I don’t know why I thought that I.B. Singer died before the 20th century. Maybe I was mixing up the exotic, Eastern European ghetto, pre-indoor-bathroom locales of his stories with the land he actually lived in, the America to which he immigrated in the year (uh, quick…consult our I.B. Singer biography to pretend I know what I’m talking about…) 1935 — smack in the middle of the New Deal and well after cars and indoor plumbing were invented.
One other major happening of the 20th century that Singer lived at the same time as: Barbra.
Yentl was originally a 1962 short story entitled “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” written by Mr. Singer. Upon publication, it was immediately snatched up in a bidding war — as this timeline depicts — with the winner being one Ms. Barbra Streisand, who by then was already a recording star. In the intervening time between the purchase of the script and the film’s release, Singer was commissioned to write a screenplay. He ended up with a 120-page, 2-hour work that he called “a very long short story”…which was deemed unusable by Hollywood. (Incidentally, one other thing that happened between Ms. Streisand’s purchase of the rights and the film’s debut: the release of her record “A Christmas Album,” on which Barbra sings “Silent Night,” the Lord’s Prayer, and “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”)
It wasn’t until years later, in 1984, that Singer interviewed himself in the pages of the New York Times.
While still attempting to maintain a noble bearing (“I did not think that Miss Streisand was at her best in the part of Yentl….She got much, perhaps too much advice and information from various rabbis, but rabbis cannot replace a director”), Singer systematically takes down the Queen of Pop, aspect by aspect, until the film version of his book is a smoking pile of charred ash on a soundstage whose only resemblance to the shtetls of old is that they were both completely eviscerated.
My favorite part comes when Singer asks himself if Barbra’s Broadway sensibility at all resembled the character of Yentl’s musical tastes:
Q: Did you enjoy the singing?
A: Music and singing are not my fields. I did not find anything in her singing which reminded me of the songs in the studyhouses and Hasidic shtibls, which were a part of my youth and environment. As a matter of fact, I never imagined Yentl singing songs. The passion for learning and the passion for singing are not much related in my mind. There is almost no singing in my works. One thing is sure: there was too much singing in this movie, much too much. It came from all sides. As far as I can see the singing did nothing to bring out Yentl’s individuality and to enlighten her conduct. The very opposite, I had a feeling that her songs drowned the action. My story, ”Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” was in no way material for a musical, certainly not the kind Miss Streisand has given us. Let me say: one cannot cover up with songs the shortcomings of the direction and acting.