When I came home from the beauty parlor, after my first pixie cut, my father said to me “You look just like Barbra Streisand!” He meant it as a compliment. I broke into a tantrum. I did not want to look like Barbra Streisand. I wanted to look like Paul McCartney.
The pixie cut was meant to “fix” the haircut that I gave myself with ordinary scissors. I wanted a “Beatle mop cut” but mostly I wanted to cut off my hair. I was still hoping that a hair cut could turn me into a boy.
My father adored me. My father adored Streisand. She was a poor, big nosed, Jewish girl from Brooklyn who made it big. She was a star.
I didn’t want to be a star. I didn’t want a girl’s nick-name. I didn’t like girlish diminutives or terms of endearment. I especially hated when my Grandmother called me Ameleh or Feygele; the former the Yiddishification of my birth name, the latter Yiddish for little bird. Years before I changed my name I forbid anyone to call me Ameleh or Feygele. I cringed at the sound. I didn’t want any part of being either.
I didn’t see the movie Yentl (the 1983 musical, which Streisand produced, directed, re-wrote, and starred in). I remember seeing the trailers and thinking that Barbra Streisand looked way too much like Barbra Streisand. She didn’t look like a yeshiva boy to me. Her hair was still in a kind of pixie cut.
The movie Yentl is based on Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story Yentl the Yeshiva Boy. I’ve read the story. Yentl is the rabbi’s daughter, who, after her father’s death, cuts her hair, puts on men’s clothing, leaves town, changes her name to Anshel, and goes to study in a yeshiva. Anshel falls in love with Avigdor, another yeshiva boy (there is a complicated love triangle with Anshel being married off to Avigdor’s ex-fiance), and eventually Anshel confesses to Avigdor that he is a woman, not a man. Instead of living as a woman with Avigdor, Anshel deserts his wife and runs away again, to study in another town. Singer’s ending is unresolved; I was left wondering what Anshel’s life will be like, how many more times will he have to run away. Streisand changed the ending; Anshel reverts back to Yentl and gets on a boat bound for America. The movie makes a feminist statement, but the original story is a transgender tragedy.
Yentl the Yeshiva Boy made me question what I would have done in Anshel’s place. I can’t picture myself going stealth or wearing a yarmulke and a shtreimel.
Many years ago, in a misguided attempt to improve my style, I bought a black wool beret. When Donna saw me wearing it, she laughed, and said “You look just like Fernandel!” I would have preferred a comparison to a more debonair actor, but I am still much happier to be Donna’s Fernandel than her Barbra.
Notes: Fernandel was a French comic actor, starring in films from the 1930’s through the 1960’s. He was famous for his wide horse-teeth smile and his large nose.
The word feygele (little bird) is also slang for fairy or fag. The English words came first; the Yiddish usage is American, not old country. It was probably coined because of the phonetic connection.