Mar ’09 Spotlight

Barbra Streisand’s Yentl has just been rereleased in a brand new 25th anniversary DVD box set. Although much maligned over the years, Yentl is a great and heartfelt work of cinematic art, and I urge you all to watch it again with fresh eyes in celebration of Women’s History Month.

The narrative is based on a novella by Isaac Bashevis Singer, but while Singer tells his tale from the outside (as a man reflecting on a troubled sister whose emotional life was always a mystery to him), Barbra Streisand uses her renown voice as a vehicle for self-exploration, taking us deep into the heart and soul of a Jewish woman on the edge of modernity.

In November 2007, I had the honor of interviewing Alan and Marilyn Bergman when they came to town as guests of the Chicago Humanities Festival. The Bergmans won an Oscar for their Yentl lyrics in 1984 (which they shared with composer Michel Legrand), and we spent our entire hour together talking about Yentl.

“Alan and I had read the story when it first came out,” Marilyn told me. “And we had remarked to each other that it would be wonderful material to musicalize because of the inner life of this character Yentl.”

“Barbra Streisand called us one night. She said, ‘I’m never going to get the screenplay I want. I’m tired of trying.’ At the end of that conversation, we said to her, ‘Have you ever thought of it as a musical?’ She said, ‘No, of course not.’ So that was the end of the conversation. Five minutes later she called back and said, ‘How would you do this as a musical?’ So we told her that we had long felt that it was kind of an inner monologue. Then she went to the studio, the studio that had been rejecting the idea of Yentl as a film, and when they heard she was going to sing, it was a whole different story.”

Alan told me, “She understood it exactly…” and Marilyn finished his sentence, “Oh instantly, of course she did. Yentl has nobody else to tell of this whole life that she’s living once she puts on a man’s clothing. She is disguising the most essential part of herself, her sexuality! So anyway, then the studio gave it the green light.”

And the rest, as they say, is history. For more from my interview with Alan and Marilyn Bergman, visit


DePaul University professor Achy Obejas has just published a new novel called Ruins, and she’s kicking off her nationwide Women’s History Month book tour on Thursday evening, March 5, at Chicago’s Women and Children First bookstore on Clark and Foster in Andersonville.

Like her first novel Days of Awe, Ruins explores life in Castro’s Cuba. This time, however, her protagonist is someone who chose to stay rather than flee, as her own parents did, in the early ‘60s. Ruins is set in the summer of 1994, a few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The economy is in shambles, and old friends are watching in turmoil as their children make plans to escape to Florida. The plot has a strong Jewish element, but I don’t want to spoil your fun by giving too much away.

For details about the reading on March 5, visit

For background, read the interview with Obejas posted on the National Yiddish Book Center website:


Spertus Museum has a new exhibit, “A Force for Change: African American Art and the Julius Rosenwald Fund,” featuring more than sixty pieces by twenty-four Rosenwald fellows. Rosenwald, legendary CEO of Sears Roebuck, is best known today as an advocate for African-American education. However, his wife “Gussie” also used their considerable wealth in support of her own causes (including Woman’s Suffrage), so I see her influence as well as his in the high percentage of women included in the Spertus exhibit.

For example, sculptor Augusta Savage was the first visual artist to receive a Rosenwald Fellowship, and one of Rose Piper’s paintings, Slow Down Freight Train, graces the cover of the catalogue. Archival footage of performances by dancers Katherine Dunham and Pearl Primus is provided on video, and even though there are no samples of their work included in the exhibit itself, photos of singer Marian Anderson and writer Zora Neale Hurston are prominently displayed in the catalogue.

The exhibit runs through Sunday, August 16, so I recommend you spend one day at Spertus celebrating Women’s History Month this month, and then go a second time to see it all again in context after you’ve read the essays in the catalogue. For information, visit


French playwright Yasmina Reza is a child of exile. Her father is an Iranian Jew and her mother is a Hungarian Jew. Her award-winning play Art may not have any overt Jewish elements, but as I watched from my seat at Steppenwolf Theatre last month, all the dialogue resonated.

The conflict begins when “Serge” buys a painting by a prominent modern artist. His buddy “Marc” is appalled: how could Serge have spent so much for so little? Before they know it, friendly banter is spiraling out of control.

Take the painting off the stage, and you can hear echoes of other arguments: Jews perpetually choosing between the old and the new; some deciding to venture forth into the unknown while others hold fast to the familiar. For days afterwards, I found myself thinking about the play’s final moments. Does natural selection favor those Jews who can create meaning from the slightest hint of possibility?

The Steppenwolf production runs through Sunday, June 7. For tickets, call the Box Office (312) 335-1650 or visit


Jan Lisa Huttner (Tzivi) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples ( Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Visit for online copies of prior columns.

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