So why write about Barbra Streisand? When I was approached to write a volume in a series of book-length biographical essays on Jewish lives, being published by Yale University Press, I was given the liberty to choose whomever I wanted. I took that responsibility seriously. Going in, frankly, I wasn’t a huge fan of Streisand’s music. I had what you might call a cold admiration for her talent. I recognized it – who didn’t? – but I wasn’t infatuated with it the way so many people were and are. I preferred the smooth simplicity of Sinatra to the geshreying of Streisand, though having had to listen to her hour after hour after hour for my book, my admiration is appreciably hotter. And while I regarded her acting highly, I would be the first to admit that her movies are of variable quality, from the heights of “The Way We Were” and “Yentl” to the depths of “What’s Up, Doc?” “Up the Sandbox” and “All Night Long.” So, again, why Streisand?
I thought Yale might ask me the same question, and in a series that included Moses, Einstein, Wittgenstein, Salk, Rothko and Proust, I hedged my bet. The original list I submitted had five names: Woody Allen, Sidney Lumet, Sydney Pollack, Billy Wilder and Streisand. Since the series was titled “Jewish Lives,” I wanted to write about not just a prominent Jew, but also about someone whose Jewishness was not incidental to the life. For all these individuals, I felt Jewishness was in some way a motive force, even for Wilder, whose religion seemed to be cynicism more than Judaism. But as I considered this group, there was one whose Jewishness kept flashing at me like a red beacon — someone for whom it was not only a motive force behind her persona and her work, but also everything.
I couldn’t think of a Jewier Jew than Streisand, certainly not in American popular culture (okay, I’ll give you Gertrude Berg), and certainly not someone who conquered the entertainment world the way she did (I’ll take away Gertrude Berg). Streisand’s talent is colossal. But more, her position in the American entertainment firmament is dependent on her Jewishness, and through it she changed the world in a way very few entertainers do. Her greatest accomplishment, as I see it, was taking her Jewishness, transforming it into metaphor and then universalizing the metaphor. The Jewishness of that, the scale of that, was irresistible to me. Fortunately, Yale found it irresistible, too.
Streisand, who recently turned 74, is Jewishness personified, at least stereotypically. She looks the way gentiles think Jews always look. She has a manner and style that non-Jews usually associate with Jews – brassy, loud, domineering, utterly unselfconscious, too much. She has an emotional delivery that often correlates with Jewishness, conflating the suffering of her people with personal suffering. Most Jewish performers did whatever they could to disguise their Jewishness (think of the great Paul Muni usually buried beneath make-up) or played it for laughs. Streisand didn’t, couldn’t. She is unassimilated but also unassimilable.
This was her show business burden. But, oddly enough, it was also her gift. There were dozens, hundreds, of conventionally pretty, conventionally talented girls in show business, pert gentiles, and Jews trying to look like gentiles, because that is what the industry, and, presumably the nation, demanded. Streisand, who was anything but conventional, had suffered the abuse of agents and producers telling her that she would never make it, and not mincing their words about it. (She suffered the same abuse from her mother, who discouraged her ambitions.) She was too ugly, they said (fix that nose!), though beneath that insult was the insinuation that she was too Jewish. No one like Streisand had ever been a mainstream, non-comedic star. The idea was that no one like Streisand ever would be.
So much of Streisand’s early singing came out of that humiliation. Hers were never the conventional love songs; she would sing of rejection and loneliness and pain. She took her music personally. And so did her fans, especially her female fans – those who knew what it was like to be slighted, demeaned and abused. Through wish fulfillment, they could project themselves onto the pretty Doris Days, as Streisand herself had done as a girl. But they could identify with Streisand. When she sang, she sang for every woman – and a good many men, too – who had been marginalized and degraded. In her, they saw not her Jewishness, but her otherness in a world that valorized the beautiful, the rich and the powerful. The artist Deborah Kass would write that “to be an adolescent coming across Barbra Streisand was the most exhilarating moment of identification.” The cultural critic Camille Paglia would even call Streisand revolutionary in the way she flaunted her ethnicity and, in so doing, emboldened not only a generation of women, but also American women forever after, and, again, many men, too, especially gay men who had felt the stings of otherness. Where she led, everyone followed.
Streisand had never wanted to be a singer. Singing, for her, was merely the avenue to real stardom, which was movie stardom. It is quite possible that Streisand, for all her abundant talent, might never have made the leap had it not been for her voice and for the role that exploited both the voice and the persona: Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl.” In playing Brice, Streisand was playing another degraded girl whose talent is so immense that it lifts the scales from the eyes of the benighted. It was a star-making role, but for both her fans and for Streisand, it was more than star making — it was triumphant. Brice/Streisand was the conqueror — the so-called ugly girl made good, even made beautiful.
As “Funny Girl” suggests, in no other performer, I believe, is the personal so intertwined with the persona as with Streisand, which is one reason that she resonates with audiences the way she does: They know she has lived it. “Funny Girl” provided the template after which, in film after film, Streisand acts out the fantasies of her fans as the “other” who demolishes the mainstream. Of course, one can’t help but see the postmodernist angle in this: Streisand is the Jewish girl who made good by playing the Jewish girl who made good, though “good” understates it. Her success was enormous, and the enormity of it figures into her popularity rather than merely signifying it. Even her much discussed and criticized diva-ness, a trait that Streisand has said men are never accused of having, was a measure of her status. If she seemed to suffer for us, she also succeeded for us. Big time.
I subtitled my book “redefining beauty, femininity, and power,” because that is precisely what Streisand did. After Streisand’s rise, it was harder to dismiss women who weren’t aesthetic objects. In the critic Pauline Kael’s now-famous remark about Streisand, she taught us that “talent is beauty.” After Streisand’s rise, it was harder to dismiss women who sought to exercise control, as Streisand did when she became a producer and director. In her wake, femininity wasn’t a function of compliance or malleability anymore. In helping to change that, she became, quite possibly, the pre-eminent feminist in the entertainment world. And, finally, after Streisand’s rise, it was impossible to think of power as the special preserve of white male elites. Streisand used her power to batter down walls within the entertainment industry, but also outside it. She was a force to be reckoned with, and one that a lot of men resented having to reckon with. Of course, I am not saying she effected this singlehandedly, I am saying that she played a major role.
All this, I think, is finally a product of her Jewishness. Early on, Streisand understood that there was an art to being Jewish. It was an art that connected Jewish suffering to general human suffering, but also one that connected Jewish perseverance and triumph to general human perseverance and triumph. In her Jewishness, we, Jew and gentile alike, could find ourselves. That is the story I try to tell in my book. It is, I think, the story not only of Streisand, but also of a very important strain in modern American culture. And it is why I believe Barbra Streisand is worth writing about.
Neal Gabler is the author of the new biography “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power.”