How Barbra Streisand's Jewishness Helped Catapult Her to Superstardom

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Barbra Streisand preforms at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the Las Vegas Strip. Friday, Nov. 2, 2012.
Barbra Streisand preforms at the MGM Grand Garden Arena on the Las Vegas Strip, Nov. 2, 2012.Credit: Glenn Pinkerton/AP

“Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power,” by Neal Gabler, Yale University Press, 296 pp., $25

When I was a 14-year-old aspiring singer-actor-dancer who didn’t yet know that he was gay, I was desperate for a nose job. I feared that my extra-large, Jewish schnoz would hinder my chances in show business. None of the objections from my family (“You’re handsome just the way you are!” “You’ll grow into your nose!”) held sway until my mother landed on an inspired rationale: “Barbra never got a nose job because she knew it might ruin her voice.”

That did it. If Barbra (we were on a first-name basis in our house) hadn’t fixed her nose because she feared altering her voice — that voice! — who was I to go under the knife?

A video of Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love."Credit: A video of Barbra Streisand's "Woman in Love."

Only now, three decades later, did I discover that that wasn’t the reason Barbra (Streisand – if you haven’t figured it out by now) kept her G-d-given honker intact. As I learned from Neal Gabler’s entertaining new book, “Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity and Power,” she avoided rhinoplasty because, as she told The New York Times in the first article the paper ever published about her, in 1964, “I’m afraid of the pain.”

Streisand had yet to embrace her Semitic profile as her Samson’s hair – the source of her power. “Then there are people who tell me I’m beautiful this way,” she continued. “Well, they’re wrong. Beautiful I’m not, and never will be.”

Looking back at that Times article about Streisand — then just 22 and taking Broadway by storm as Miss Marmelstein in her first musical, “I Can Get It for You Wholesale” — offers a glimpse of what juicy fun it must have been to research this book. Gabler didn’t even try to land an interview with the famously press-shy superstar because he set out to write a “book-length essay” on her cultural impact rather than a full-on biography.

Barbra Streisand poses with her Oscar for her role in 'Funny Girl' in this April 14, 1969 file photo.Credit: AP

It’s a reasonable decision considering the plethora of bios already out there, and who could blame Gabler when the available material – a shelf-full of previously published, largely unauthorized biographies and a slew of early magazine profiles — is so rich? To wit: “Well, here I am with a big show, and I’ll probably get bored doing it after awhile,” Streisand told Times writer Joanne Stang. “Doing it again and again, the challenge wears off. Anyway it’s nice while it lasts. I always knew I hadda be famous and rich – the best. I knew I couldn’t live just being medium.”

Indeed, in her five-decade career, Streisand has never done anything “medium.” The force of Streisand’s talent and willpower is what propelled her to iconic cultural status despite — and because of — her undeniable Jewishness.

Gabler’s book is about how an ugly, comedic singer nosed her way into Hollywood, turned into a sexpot who posed for the cover of Playboy and eventually became a controlling film director and powerhouse political fundraiser. Or, perhaps I should say: How a meiskeit comedic singer nosed her way into Hollywood, turned into a Jewess sex pot who posed for the cover of Playboy and eventually became a controlling bitch film director and powerhouse liberal-commie-Jew fundraiser.

Not only can Streisand stand in for American culture’s mixed feelings — to put it mildly — about Jews in general and Jewish women in particular, she helped forge them. Streisand’s fifth album and first television special was called “My Name is Barbra” (she dropped the extra “a” in her name at 18, “to be unique.”) Gabler contends that the show’s title was her way of asserting herself as a woman who had overcome the doubters.

'Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power,' by Neil Gabler (Christina Gabler/Yale University Press).Credit: JTA

“She had become a symbol of power, and she would remain that way for the rest of her career, even as charges that she was ‘difficult’ kept being hurled at her.” He goes on, “Of course she was difficult. She could afford to be difficult. Her fans loved her even more because she was difficult. The girl who had once dreamed vicariously through movie stars was becoming a vicarious vessel herself, but it wasn’t glamour or beauty or sex appeal that she provided. It was the power of the formerly abused now ascendant. Streisand was their revenge.”

Barely veiled anti-Semitism

Starting with “Funny Girl” (1968), Streisand took on acting roles that paralleled her own struggles as a less-than-beautiful Jewess who wins the heart of a handsome, usually goyische man through sheer drive and talent. Ultimately, she proves to be “too much” for those lovers to contend with and, by the end, she is alone. But, as the fantasy goes, she is unbroken.

The pinnacle of this is “The Way We Were” (1973), in which Hubbell (Robert Redford) has an affair with his friend’s beautiful wife not because of her beauty but because she doesn’t demand the best of him — as his wife Katie (Streisand) does.

In the eyes of critics, Streisand went from ugly to beautiful and underdog to egomaniac over the course of just a couple of years. By the time “A Star Is Born” came out in 1976, reports of the remake’s troubled birth had become inextricably entangled with the gossip about her relationship with hairdresser-turned-producer Jon Peters, fueling a cultural backlash against our heroine.

“Oh, for the gift of Rostand’s Cyrano,” wrote critic John Simon in The National Review, “to evoke the vastness of that nose alone as it cleaves the giant screen from east to west, bisects it from north to south. It zigzags across the horizon like a bolt of fleshy lightning; it towers like a ziggurat of meat.” And that’s before he even addressed her acting: “Streisand’s notion of acting is to bulldoze her way from one end of a line to the other.”

A video of Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade."Credit: A video of Barbra Streisand's "Don't Rain on My Parade."

Simon’s barely veiled anti-Semitism was evident in many of his reviews of Streisand’s films, starting as early as 1972’s “Up the Sandbox,” in which he enumerated pretty much every despicable thing one might say about Jewish women and aimed his disgust at their exemplar: “Miss Streisand is the shrewd, aggressive shrew, dominating to the point of sadism, blithely unaware of her ugliness or bullying everyone into accepting it as beauty.”

Gabler cites another biographer who claimed that Fanny Brice’s own daughter said Streisand could not portray her mother (in “Funny Girl”) because the star looked and acted “too Jewish.”

These extreme reactions Streisand elicited bring to mind the venom directed at Jewish and non-Jewish women who threaten cultural norms today, such as Lena Dunham and Hillary Clinton. Gabler makes no mention of the latter, but he does devote some particularly overwrought psychologizing to Streisand’s friendship with her “kindred political spirit” Bill Clinton: “Like Streisand, Clinton never knew his father, who had died before Bill was born, and he was subject to many of the same psychological deficits as Streisand was; and, like Streisand, he also had an abusive stepfather, which made him subject to many of the same compensations as Streisand was, especially the overdrive. They were both wounded overstrivers.”

By restricting his research to what’s already been written about his subject, Gabler at times revels in easy, tabloid-level gossip that only feeds the negative images of Streisand — as in his telling of her relationships with famous costars who fell in love with her only to wind up feeling emasculated – a list that includes Elliot Gould, Omar Sharif and Sydney Chaplin. Unfortunately, Gabler seems less interested in gleaning new insights about Babs than rehashing old ones. “The bulldozer bulldozed her way into Manhattan,” is how he opens Chapter 2, predictably titled, “Chutzpah.”

Omar Sharif and Barbra Streisand.Credit: Photo by Moviestore Collection/REX

Jewish mothers and sons

Still, Gabler weaves a compelling narrative that plays like a counterpoint to his 1988 book, “An Empire of their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood,” which chronicled how a group of Jewish men escaped persecution in the European ghettos of their birth and migrated west to found the big movie studios. According to Gabler, they were so self-conscious of their Jewish heritage, and so intent on assimilating into mainstream society, that they crafted a celluloid “American Dream” – a fantasy of an idealized United States that, paradoxically, did not include Jews. Twenty-eight years later, Gabler presents the renegade Jew’s response to that stifling fiction.

It’s not hard to imagine why, in the last 25 years, Streisand has retreated to her cloistered world along the beaches of Malibu, California, emerging only for a handful of recent movies and tours, and the occasional big-ticket fundraiser for Democratic politicians and other causes, such as women’s health and Israel.

After spending 200 pages on the 1970s and ’80s, Gabler jams the last 25 years into the final two chapters. Since he relies so heavily on previously published interviews with his subject, Gabler had little material to work with. So he breezes through Streisand’s work on such recent movies as “Meet the Fockers” and her Brooklyn Home tour, both missed opportunities to mine some new material: In the 2012 movie "The Guilt Trip," she and her son (played by Seth Rogen) schlep cross-country together; in her concert, she and her real-life son, Jason Gould, dueted on “How Deep is the Ocean” after a bizarrely romantic video ode to their relationship. Jewish mothers and their sons – now that’s a topic to explore!

Streisand at the Tony Awards last month. The force of her talent and willpower propelled her to iconic status despite — and because of — her undeniable Jewishness. Credit: Lucas Jackson/Reuters

My mother and I still listen to Barbra together. And, as my brother jokingly predicted, I did eventually “grow into my nose.” The growth was as much emotional as physical. I came to embrace the off-kilter beauty of my Semitic profile as I came into my own as a gay man, inspired in part by the strength of one wildly talented Jewish woman who figured out how to turn her deepest flaws into her greatest strengths.

Ari Karpel is a journalist living in Los Angeles. His writing has appeared in such publications as The New York Times, Fast Company and Entertainment Weekly.

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