What is it about Barbra Streisand that inspires such ardent devotion in her fans? I cannot think of any other Jewish actor or singer who inspires such reverence. How many others, male or female, are known simply by their given name, for that matter? Neal Gabler’s new biography, in which he attempts to unravel “the metaphor of Streisand”, helps to answer the question. It is, in his words, “a personal interpretation of her life and work”.
In Gabler’s narrative, Barbra is the embodiment of the Jewish condition. Not just in her famously Semitic looks but also in her behaviour, specifically her lack of decorum. She herself admitted she didn’t see the boundary between proper conduct and what she desired to do. She lacked that switch, or superego, that enabled her to think ahead.
Her upbringing was the stuff of Freudian nightmares. And if her self-confidence was already on the rack as a child, it also took a beating as she rose to the top. Food was her answer: “I live to eat. Happiness is noshing.” Food motivated her. Embracing this metaphor, Gabler describes her as “a bagel on a plate of onion rolls”.
If Jews like to tell themselves that “we are like everybody else, only more so” then they need look no further than Barbra for a role model. She was louder, bolder, brasher. She was “too much”, even “Jew much”. She was excessive and refused to be contained at a time when Jewy Jews were only tentatively feeling their way back into the public eye. Mad Magazine, the satirical comic, nailed it when they dubbed her “Bubbly Strident”.
This is undoubtedly the reason she has attracted as much ire as she has praise; she has been called bossy, bitchy, controlling, tyrannical, egomaniacal, loud, cheap and monstrous, though she batted these insults off as antisemitism, and one can certainly hear echoes of long-standing anti-Jewish canards in some of the epithets. But many of these insults were also levelled against her by Jews.
Her lack of civility was also evident in her singing. Untrained, she sang as she knew how, in strong Brooklynese. Gabler deconstructs in detail her melodic Yiddish-inflected pronunciation, “river” as “rivah”, “more” as “mohe”. He pays particular attention to her schwa, the Hebrew for the diacritical upside-down “e” sound, denoting “eh”. “No other singer wants to sing schwa, so they perform their best vocal gymnastics to avoid it.” Not Streisand. She embraced it, sang it “as if she were speaking to you”, thus transforming it “to make it fuller and richer and softer”.
It was these very peculiarities and her refusal to change them that led people to adore her. She never tried to “pass”. She refused to have a nose job. She wouldn’t change her singing style. And she never gave up on her belief that she would become a star, in spite of the many disparaging remarks. She became, in Gabler’s words, “a vicarious vessel for their challenge to society. Barbra was their ‘point girl’—the spear that kept attacking and that couldn’t be blunted.” She became “the Jews’ Jew, the woman whose lack of shame over being Jewish, whose flagrant display of her Jewishness, was empowering”. It wasn’t only empowering for Jews; other groups, from gays to nice Southern Baptist girls, embraced her, also seeing her as a role model.
According to Gabler, Jewish critic Pauline Kael’s review of Barbra’s starring role in Funny Girl (1968) nicely encapsulates her appeal. Although Kael didn’t say it directly, she pointed out how Barbra’s beauty was her brains. Harry Stradling, the film’s cinematographer, told Life, “No you can’t make Barbra look like Marilyn Monroe. But she does have a beautiful face—because she’s got something in the back of it.”
Gabler’s book is incisive and insightful, though not a full-scale biography. He did not interview her, and has done no primary or original research, instead relying on secondary texts and critical reviews. Nonetheless, Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power is a handsome addition to the Yale Jewish Lives series, and nicely places her in a world of Yiddishkeit, helping us to understand how “plain Barbara” became the global Jewish superstar, “Barbra”.
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