Steven Brinberg does not want to be called Ms. Streisand, Barbra or Babs before he steps onto the stage fully transformed into the singing icon. Until that moment, address him as Steven, please.
Indeed, it takes 90 minutes for the metamorphosis to be completed, starting with layers of makeup, followed by dress and wig. The last bit of costuming is the long nails. “The nails really make me feel very Barbra!” he said.
Brinberg is undoubtedly the premier Streisand impersonator. “It’s Barbra at prices you can afford,” he quipped during an interview with the Forward. “I always had an affinity for Barbra. She’s our leader. Now she’s played Israel.”
Along with performing on the cabaret circuit and trendy hot spots across the country, Brinberg frequently does his shtick at temple and Jewish Community Center events. Being Jewish shapes his humor while at the same time forces him to avoid Jewish caricatures that might be construed as anti-Semitic. And as a gay man, he is able to view Streisand from the outside, but identify with her in a way that a straight man could not. “I’m once removed,” he said.
Female impersonators — though some prefer to think of themselves as actors — may be playing real life divas, while others inhabit fictional creations. They may not reference their ethnicity at all, or they may lightly incorporate it into their stage personas or make it their act’s centerpiece. The most notable example is Amichai Lau-Lavie’s Rebbetzin Hadassah Gross, who was a motivational speaker and life coach and used biblical stories as object lessons. The act has now been retired.
Jewish cross-dressing goes back to medieval performances; early Purim shpiels routinely featured men playing all the female roles, including Queen Esther, says David Shneer, author of “Queer Jews,” and the Louis P. Singer chair in Jewish history at the University of Colorado Boulder.
In the 1950s, Milton Berle was legendary for his drag performances. “Though I can’t help thinking of it as burlesque, more than drag,” said Shneer, suggesting that cross-dressing straight men emerge from a somewhat different sensibility than their gay counterparts.