Barbra Streisand Takes Tel Aviv With a Brilliant Mix of Talent, Humor and Schmaltz

The opportunity to see this icon in such fine form at the age of 71 - funny, touching, and powerful - left her Israeli fans overcome with emotion. In a word, verklempt.

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How many performers can be aptly labeled both 'diva' and 'icon,' manage to dazzle an outdoor stadium packed with 16,000 Israeli fans with their breathtaking talent, while at the same time making their audience feel as if they are sitting with a beloved Jewish aunt over a cup of tea in her living room?

As far as I can tell - there is only one - Barbra Streisand.

Today’s divas are fierce and invulnerable. One can’t imagine Beyonce or Mariah Carey letting their audience know about their often-paralyzing stage fright or mourning the loss of a dear friend like Marvin Hamlisch. Not to mention that neither would be able to sing in Hebrew, quote Rabbi Hillel, sing the Israeli national anthem, HaTikvah, in flawless Hebrew, or sprinkle Yiddishims throughout the evening.

Streisand wears her insecurities and vulnerability on her sleeve, just as she has since her “Funny Girl” days. She knew she was idolized by the audience in front of her and yet you still could feel the effort she made to win them over with her winning combination of schmaltz and humor. The friend who accompanied me said it best: “It’s really simple. She’s just a nice Jewish woman who wants people to like her.”

She didn’t have to worry about this crowd. They loved her even before a perfectly-pitched note came out of her mouth - and every note was, indeed perfect. Bloomfield Stadium is normally packed with loud rambunctious soccer fans, probably never experienced the presence of so many older women, many of whom came with their grown sons and daughters in tow for an intergenerational family outing. Streisand’s famous gay fan base was also out in force, with many same-sex couples of both genders. Spotted in the audience were Israeli celebrities including many singers who can only hope their voices hold up as well over the decade as Streisand’s. Naturally, American and other English-speaking immigrants to Israel, as well as tourists, were out in full force.

With a career like Streisand’s, there aren’t many ‘firsts’ left on the checklist. But this was indeed her first concert in Israel, though she’s visited here before and performed one or two songs live, as she did two days earlier at Shimon Peres’ birthday extravaganza.

She admitted at the outset that she was not used to performing in a stadium but that performing in Israel was “special” and “different” because it represented a “very special connection to my roots and my family.” She joked that the performance with her 60-piece orchestra was the last in what couldn’t be called a “mega-tour” or even a “mini-tour” of Europe. With only five cities, she said, “it’s more like a micro-tour.” Tel Aviv was last on the list after London, Paris, Amsterdam and Cologne - but the city will mark a milestone for Streisand, as Thursday night’s performance was the 99th live concert of her career - and Saturday night’s second show at Bloomfield will be 100.

And then she took the stage herself. Her first outfit was a heavy-looking black and gold caftan. While it was locally appropriate with its Middle Eastern style – it looked like she borrowed it from the wardrobe of one of Israel’s iconic Yemenite singers like the late Shoshana Damari – it was all wrong for Tel Aviv’s hot, humid weather and seemed difficult for her to move around in.

It was a relief to all - probably most of all, to Streisand herself, when she swapped it for a black sequined pantsuit, and later a long red gown with Cleopatra-styled shoulder pads.

Streisand didn’t try to hide her complicated relationship with performing live. At the outset, she acknowledged the teleprompter that projected the lyrics to her songs in front of her. She recalled how in 1967 she forgot the words to three songs in Central Park and the experience was so traumatic that “after that, I didn’t perform live again for 27 years, until they came up with this wonderful invention called the teleprompter, which is my safety net.”

Streisand has so many hits that she knew from the start she wouldn’t be able to sing everyone’s favorites, even in two-and-a-half hours. Instead her repertoire was full of medleys and snippets. She gave her audience a mix of all of the Barbras - the standards Barbra: “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and “Funny Valentine,” Broadway musical Barbra: with a Jules Styne combination of “Roses Turn” that segued into the “Funny Girl” song that everyone wanted to hear - “Don’t Rain on My Parade.” She even offered up 1970’s pop radio Barbra with hit songs that she confessed she hadn’t sung live in decades: “Woman in Love,” her hit duet with the late Donna Summer “Enough is Enough” and “Guilty” (an emotion, she joked, that being Jewish, she and her audience were very familiar with.)

And of course, she served up the Streisand classics that were practically a requirement: “People,” “Evergreen,” “My Man,” and the song that she emotionally dedicated to her late friend, composer Marvin Hamlisch, “The Way We Were.”  

The concert was, to a great extent, a family affair, beginning with childhood photographs of Streisand projected on the screen, in a photo album that traced her from a Brooklyn toddler to her early triumphs on Broadway and in film and television. She dedicated songs to both her mother and her father (“Papa” naturally, from the film “Yentl” which she said she had not performed in 13 years) brought her sister Roslyn Kind and her son Jason Gould, the actor and filmmaker who only recently began a singing career. After she greeted him with a Jewish motherly “Do you feel OK, honey?” she told the audience in an aside in regard to his singing, that, “He’s a late bloomer.” Gould, looked back at his mother and shot back, “Well, you did cast a long shadow.” When he greeted the audience with “Shalom, Aleichem!” she stroked his cheek and pointed out proudly: “He had a Bar Mitzvah!”

Streisand kept up the cabaret-style banter with the stadium audience throughout the performance. When she sipped from her teacup, she raised it to the audience with a “L’chaim!” and then looked up at the audience and said, “don’t worry, it’s only tea.”  In a particularly amusing segment, she answered questions from her fans in the bleachers that had been written on cards, stumbling a bit over the Hebrew names and hometowns of the questioners.

When asked what she thought of Tel Aviv, she said there wasn’t much difference between it and her home base in Malibu. “There’s the sea and there are a lot of Jews.”

Naturally, many of the questions from Israelis dealt with her Jewishness and she said she appreciated the “Jewish emphasis on learning, because learning is the opposite of hate and bigotry.” When asked what Jewish accomplishments she was proudest of she paused and answered “it’s contribution to medicine and whoever invented chicken soup.”

Before singing a song about the environment “Make Our Garden Grow” - in which she was joined by the Tel Aviv Chamber Choir, she said that she had gone back to visit trees she had planted on her visit to Israel in 1984 and had been thrilled to see that they were full-grown. When she brought her sister to the stage, she preceded their duet with a recording of her mother singing - who, she said, had been a talented vocalist but too shy to perform. She looked up at the sky and said “Mom, you just sang at Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv - what a mitzvah!”

Streisand is known for her outspoken liberal politics, but she soft pedaled her messages for the audience who had come to hear her sing, not speechify. In the question and answer period, she was asked what she remembered from her meeting with Golda Meir, and after noting the combination of “intellect and grandmama warmth” she noted that Israel had a female head of state long before the U.S. but “maybe we’ll catch up in 2016,” a subtle shout-out for a presidential run by Hillary Clinton.

The closest she got to mentioning the Middle East conflict was noting that “while cultures may differ, don’t we all want the same things: love, family, and peace?”  

And as she introduced HaTikvah, Streisand noted that the Israeli national anthem's "deeply moving words are a prayer that suggests that as long as the heart within a Jewish soul still yearns, hope is never lost. So tonight on this very special occasion, I sing this with the continued hope that we may learn from with yesterday, live for today, and continue to strive for a better tomorrow."

As funny, touching, and talented as she is, those of us who handed over outrageous sums for a ticket to Streisand’s first Israeli concert ever (this being Barbra, I feel as if I should pronounce the word “EVAH”) filed out of the stadium feeling as if we got our money’s worth. Even the intermission reflected her characteristic mix of humor and sincerity, with a video detailing her contributions to research in the field of women’s heart disease, followed by the recent dance hit by the group Duck Sauce titled “Barbra Streisand” which features several drag queens imitating her.

The opportunity to see this icon in such fine form at the age of 71 - funny, touching, and powerful  - singing the songs that for many make up the soundtrack of their lives - left her Israeli fans - who were excited to be there from the outset - overcome with emotion - in a word, verklempt.

Barbra Streisand performing in Jaffa on June 20, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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