Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power by Neal Gabler. (Yale 

Univ. Press, 2016).

Stephen Spielberg: A Life in Films by Molly Haskell. (Yale Univ. Press, 2017)

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My family complains each year at holiday time that I am impossible to buy gifts for. This is true because, usually, if I want something, I purchase it myself. They ask me for lists, but even then, my suggestions are lame. However, this past holiday season, I found something that I really wanted. 

 Just in time for Chanukah, Jewish Lives produced a series about people who have impacted Hollywood and the movie business significantly. The set includes the following titles: Warner Bros: The Making of an American Movie Studio, Steven Spielberg: A Life in Films, Groucho Marx: The Comedy of Existence, Ben Hecht: Fighting Words, Moving Pictures, Stanley Kubrick, American Filmmaker, and Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power. 

Yale University Press has partnered with Jewish Lives, to publish a prizewinning series of biographies designed to explore the many facets of Jewish identity. Their website explains, “Individual volumes illuminate the imprint of Jewish figures upon literature, religion, philosophy, politics, cultural and economic life, and the arts and sciences.” These biographies are not about every detail in the life of the entertainer; rather they are called “interpretive biographies.” Each book is geared to revealing the author’s opinion of how being Jewish influenced the art of the entertainer.

Barbra Streisand: Redefining Beauty, Femininity, and Power Is an engaging book, which defines Streisand as a “cultural icon.” Gabler states, “Most music critics regard her as the greatest popular female vocalist, and the only singer to stand in comparison to Frank Sinatra.” She has influenced hundreds of female singers with both her singing style and stage presence.

But, stardom didn’t come easily to Streisand at all. Taunted by her classmates as a child for her “big beak,” slightly cross-eyed glare, and skinny body, Barbra grew up with a sense of “otherness.” Even her step-father once refused to buy her ice cream, telling her that she was too ugly to deserve such a treat.

A gaping hole in Streisand’s life was the loss of her young father when she was only a year and a half old. Growing up fatherless left a void in her that set her apart from others her age.  The star relates the story of how she loved to sing in the hallway of the apartment building in Brooklyn because it had a great echo system. “I was known as the girl on the street with a good voice. No father, good voice. That was my identity.”

As she began her struggle to make her imprint on the entertainment industry, Barbra did things to get her noticed, like wearing clothes that defied the fashion world. She remained aloof and cool towards her peers. Having been ignored most of her life, Streisand’s defense was to show the rest of the world that she just didn’t care what they thought of her because she was going to have the last laugh. 

Streisand’s struggle to be recognized was what Gabler terms a “Jewish American success story.” Although she was not a religious girl, she knew in her bones that “I am deeply Jewish.” She had the big Jewish nose, which she refused to change, not because she thought such surgery could damage her ability to sing, but because changing her profile would make her cave to the influence of the world definition of beauty. It would mean rejecting her Judaism.

Steven Spielberg did not grow up in a typically Jewish home either. Ambivalent toward his Jewish heritage, his early films are viewed by Haskell as films that did not approach serious themes. Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Jurassic Park, ET, and Close Encounters were blockbuster roller coaster rides. Men are Spielberg’s heroes. Most of the women portrayed in his films are referred to in movie land as “the Shrieking Woman,” starting with Goldie Hawn in Sugarland Express. 

The turning point in Spielberg’s directorial career, according to the author, is when he began to make “adult” films, starting with Schindler’s List, which some critics have dubbed “Spielberg’s Bar Mitzvah.” In interviews given after the film’s release, Spielberg admitted that during the ten years it took him to make the film, he was forced to confront his identity as a Jew. While filming the heroic tale of the Austrian, Schindler, who risked his life to save the Jews who worked for him in his ceramics factory, Spielberg decided to take on a project that he ultimately felt was his destiny. 

In 1994 Spielberg took a three-year hiatus from filmmaking to create the Survivors of the Righteous Person’s Foundation. Using money from the ticket sales of Schindler’s List, as well as generous donations from the Lew Wasserman Foundation, MCA Universal, Time Warner, and NBC, Spielberg sent out a troop of  interviewers who visited more than 50 countries, filming the stories from 53,000 Holocaust survivors. This epic project can be seen in the U.S. Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. 

There can be no doubt that Spielberg will always be remembered as one of the greatest filmmakers and innovators in the history of movie production. However, his most enduring gift to the world is the magnificent work that he did to preserve the horrifying stories of the victims of the Holocaust.

Now I have four more books in this series to read and relish. The two that I have finished and reviewed here present good starting places for discussion in reading groups, or for film aficionados. Next I plan to read the Groucho Marx book. Rest assured, I will let you know my insights in what I expect will be a most fascinating story.