of Hadass is far more involved.  She actively pursues a physical relationship with Anshel once they're married, despite Anshel trying to put her off.  She also studies Talmud under Anshel's guidance; although she chews him out for trying to teach her after she slaved over Shabbos preparations.  However, when it comes to romance, she seems content with either husband--at least we are not presented with her reaction to Anshel's departure and their subsequent divorce.
Themes: Each book approaches a different theme.  For Singer, the main theme seems to be the need for truth.  Yentl told a seemingly small lie for a noble purpose--to learn the Torah she loved.  As a result, she ended up losing Avigdor, and eventually losing herself.  Once she revealed herself to Avigdor, she sent Hadass a divorce and vanished.  Additionally, because of her subterfuge, she had to resort to some pretty conspicuous behavior (avoiding the mikveh and the river, leaving town and divorcing Hadass) which generated gossip about Anshel.  Some of the townspeople said that Anshel was a demon, or that he had gambled Hadass away to Avigdor on a spin of the dreidel.  Singer writes "when the grain of truth cannot be found, people will swallow great heaps of falsehood."  Singer also explores the effects of Yentl's lie on both Avigdor and Hadass.  True, after their respective divorces were finalized, they married each other.  However, Avigdor looked despondent at the wedding, and Hadass wept.  Anshel was never seen or heard from again.
In the Streisand movie, the theme was feminism and the woman's role in society.  Streisand's Yentl chafed at a world where she had to study in secret.  She was contemptuous of Hadass (the song "No Wonder He Loves Her" describes her obsequious fluttering to fulfill Avigdor's every whim), then taught her Talmud after they were married.  Although Singer mentions Yentl's study with her father behind closed curtains, he only does so once.  The Streisand movie mentions it three times--when Yentl studies with her father, when Anshel studies with Hadass, and when Avigdor proposes marriage (Anshel sarcastically asks if Avigdor will allow them to study with the curtains closed.)  In the movie, Hadass uses her Talmud study as a means to lure the recalcitrant Anshel to her bed, while the Singer book really avoids the subject of their marital relationship other than saying that the sheet was bloody.  Finally, Streisand's Yentl leaves for America, and corresponds with the happily married Avigdor and Hadass.  Her leaving is seen as a means to open every door which has previously been closed to her.
Final Thoughts: So, how do you turn a 58-page novella into a movie that runs over two hours long?  The same way Disney expands fairy tales--add music.  However, with the exception of "Papa Can You Hear Me," most of the songs are forgettable and do nothing to advance the plot.
I have to agree with Singer that the movie failed to capture the true spirit of Yentl.  I"ll close with Singer's own words from an interview about the movie:
"Was going to America Miss Streisand's idea of a happy ending for Yentl? What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning? Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter? This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation. It was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement."

1 comment:

  1. NYT book review had an interesting review of the new bio of Barbra, "Hello Gorgeous".


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