In the winter of 1968, I received a package at my New York apartment containing a short story called “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy” by Isaac Bashevis Singer. At the time, I was unfamiliar with both Singer’s writing and the sender, a producer named Valentine Sherry. The name seemed peculiar, almost like something you would find on a box of candy. I quickly skimmed through the cover note and placed it with the other scripts on my desk.
A few nights later, I brought it to bed with me. This is where I usually do most of my reading. I immediately felt a connection with Yentl. As I reached the end of the book, I was completely engrossed in the story of this young Jewish woman living in 19th-century Poland, who had a strong desire to study Torah. In her society, women were not allowed to receive the same education as men, so she disguised herself as a man in order to pursue her studies. The next morning, I contacted my agent David Begelman and told him, “I’ve found my next film project. It’s called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”
David was shocked and reacted strongly, his discomfort evident through the phone. He exclaimed, “Are you serious? We already rejected that role for you. You just portrayed a Jewish girl, and now you want to play a Jewish boy?”
I was surprised by this news. “Hold on,” I responded, “are you saying you rejected something without even talking to me about it? That’s not acceptable!”
“Barbra, your stardom is destined with the release of Funny Girl. You also have two major movies in the works. Are you really considering a mediocre short story? Don’t waste your time.”
I believe David was solely focused on money and had no interest in me creating a small art film. However, there was an aspect of this story that resonated with me deeply. As a result, I reached out to Valentine Sherry.
This marked the start of a journey that would captivate, frustrate, test, drain, and invigorate me for the next 15 years. I continued to create consecutive films, but Yentl never left my mind.
I had meetings with multiple studio executives to present my movie idea.
“I possess a brief tale authored by Isaac Bashevis Singer…”
“He hails from Poland and crafts beautiful Yiddish folk tales.”
“This is the tale of a female who disguises herself as a male to pursue studies in Talmud…”
I could have stopped at that point, but I chose to continue in the hopes that my passion would ignite some curiosity. However, they showed no interest and their eyes became dull. They had no desire to produce this film and believed it would not attract an audience. They considered the Singer story too unknown.
It can be quite challenging to get a movie approved for production. After many years, I found myself pitching The Prince of Tides to a new group of executives. This time, the story was not an unknown short story, but rather a best-selling book! However, the response was still not positive. The executives stated that the movie could never live up to the greatness of the book. It seems I can’t win – one story was too unknown and now the other is too well-known.
It was clear to me that Yentl was not a typical mainstream film. Additionally, I faced the challenge of spending a majority of the film portraying a male character. The last female actor to attempt this was Katharine Hepburn in 1935’s Sylvia Scarlett, which did not have a successful outcome.
Although Yentl was unique, I was determined to show its potential to others.
For me, it was a tale that resonated with the desire for the unattainable. Essentially, it was a romance with unexpected turns.
Yentl had a passion for education, but later developed feelings for a man who only saw her as a friend. In order to make him happy, she married the woman he loved. However, the woman ended up falling in love with Yentl instead.
The situation is quite intricate and reminiscent of Shakespeare. The arrows of Cupid have become quite jumbled. One could say that the film revolved around various forms of love.
This is a story of a woman who went against the norm, a woman who desired more than the traditional roles of mending clothes and maintaining a household. She longed to expand her mind with thoughts and concepts beyond just meal planning. This resonated with me and the current era.
The executives did not view it in the same way. They saw it as a film centered around Jewish characters, and despite being Jewish themselves, they may have been hesitant to see themselves portrayed on screen. It is possible that they were concerned about the film’s focus on Jewish themes.
In the early days of Hollywood, many studio executives, particularly those in positions of power, did not often marry Jewish women as they sought to blend in with mainstream society.
I believe that Jews are still viewed as outsiders in certain ways. Throughout history, they have been unfairly blamed and used as scapegoats for the problems of society. Many people fear those who are different, and are even more afraid of being labeled as different themselves.
The movie executives were unwilling to look past the Jewish aspect of Yentl and recognize its deeper message of gender equality. Their unspoken concern was clear to me – they did not want to bring attention to Jewish culture and society.
As recorded in my journal, Jews were perceived as being too dissimilar and foreign, particularly at present, and repeatedly, and seemingly constantly…
Currently, there is a growing presence of nationalism, fascism, and antisemitism, even within the United States. It is difficult to comprehend that history is repeating itself in this manner.
From the time I started acting, I have always embraced my Jewish background with pride. It is a crucial part of my identity, and it was important for me to create a film about an intelligent Jewish woman who embodies the admirable qualities I value.
She disguises herself as a man, a practice that has been documented in history by other women. Throughout fairytales, characters often used disguise to their advantage. I saw Yentl as a believable version of a fairy tale.
The idea is not entirely practical, but it is also not entirely impossible. It is a combination of both… and that is one of the things I appreciated about it.
The response I received was not very enthusiastic and it was quite disheartening. Additionally, the fact that I wanted to take on the role of directing was not accepted by the men who controlled the studios. They saw me solely as an actress and believed I should stay in that role. They were surprised and thought it was audacious of me to think that I could produce, direct, write, and star in a film. (My own thought about taking on all these roles was, “Great. Three fewer people to argue with.”) These men seemed to have an outdated view of actresses as frivolous creatures who were incapable of handling financial responsibilities. I was under the impression that the Victorian era had ended, but their mindset suggested otherwise.
I experienced rejection and disappointment, but something occurred that reignited my commitment to the movie.
One day, my brother called and shared a remarkable tale with me. He had encountered a Jewish homemaker on Long Island who was a medium. She revealed that a spirit had appeared to her at the age of 13, just as it had for her mother, and she had the ability to communicate with the deceased.
“Barbra, I can’t even describe the experience I had. I talked to Daddy. We put our hands on a table, and it bumped its legs on the floor and spelled out Daddy’s name. Then the table followed me around the room.”
My brother has no interest in anything mystical or supernatural. Shelly is a practical and down-to-earth person. He does not believe in horoscopes or seek guidance from fortune tellers. Therefore, this situation was very unexpected for him.
I was astonished when I heard his words. It seemed unbelievable, but I was also very curious and felt the need to witness it firsthand.
While in New York, I requested for Shelly to set up a meeting with the medium. Prior to our meeting, I made the decision to visit my late father’s grave. Surprisingly, I had never been there before. My mother never brought it up or offered to take me, or perhaps I had repressed anger towards my father for passing away. I am unsure.
I was uncertain of the exact location of his burial site. Shelly was aware, and we traveled to Mount Hebron cemetery in Queens, where he guided us to the graves of my paternal grandmother, Anna, and grandfather, Isaac. We also visited the grave of my father, which had a granite tombstone bearing the words “Beloved husband, father and son” … “Esteemed teacher and scholar” … and adorned with the Jewish star and Phi Beta Kappa symbol.
I requested that Shelly take a picture of me standing next to my father’s tombstone. It is the sole photograph I have of the two of us together.
That night, the medium visited Shelly’s residence in Great Neck. My sister-in-law, Ellen, decided to stay in the kitchen and not participate. This left my brother, the medium, and myself in the dining room. I observed the medium, who appeared to be a pleasant Jewish woman, and we all took our seats in my brother’s dining room with brick walls. Instead of sitting at the large dining table, we gathered around a small triangular drop-leaf table with three legs. When we extended the leaves, it became about 28 inches in diameter and allowed us to sit closer together. Before beginning, I made sure to check underneath the table for any wires that the medium may have attached. Then, we all placed our hands on top of the table.
The host inquired, “Is there anyone present this evening?”
She had previously stated that a single tap on the table leg indicated agreement, while two taps indicated disagreement. After a short pause, I noticed a slight movement and faint sound from one leg of the table.
The individual inquired, “Who are you?” and was preparing to proceed through the alphabet. Apparently, when the correct letter is reached, the table leg lifts and spells out a word. However, she didn’t have to go very far as it moved at A.
I trembled as I inquired, “Are you a female?”
The leg lightly tapped once.
I asked, “Is your name Anna and are you my grandmother?”
The leg tapped with greater force, causing me to think, “Oh no, I don’t like this.” I became scared and hastily retreated to the bathroom. While hiding in there, I heard an even louder noise – the entire table was shaking.
I emerged from my hiding spot and saw that the medium was reciting letters once more, and the legs lifted on M … A … N …
Shelly said: “Manny?”
How did that table know my father’s nickname? By now I had stepped back in the room and was gradually creeping closer. I heard the medium ask: “Do you have a message for anyone?”
And the table began to spell B … A …
The person asked, “Is your name Barbra?”
She inquired, “What is the message for Barbra?”
The letters in the table spelled out “SORRY”.
I believe that my brother was the initial person to correctly guess the word “Sorry?”
I was in shock. I couldn’t fathom it. If I had to choose one word that I had been anticipating my whole life from my father…
It’s hard to believe. If the medium were influencing my father’s speech, she would likely have him say something more generic such as “I love you” or “I’m always with you”. However, he instead said “Sorry”.
It was staggering.
The woman inquired, “Is there anything else I can assist you with?”
Suddenly, the leg began to thump once more and spelled out the letters S, I, N, G, P, R, O, U, and D. The thumping became so rapid that I had to remove my hands from the table. My brother, who had only been lightly resting his hands on the table, was now following the leg as it moved across the room without holding or pushing it.
At one point a leg got caught on the threshold and he had to help it over. And then the table came back to where the medium and I were sitting. It moved back and forth between my brother and me, very slowly. And then it stopped.
I have never seen anything scarier. I understand it may seem unbelievable, but it is the honest truth. I never want to go through that again.
Once the medium departed, I hurried upstairs to Shelly’s bedroom. I was trembling with fear.
What I witnessed was the table rapidly producing those words, causing me to sense my father’s remorse for leaving me… and it deeply impacted me.
I was able to let go of my anger in a sense. While on the flight back to Los Angeles, I started reading a paper my father had written, which Shelly had just given me because I had never requested it previously.
He wrote about utilizing renowned authors such as Shakespeare and Ibsen, and talented poets like Byron and Keats, to educate imprisoned individuals and young offenders in English. I felt a strong connection to him, as I had also dreamed of performing as characters like Juliet and Hedda Gabler, and now he was discussing these very plays that I had come across in my teenage acting classes.
I completed several sample tests where I matched authors to their works. What if I had been raised by a father who was like that? It’s possible that I would have pursued higher education and potentially become a teacher, just like him. (A singing teacher?)
One week after seeing Shelly, I received a package of photos from him and was surprised to see the name on the tombstone next to my father’s.
The name on the grave in the Jewish cemetery was not Irving or Murray, which are names typically associated with Judaism. It was Anshel, a less common name. Anshel is not a name you come across often nowadays. The only previous time I had encountered it was in Singer’s short story, where it was the name of Yentl’s deceased uncle (although in the movie adaptation, it was changed to her deceased brother). When Yentl takes on a male identity, she uses Anshel as her chosen name.
I was amazed. This was the indication I had been searching for, indicating that creating this film was my destiny. As I delved into all the potential concepts for Yentl, I also uncovered my connection to my father. He shared the same passion for knowledge as Yentl. We were cut from the same cloth. And so was I.
Unfortunately, his life was ended prematurely, but I saw this as an opportunity to prolong it. To take on the role, I had to assume the appearance of a man and essentially become my father. His legacy would continue through me and also through Yentl.
I became aware that I would create this movie.
Performing vocal music for former President Bill Clinton.
In 1992, following eight years of Ronald Reagan and four years of George HW Bush, who implemented policies that favored corporations over individuals, cut programs for the poor, and caused the savings and loan crisis, I desired a Democratic president. Initially, I backed Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa, but then my friend Mike Medavoy introduced me to a different contender… the relatively unknown governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
I was amazed by his speech. He was well-informed about the past and present situation of the country, giving him a strong grasp of the issues. What was even more impressive was his ability to break down complex topics into easily understandable terms. For me, the issues we are facing – such as social injustice, gender inequality, nuclear proliferation, and the climate crisis – seem overwhelming. However, Bill Clinton had a different perspective and seemed to believe that every problem has a solution. It appeared as though he relished the challenge! His words were logical and his proposed policies were well-defined.
I pondered, this man has a real chance at winning the election. He possessed both intelligence and empathy, as well as an impressive academic background with degrees from Rhodes and Yale Law School. Despite his accomplishments, he maintained a relatable, down-to-earth demeanor.
Mike was an acquaintance of Bill’s who briefly introduced me to him in a hallway. Despite not having a conversation that night, Mike left a lasting impression on me. I was ecstatic when he became the nominee and selected Al Gore, who also prioritized environmental concerns, as his running mate. I was determined to assist in their election campaign in any way possible. That’s why I accepted an invitation to sing at a fundraiser organized by the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee in September. It was at this event, while sitting at a dinner table in the backyard of producer Ted Field, that I had my first meaningful conversation with Bill and Hillary Clinton.
The couple was very attractive. She was equally intelligent as him, but appeared a bit reserved in public, which I could relate to. However, Bill was completely at ease, genuinely happy to meet anyone who came up to him. He seemed to be more involved in life than those around him. The level of interest and attention he showed to each individual was captivating. It pulled people in and made them feel important.
During our conversation, he mentioned, “My favorite song of yours is Evergreen.”
“I won’t be singing it tonight, but I promise that if you become president, I will sing it at your inauguration.”
I was in disbelief when I made the promise (to volunteer and sing in front of millions of people!), but I was determined to help this man win the election.
The musical performances and speeches were broadcasted through a closed-circuit television to various fundraising events across the nation. I distinctly recall my remarks, as I still hold them with great conviction. I expressed to the audience my pride in identifying as a liberal and a feminist, as well as being a member of the Hollywood artistic community. I then directed my words directly at the camera, stating proudly: “So, I am unapologetically a liberal, feminist, and American artist.”
After performing my last song, “God Bless America”, I invited Bill, Hillary, and my fellow artists to join me on stage for a reprise. The event came to an end and I had already made plans for a few friends to come to my house for dessert. On a whim, I asked Hillary if she and Bill would like to come see my house, since it was just around the corner. To my delight, they accepted and joined me.
Our friendship started at that moment.
Both Bill and I were raised without fathers as his passed away three months prior to his birth. We discussed this when he called to express gratitude for my singing.
I said to him, “The absence of a father in my life has left a lasting impact on my soul.”
He understood my intentions clearly.
We both had high aspirations from a young age, and I questioned if he also felt the drive to achieve a lot due to his father’s premature passing.
I recall playfully saying to him, “You took my line!” I was alluding to the “I feel your pain” moment from The Prince of Tides. Interestingly, Bill had also used those words, which the media then popularized as a slogan for his campaign because it captured a vital aspect of his personality. In truth, he genuinely empathized with others and this was evident during the debates.
Prior to the initial election, in opposition to George HW Bush and Ross Perot, I transmitted a telegram to him with the message: “Do not hesitate to express your passion and anger. The most effective defense is a powerful offense. We admire your beliefs and honesty and will be supporting you.” I was speaking to him as if I were directing him.
To be honest, he did not require my assistance. On November 3rd, Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the election.
It was an exciting experience. It seemed like there was a fresh energy in the atmosphere. I believe their inauguration was truly unique. Numerous performers were eager to take part.
On Tuesday evening, I had made a commitment to perform at the presidential gala, which was held the night before the inauguration. Other notable performers included Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Judy Collins, Chuck Berry, and Fleetwood Mac.
I was the final one to take the stage. Warren Beatty and his spouse, Annette Bening, introduced me. I shared the tale of Bill and Evergreen, and proclaimed: “This is a vow I am thrilled to fulfill.” The energy in the room was electric. We were all overjoyed to be present. Bill was radiating with joy.
The following day, we observed Bill and Al being sworn in as officials in the harsh winter weather. Despite wearing gloves inside a fur muff, my fingers still felt frozen. My attire, consisting of a long gray wool coat and a Russian fur hat, resembled that of a Cossack.
The inauguration was a magnificent event. It seemed like the entire nation was joining in on the celebration. CBS spent over $8 million to broadcast the presidential gala, with one journalist noting that it was mainly due to Streisand’s promise to perform. The funds from this went towards covering the expenses of the inauguration. I was happy to think that I may have contributed in a small manner.
I was shocked when, a week later, I saw the front page of the New York Post with the headline: SENATOR YENTL. The article twisted my words from the inauguration to suggest that I was considering a run for the Senate against Democrat Patrick Moynihan.
I typically don’t waste my time addressing this type of absurdity, but I promptly released a statement clarifying that I am not seeking any position. I clarified, “There should be a clear distinction between someone who is politically passionate and someone who is politically ambitious.”
I assure you, the last thing I desire is to wake up each morning and attend Congress. I am already experiencing acid reflux.
I received a card from Prince Charles.
In 1994, I embarked on my first complete tour in many years. During the second evening in London, Prince Charles attended the concert and a portion of the ticket proceeds were donated to his organization, The Prince’s Trust. He arranged to visit backstage before the performance, as he was unable to stay after due to royal protocol which dictates that no one may leave until he departs. I was delighted to reunite with him and he was just as kind and welcoming as always.
I included one of the Disney songs in the performance because I thought it would be enjoyable to sing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while a genuine prince was present in the royal box. During the show, I recounted the tale of our initial encounter in 1974, when I was recording songs for Funny Lady and we shared a cup of tea (as shown in news footage on the Jumbotron). And then, I couldn’t resist adding: “Who knows? If I had been kinder to him, I could have been the first Jewish princess!”
Fortunately, Prince Charles has a great sense of humor and that caused a lot of laughter.
The following morning, I left my hotel room and entered the hallway. There was a table filled with various flowers and presents that had recently been delivered. One bouquet caught my eye because it was not the typical arrangement by a professional florist. It had a more natural and relaxed appearance, as if it had been picked from someone’s backyard. I inquired to my archivist, Kim Skalecki, “Who sent this?” She replied, “A fan named Charles.”
I requested to view the card.
Kim didn’t notice the royal crest at the top of the signature, which simply read “Charles”. The flowers were from his garden and it was a lovely gesture. In his note, he expressed gratitude for attending Kim’s concert, saying she was wonderful and he enjoyed every minute of it. He also thanked her for being kind and generous to his trust.
Later that year, I had the opportunity to meet with Prince Charles again in Los Angeles. He kindly invited me to share tea with him at the Bel-Air hotel. We both share a passion for gardens, organic food, and the well-being of our planet.
I was later informed that Charles had referred to me as his sole “pin-up” (reportedly he had a poster of me in his Cambridge room), and he described me as “extremely attractive” with “strong sexual appeal”.
I was definitely not the one who did that, and it’s likely for the best that I didn’t, since it would have made me feel self-conscious when we first met.
In 1995, he asked me to come stay at his residence, Highgrove, visit his gardens, and join a fundraising dinner for a summer program for architecture students. By chance, I had already planned a trip to France for a wedding of a friend and was able to make a stop in London. The prince was a wonderful host and went out of his way to make everything convenient for me. He even sent his car and driver to pick me up from the Dorchester hotel, along with my incredible personal assistant Renata Buser, who joined me for the visit.
I am amazed by the enduring friendship that has lasted for decades. For my birthday, my friend sent me a beautiful card featuring one of his own watercolor paintings. In return, for his birthday, I sent him four Barbra Streisand rose bushes to add to his garden, along with one of my drawings of flowers in a vase. Then, in 2022, on my milestone birthday, my friend Kim surprised me with a heartwarming video. The video began with a message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a friend of mine for 20 years, who spoke about his father’s friendship with me. It ended with a message from another friend of almost 50 years, Prince Charles, who is now King Charles III (I am thrilled for him and confident in his commitment to environmental causes).
Cloning my beloved Sammie
In 2017, my dear friend Sammie passed away. She was given to me by my husband, James Brolin, as an anniversary gift in 2003. Jim chose her because she was the only puppy in the litter who interacted with him (perhaps because he’s so attractive, or because they both had white hair!). Sammie stood out from the other puppies – her hair was curly, unlike the typical straight hair of cotons de tulear. She was unique, just like I felt as a child. And to me, Sammie was like a daughter.
Have you ever encountered a canine that can communicate? When I posed a question to her, she would vocalize in response, or wag her tail enthusiastically if she was particularly intrigued by the idea. She could pick up on my emotions and respond accordingly, tilting her head and giving me a puzzled look, as if inquiring: “What’s happening?”
When I brought Sammie, my puppy, to work on the set of Meet the Fockers, the crew was incredibly kind. They even created a small chair specifically for her. During our early morning drives in my motorhome to the studio, we would both doze off, with me cradling her as she rested on my chest, just like a human baby.
Sammie was an exceptional traveler. She accompanied us on every journey and to every concert. She never missed a rehearsal and would rest on the piano, always keeping a watchful eye on me. Like my first dog, Sadie, she was attuned to all the musical cues. During the actual performance, she may have taken a nap on my shoes in the dressing room, but she knew exactly when to wake up based on the music playing through the speakers. She would eagerly await my return during intermission, a warm and loving presence by the door. Renata would often bring her out for the final curtain call, but I believe that like me, Sammie had stage fright and would quickly run offstage.
Sammie’s sickness became apparent to me when she stopped eating. Upon discovering a tumour in her lungs, we sought the expertise of multiple specialists and contacted researchers at two universities who were studying canine cancer. After careful consideration, it was determined that the tumour needed to be removed. During the surgery, the doctor informed me that Sammie’s heart rate was decreasing due to the anesthesia.
She inquired about your desired activity.
I voiced, “Cease. Please remove her from the table. I will take her home.”
Sammie was able to persevere for a significant amount of time, but eventually we had to take her to the hospital daily to have the fluid in her lungs removed. It was heartbreaking to witness her suffering, and her last day was particularly dreadful. While driving home, we found ourselves stuck in rush hour traffic at 5pm when Sammie let out a piercing cry that will stay with me forever.
I was aware that we needed to end her suffering, but I couldn’t bear the idea of losing her forever. The only thing that brought some comfort was the possibility of preserving a part of her. A friend of mine had successfully cloned his dog, and we were ready to do the same. Sammie’s doctor collected cells from inside her cheek and tummy to send to the lab, before putting her to sleep while I petted her. In a matter of seconds, our beloved companion was gone.
We buried Sammie in a special garden I created around her tombstone, which has her picture on it in porcelain (like they do in Europe). And there’s a bench where Renata and I often sit when we want to remember all the good times we had with her.
I was feeling lost without Sammie, but had conflicting emotions about getting a new dog. I understood that I could never fill her void, just as I could never replace Sadie. However, several months later, I received a call from the breeder who sold Sammie to me. “I have a small puppy for you,” she said, “the only one in the litter. She doesn’t have curly fur like Sammie, but her mother’s name is Funny Girl.” How could I refuse? She must have been so lonely without any littermates to play with. Therefore, I brought her home and named her Fanny.
After two months, I received a call from the cloning facility. They had previously cautioned us that the cells may not successfully replicate, but in unexpected news, not only did the procedure succeed, it yielded a greater number of dogs than I had expected.
Currently, I am the owner of three dogs: Fanny, the oldest, who often gazes at Violet and Scarlet with a sense of disbelief. Previously an only child, she now shares her home with two energetic intruders. Both Violet and Scarlet have curly hair like Sammie and look so alike that I had to differentiate them by placing lavender and red silk flowers on their collars. Scarlet is spirited and my husband plays with her more vigorously, treating her like one of his past larger dogs. She holds the role of alpha dog and is drawn to Jim. On the other hand, my little Violet is more timid and reserved. She stays close to me and prefers to be held, but if I am occupied with something like having lunch in the kitchen, she will settle for the chair next to me.
I find it intriguing to observe particular characteristics that bring to mind Sammie, however each of these cherished creatures is an individual entity. While you can replicate the appearance of a dog, you cannot replicate its essence.
However, whenever I see their expressions, my mind goes to Samantha.