In 1968, during the winter season, I received a package at my apartment in New York. The package contained a copy of a short story titled Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, written by Isaac Bashevis Singer. I was unfamiliar with Singer’s work and the sender, Valentine Sherry, who was a producer. His name seemed unusual, similar to something you would find on a box of candy. I briefly read his cover note and placed it with the other scripts on my desk.
One evening, I brought it to bed with me as that is where I typically do most of my reading. I felt a strong connection to Yentl right away. As I reached the end, I became completely engrossed in this tale of a young Jewish woman in 19th-century Poland who had a deep desire to study Torah, similar to attending college and learning about history, law, philosophy, and religion. To achieve this, she disguised herself as a man since women were not allowed to receive such an education at that time. The next morning, I contacted my agent, David Begelman, and told him, “I have found my next film. It is called Yentl the Yeshiva Boy.”
David was surprised and uncomfortable. I could sense his reaction through the phone. He exclaimed, “Are you serious? We already rejected that offer for you. You just portrayed a Jewish girl and now you’re saying you want to portray a Jewish boy?”
I was surprised by this. “Hold on,” I exclaimed, “are you saying you rejected something without even talking to me about it? That’s not acceptable!”
“Barbra, once Funny Girl is released, you’ll become a major star. You also have two other major films lined up. Are you really considering working on a mediocre short story? It’s not worth your time.”
I believe David was solely focused on the financial aspect, and he had no interest in me creating a small art film. However, there was a certain element of this story that resonated with me. Thus, I contacted Valentine Sherry.
This marked the start of a journey that would captivate, annoy, push, drain, and invigorate me for the next 15 years. I continued to create film after film, but Yentl always remained in my focus.
I presented the movie idea to multiple studio executives during a meeting.
“I possess a brief tale written by Isaac Bashevis Singer…”
“He was born in Poland and he composes these beautiful Yiddish folktales.”
This is a tale of a female who disguises herself as a male in order to learn about the Talmud…
I could have ended my efforts at that point. However, I persisted, hoping to ignite some curiosity with my enthusiasm. Unfortunately, their attention waned and they showed no desire to produce this film. They doubted its appeal to audiences and believed the Singer story was too unknown.
It is a challenging task to have a movie approved for production. Years later, I presented The Prince of Tides to a new group of studio executives. This time, it was not an unknown short story but a popular book. However, the response was, “The movie will never match up to the book.” It seems that one was too unknown and now the other is too familiar. It’s hard to understand.
It was clear to me that Yentl was not a mainstream film. Additionally, there was the obvious challenge of portraying a character dressed as a man for most of the movie. The last actress to attempt this was Katharine Hepburn in Sylvia Scarlett in 1935, and it was not successful.
Yes, Yentl was unique, but I was determined to show them its potential.
In my interpretation, it was a story that could resonate with everyone who desires something out of reach. Essentially, it revolved around a romantic relationship, with some unexpected elements.
Yentl had a passion for learning, but later developed feelings for a man who only saw her as a friend. In order to please him, she married the woman he loved. However, the woman ended up falling in love with Yentl.
It’s quite convoluted… and somewhat reminiscent of Shakespeare. Cupid’s arrows got tangled up in a big way. We can simply state that the film explored various forms of love.
This was a story about a woman who challenged the norm, a woman who desired more than a traditional role of mending socks and doing household chores. She longed to expand her mind with thoughts and concepts, rather than solely focusing on meal planning. This resonated with me and seemed fitting for the current era.
The executives did not view it in the same way. They saw it as a film focused on Jews, and even though some were of Jewish heritage, they may have been hesitant to see themselves depicted on screen. It’s possible they were apprehensive about the subject being too centered on Jewish culture.
In the early days of Hollywood, many studio moguls chose not to marry Jewish women in an effort to assimilate.
I believe that Jews are still perceived as outsiders in certain aspects. Throughout history, they have been unfairly targeted as the cause of various problems. There is a fear and stigma surrounding those who are different, and people are especially afraid of being labeled as such.
When the film executives declined to acknowledge the broader theme of gender equality in Yentl and focused solely on its Jewish elements, their true concern remained unsaid but palpable. It seemed as though they did not want to bring attention to the Jewish community and their way of life.
In my journal, I mentioned that Jews were perceived as being too unique and foreign, particularly at this moment, and perhaps constantly.
As I am currently writing, the resurgence of nationalism, fascism, and antisemitism is evident, even within the United States. It is difficult to comprehend that history is repeating itself in this manner.
I have always taken pride in my Jewish background and I never felt the need to conceal it when I pursued acting. My heritage is a crucial part of my identity and I was determined to create a film about a intelligent Jewish woman who embodies many admirable qualities.
She disguises herself as a man, a practice also recorded in historical accounts of other women. Throughout fairytales, characters often conceal their identities and successfully deceive others. I view Yentl as a believable fairytale.
The concept is not entirely practical, but it is also not completely unrealistic. It encompasses both elements, which is one of the reasons why I enjoyed it.
The response I received was not enthusiastic, which was disheartening. Additionally, I faced criticism for wanting to take on a directing role. The men in charge of the studios viewed me solely as an actress and believed I should stick to that role. They thought it was audacious of me to think I could also produce, direct, write, and act in a film. However, I saw it as a benefit since it meant fewer people to disagree with. These men had a narrow-minded view of actresses as frivolous and incapable of handling financial responsibilities. It was disappointing that they still held onto outdated beliefs despite living in modern times.
I was denied and disheartened, but then something occurred that reignited my dedication to the film.
My brother called me up one day and told me an incredible story. He had met a Jewish housewife on Long Island who happened to be a medium. She explained to him that a spirit had come to her when she was 13, just as it had come to her mother before her, and she could contact the dead.
“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, unlike myself, is not interested in mystical or supernatural beliefs. Shelly prefers practical and straightforward things and does not believe in horoscopes or consulting fortune tellers. Therefore, this behavior was unexpected for him.
I was left speechless after listening to his words. I found it hard to believe, but I was also highly interested and knew I had to witness it firsthand.
While in New York, I requested Shelly to schedule a meeting with the medium. Prior to our meeting, I made the decision to visit my father’s grave. Surprisingly, I had never been there before. My mother never mentioned it or offered to take me, or perhaps I avoided going because deep down I was upset with my father’s passing. 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. Finally, we arrived at my father’s grave. The tombstone, made of granite, bears the words “Beloved husband, father and son” … “Esteemed teacher and scholar” … and is adorned with the Jewish star and Phi Beta Kappa emblem.
I requested that Shelly take a photograph of me next to his grave marker. It is the sole image I possess of myself with my father.
That night, the psychic visited Shelly’s home in Great Neck. My sister-in-law, Ellen, wanted no part in it and remained in the kitchen, leaving just my brother, the psychic, and me. As I observed her, she appeared to be a pleasant Jewish woman, nothing out of the ordinary. We settled into chairs in my brother’s dining room with brick walls; not the large dining table, but a smaller triangular drop-leaf table that allowed us to sit closer together. With the leaves up, it measured about 28 inches in diameter. Before we began, I checked under the table to ensure the medium hadn’t secretly attached any wires. Then, we all placed our hands on top of it.
The individual inquired, “Is there anyone present this evening?”
She had previously stated that one tap of the table leg signified agreement, while two taps indicated disagreement. After a brief pause, I sensed slight movement in one of the table legs, accompanied by a faint sound.
The medium inquired, “Who are you?” and was preparing to go through the alphabet, as the table leg would lift when the correct letter was reached, spelling out a word. However, she didn’t have to go very far, as it moved at the letter A.
I trembled as I inquired, “Are you a female?”
The leg lightly tapped once.
Can you confirm if you are my grandmother, Anna?
The leg tapped with greater intensity, causing me to think “oh my,” I am not comfortable with this. Frightened, I quickly ran into the bathroom. While hiding, I heard a louder noise, and the entire table was shaking.
I popped my head out. The medium was listing letters again, 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?”
B … A
The table started to spell out B, A, B, A.
The message stated, “Barbra?”
She inquired, “What is the message for Barbra?”
The letters on the table spelled out “sorry”.
I believe my brother was the initial person to correctly guess the word “Sorry?”
I was in disbelief. There was one word from my father that I had been eagerly waiting to hear my entire life.
It is hard to believe. If the medium was influencing what my father said, she would likely have him say something more general, such as “I care for you” or “I am always by your side”. However, he said “Sorry” instead.
It was staggering.
The woman inquired, “Is there anything else?”
The leg began to throb once more, forming the letters S-I-N-G-P-R-O-U-D. Its movements were so rapid that I removed my hands from the table. My brother, who had been resting his hands on the table, was not controlling or guiding it as it moved around the room.
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.
No one uttered a single word.
It was the scariest thing I’ve ever seen. I know it sounds unbelievable, but it’s the fucking truth. And I never wanted to repeat the experience.
After the medium departed, I went up to Shelly’s bedroom, feeling nervous and trembling.
I observed the table rapidly display those words and I sensed my father’s remorse for leaving me… and it greatly impacted me.
The paper my father had written was given to me by Shelly during my flight back home to Los Angeles. It helped alleviate the anger I had been feeling.
The subject matter focused on his incorporation of renowned authors such as Shakespeare and Ibsen, and esteemed poets like Byron and Keats, to educate inmates and young offenders in the English language. I felt a strong kinship with him as he delved into these plays that I had first encountered in my youth while studying acting. I longed to portray characters like Juliet and Hedda Gabler, and now he was discussing these very works.
I completed a few of his practice exams, pairing authors with their corresponding works. It makes me wonder how my life would have been different if I had a father like this. I may have pursued higher education and possibly even followed in his footsteps as a teacher. (A teacher who also sings?)
One week after my meeting with Shelly, I received a package of photographs from him and was surprised to see something that caught my attention. It was the name written on the gravestone next to my father’s.
The name seen in the Jewish cemetery was not the expected Irving or Murray, but rather Anshel. This is an uncommon name that is rarely encountered these days. The only other instance in which I had come across it was in Singer’s short story, where it belongs to Yentl’s deceased uncle (in the film, it is changed to her deceased brother). When Yentl assumes a male identity, she takes on the name Anshel.
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 possible concepts for Yentl, I also unearthed my father’s presence. He shared the same passion for knowledge as Yentl. We were cut from the same cloth. And so was I.
I was given the opportunity to continue his life, which ended prematurely. To fulfill this role, I needed to embody my father by dressing and acting like a man. He would live on through me and through Yentl.
I had become 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 tax breaks for the wealthy, reductions in programs for the underprivileged, and prioritized corporations over individuals, I desired a Democratic president. Initially, I backed Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, but my friend Mike Medavoy introduced me to a different contender…the young and relatively obscure governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton.
I was amazed by his speaking ability. He had a thorough understanding of both the past and present state of the nation, giving him authority on various issues. What was even more impressive was his ability to break down complex topics into easily understandable terms. To me, the challenges we were facing seemed insurmountable – social injustice, gender inequality, nuclear proliferation, and the climate crisis. But Bill Clinton saw problems as opportunities for solutions, and he seemed to relish the challenge. His words were logical and his proposals were well-defined.
As I pondered, it occurred to me that this man could potentially win the election. He possessed a combination of intelligence, compassion, wit, and depth. He was both clever and charming, a small-town boy who rose to become a Rhodes scholar and graduate from Yale Law School, yet he remained connected to his humble roots.
Mike was an acquaintance of Bill’s and he introduced me to him briefly in a hallway. We didn’t have a conversation that night, but he left a strong impression on me. I was ecstatic when he was nominated and chose Al Gore as his running mate, as we both shared a concern for the environment. I was eager to assist in their campaign efforts and agreed to perform at a fundraiser organized by the Hollywood Women’s Political Committee in September. It was at this event where I finally had the chance to have a proper conversation with Bill and Hillary Clinton, as we sat together at a dinner table in the backyard of producer Ted Field.
The couple was highly attractive. While she was equally intelligent as him, she appeared a bit reserved in public…something I could relate to. However, Bill was completely at ease, genuinely happy to meet anyone who came up to him. His passion for life was evident and he seemed more invested than those around him. His sincere curiosity and focus on each individual was captivating, drawing people in and making them feel valued.
During our conversation, he expressed that his preferred song of mine is Evergreen.
“I won’t be performing it tonight, but I’ll make a deal with you – if you get elected as president, I’ll sing it at your inauguration.”
I was shocked that I made a commitment (to sing in front of millions of people!) but I was determined to help this man win the election.
On that evening, the performances and speeches were broadcasted through closed-circuit television to various fundraising events across the nation. I recall my words distinctly as they still hold strong meaning for me. I expressed my pride in being labeled as a “liberal” and a “feminist”, and also in being a member of the artistic community in Hollywood. Directly addressing the camera, I proudly declared myself as a liberal, feminist, and American artist.
I then proceeded to perform my last song, “God Bless America.” After the conclusion of the song, I extended an invitation to Bill, Hillary, and the other artists to join me on stage for a reprise, during which we all sang together. The evening came to an end. I had previously invited a few friends to join me at my home for dessert, and on a whim, I approached Hillary and asked if she and Bill would like to come see my house, as it was just around the corner. To my delight, they accepted my invitation and joined me at my home.
Our friendship started at that point.
Both Bill and I were raised without fathers, as his passed away just three months before his birth. We discussed this when he reached out to express gratitude for my singing.
I said to him, “I have never known my father, and that type of absence leaves a lasting mark on your spirit.”
He understood precisely my intention.
We were both driven individuals from a young age, and I questioned if he also shared the desire to achieve great things due to his father’s untimely passing.
I jokingly said to him, “You took my line!” I was talking about the moment in The Prince of Tides when the character says, “I feel your pain.” Interestingly, Bill also said those words and the media turned it into a slogan for his campaign because it captured a key aspect of his personality. The truth is, he truly had the ability to empathize with others, which was evident during the debates.
Prior to the initial election, opposing George HW Bush and Ross Perot, I communicated with him via a telegram expressing, “Do not hesitate to display your passion and anger. The most effective defense is a strong offense. We admire your beliefs and integrity and will be cheering you on.” I was speaking to him in a directing manner.
Honestly, my assistance was unnecessary. On November 3rd, Bill Clinton and Al Gore won the election.
It was an exhilarating experience, almost as if a new energy had emerged. The inauguration was unlike anything before. Numerous entertainers were eager to take part.
I had accepted the invitation to perform at the presidential gala on Tuesday (the evening before the inauguration), alongside notable artists such as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson, Judy Collins, Chuck Berry, and Fleetwood Mac.
I was the final person to take the stage. Warren Beatty and his wife, Annette Bening, introduced me. I shared the story of Bill and Evergreen and declared, “This is a promise I am thrilled to fulfill.” The energy in the room was electrifying as we all celebrated being there. Bill was glowing with happiness.
The following day, we observed Bill and Al being sworn into office in the bitter cold. Despite wearing gloves inside a fur muff, my fingers were numb from the freezing temperatures. Dressed in a long, gray wool coat and a Russian fur hat, I resembled a Cossack.
The moment of the inauguration was truly magnificent. It seemed that the entire nation was joining in on the celebration. CBS invested over $8 million to broadcast the presidential gala, with one journalist noting that this was partially due to Streisand’s promise to sing. This funding contributed to the overall expenses of the inauguration. It brought me joy to know that I may have played a small role in making it happen.
I was shocked when, a week later, someone showed me the front page of the New York Post with the headline “SENATOR YENTL.” The story had spun my inauguration remarks into a false claim that I was considering running for Senate against Democrat Patrick Moynihan.
Typically, I do not bother to reply to such senseless matters. However, I promptly released a statement clarifying that I am not seeking any positions. I clarified, “There should be no mix-up between one who has a passion for politics and one who has political aspirations.”
I assure you, the last thing I desire is to wake up each morning and attend Congress. I already suffer from acid reflux.
A card sent by 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 ticket proceeds went towards his charity, The Prince’s Trust. He had arranged to visit backstage before the performance, as he was unable to stay afterward due to royal protocol dictating that no one can leave until he has left. I was delighted to reunite with him, and he exuded the same warmth and friendliness as always.
I included a Disney song in the show because I thought it would be enjoyable to sing “Someday My Prince Will Come” while a prince was present in the royal box. During the performance, I shared the story of our first meeting in 1974, when I was recording songs for Funny Lady and we had tea together (as footage of the meeting was shown on the Jumbotron). And I couldn’t help but add, “Who knows? If I had been kinder to him, I might have become the first Jewish princess.”
There was a large amount of laughter generated by that. Fortunately, Prince Charles possesses a good sense of humor.
The following morning, I exited my hotel suite and entered the hallway, where a table displayed a variety of flowers and gifts that had recently been delivered. Among the arrangements, one bouquet caught my eye as it appeared less structured and more natural, almost like it had been picked from a backyard. Curious, I inquired with my archivist Kim Skalecki, “Who sent this?” She replied, “A fan named Charles.”
I asked to view the card.
The signature on the note was “Charles”, but Kim had missed the royal emblem at the top. The flowers were recently picked from his garden, a kind gesture. In the note, he expressed how much he enjoyed Kim’s concert the previous night and thanked her for being kind and generous to his team.
Later that year, I had the opportunity to see Prince Charles once more. He was visiting Los Angeles and kindly invited me to have tea with him at the Bel-Air hotel. We share a mutual interest in gardens, organic food, and the well-being of our planet.
I was informed afterwards that Charles had referred to me as his “sole pin-up” (supposedly he had a poster of me in his room at Cambridge), and he described me as “extremely charming” with “irresistible sex appeal”.
I wasn’t the one who did that, and it’s likely for the best that I didn’t, as it would have made me feel self-conscious when we first met.
In 1995, I received an invitation from the prince to stay at his residence, Highgrove, visit his gardens, and attend a fundraising dinner for a summer school for architecture students. As luck would have it, I had already planned to travel to France for a friend’s wedding, so I decided to make a stop in London during my trip. The prince was an incredibly gracious host and made all arrangements convenient for me, including sending his car and chauffeur to pick me up from the Dorchester hotel. My wonderful personal assistant, Renata Buser, also joined me for the visit.
What an incredible bond! It has endured for many years. Recently, to celebrate my birthday, he sent me a beautiful card featuring one of his own watercolor paintings on the cover. In return, for his birthday, I gifted him four Barbra Streisand rose bushes for his garden and one of my drawings that I thought he would appreciate, featuring flowers in a vase. Then, in 2022, for my milestone birthday, Kim surprised me with an amazing video. It began with a message from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a friend of mine for two decades, who spoke about his father’s friendship with me. The video ended with another dear friend of almost 50 years, Prince Charles, now King Charles III (I am overjoyed for him and know he will continue to advocate for the environment).
Replicating my cherished Sammie
In 2017, my dear companion Sammie passed away. She was given to me by my husband James Brolin in 2003 as an anniversary gift. James chose Sammie because she was the only puppy in the litter that interacted with him (perhaps because he is so attractive, or because they both had pure white hair!). Sammie was unique compared to the other puppies as she had curly hair instead of the typical straight hair of cotons de tulear. She was like an outsider, just like I felt as a child. But to me, Sammie was my little girl.
Have you ever encountered a canine that can communicate verbally? When I posed a question to her, she would emit specific noises as a response, or wag her tail vigorously if she was extremely enthusiastic about the idea. She was attuned to my emotions and would respond to them, tilting her head and giving me an inquisitive look, as if to inquire: “What’s happening?”
When I took Sammie, my young dog, to work on the set of Meet the Fockers, the crew was very kind. They even created a small chair just for her. During our early morning rides in my motorhome to the studio, we would both doze off with me cradling her as she laid on my chest, just like a human baby.
Sammie was an excellent traveler. She accompanied us on every trip and to every concert, never missing a rehearsal. She would often lie on the piano, keeping a watchful eye on me. Like my first dog Sadie, she was familiar with all the musical cues. During the actual show, while I was on stage, she would sometimes take a nap on my shoes in the dressing room. However, she had a keen sense of when to wake up, always perking up at the sound of music from the speakers. During intermission, she would eagerly greet me at the door, a warm and fluffy bundle of love and support. And at the end of the concert, Renata would often bring her out to join me for the final curtain call. However, like me, she seemed to have stage fright and would quickly run off stage.
Sammie’s illness became apparent when she stopped eating. After discovering a tumor in her lungs, we sought help from multiple specialists and consulted with experts from two universities conducting canine cancer research. Ultimately, it was determined that the tumor needed to be removed. On the day of the surgery, the doctor informed me that Sammie’s heart rate was slowing due to the anesthesia.
She inquired, “What are your intentions?”
“I instructed, ‘Cease.’ ‘Simply remove her from the table. I’ll take her back home.'”
Sammie was able to endure for a significant amount of time, but eventually we had to bring her to the hospital daily to have the excess fluid in her lungs removed. Witnessing her suffering was heartbreaking, and the final day was particularly tragic. While driving home, we became stuck in rush hour traffic at 5pm, when Sammie let out a piercing cry that will forever be etched in my memory.
I was aware that we needed to end her suffering, but the idea of losing her forever was too much to bear. The only solace was the possibility of preserving a part of her through cloning. A friend had successfully cloned his dog, so we were ready to do the same with Sammie. Her doctor collected cells from her cheek and tummy for the lab, and then put 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 felt lost without Sammie, but I had conflicting emotions about getting another dog. I understood that I could never fill her place, just like I could never replace Sadie. However, several months later, the breeder who sold Sammie to me contacted me. “I have a small puppy,” she informed me, “she’s the only one in the litter. She’s not curly, but her mother is named Funny Girl.” How could I refuse? She must have been so lonely without any brothers or sisters to play with. Therefore, I adopted her and named her Fanny.
After two months, the cloning lab contacted me. They had previously cautioned that the cells may not successfully replicate, but it turned out that not only did the procedure succeed, it also yielded a larger 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 disbelief. Fanny used to be the only dog in the house, but now she must share her space with two energetic newcomers. Both Violet and Scarlet have curly hair like our other dog Sammie, and they resemble each other so much that I had to put different colored flowers on their collars to tell them apart. Scarlet is quite wild, and my husband plays with her more roughly, treating her like one of his former big dogs. She is the dominant dog and prefers to be close to Jim. On the other hand, Violet is more reserved and calm. She tends to stay close to me and enjoys being held, but if I am occupied with something else, she will settle for sitting in the chair next to me.
It is intriguing to observe certain characteristics that resemble Sammie, however each of these cherished animals is an individual entity. While the appearance of a dog can be replicated, its essence cannot be cloned.
However, whenever I see their expressions, it reminds me of my Samantha.