Streisand as Mantra: Glee and the Musical Jewish Question

Curator's Note

Just when all hope seemed to be lost after Dakota Stanley ripped into the non-Cheerio leads of New Directions because of their looks (Finn was too tall, Artie was in a chair, Rachel needed a nose job), Rachel clicked her heels and shouted Glee’s official mantra at the top of her Les Miz trained stage lungs: “Barbra Streisand!” Faster than Dorothy was zipped to Oz, New Directions remembered that their difference is their strength: Mercedes invoked J-Lo’s insurable behind, Artie conjured Curtis Mayfield’s wheelchair hits, and Rachel, well, Rachel will always have Barbra, who, she told her team, owes her career to not getting a nose job. 

Rolling Stone may have declared Glee the “Gayest. Show. Ever.” but by the time this third episode hit the screen, it was pretty clear that Glee might also be shaping up to be the Jewiest. Show. Ever. This high school glee club in Ohio might be miles from Broadway but it’s got Broadway in its heart, an entire tradition that is itself unimaginable outside of gay and Jewish histories and sensibilities. Which is not to say that Glee wears its Jewishness on its sleeve—actually, more like, under a snug cardigan. Asian Tina is actually Tina Cohen-Chang (played by South Korea born, Long Island adopted and raised Jenna Ushkowitz), Artie might be best known for his wheelchair but his character’s name is Artie Abrams, and behind the goyishe princess Quinn Fabray is bat mitzvah girl Dianna Agron. The show’s most out Jews, of course, are Noah “Puck” Puckerman and Rachel Berry, who meet Semitic cute in episode 8 when Puck serenades her—a “hot Jew” with a gleaming Star of David on her chest--with Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline.”

But because Puck is a Jew who happens to be in glee club and not a card-carrying Broadway Jew like Rachel (played by Lea Michele, a former stage daughter of Tevye who is half-Jewish), he didn’t know what she knows in her bones: Neil is great, but nothing beats Barbra. Which is why when it’s time for New Directions to figure out a way to win Sectionals in the season finale, it’s Barbra who, once again, comes to the rescue (the Rolling Stones might get the last word, but they can only speak because Barbra allowed it). Rachel belts Funny Girl’s “Don’t Rain On My Parade” (“Hey Mr. Arnstein” never sounded so good) and she channels a century’s worth of Jewish funny girls—from Fanny Brice to Barbra— in order to bring the rest of the glee club, now all honorary Streisands, to the stage where they keep singing proudly from the site of their difference.






I've been waiting with baited breath, Josh, to hear what you might have to say about the show's playfulness with its on-and-offscreen Jewishness, especially after the Puck and Rachel romance, and after Rachel/Lea perfectly channeled Barbra not only vocally, but as icon. I think there are many connections to be drawn between the Broadway arc that interests me and the (interwoven) Jewish arc (no Old Testament puns intended) that interests you, not only from a historical perspective, but within different frameworks of intersubjective desire.

Barbra is the kind of diva even stoic southerners with PTSD can't resist (case in point, Nick Nolte's character, Tom Wingo from The Prince of Tides, whose infamous Barbra-inspired mantra I referenced above). She is the funny girl who "isn't pretty" but still gets what she wants because she's so talented. Barbra as icon taps into this core adolescent female (and I'd also like to add, queer) fantasy--of being adored for your talent and not your looks--which resonates so powerfully with Glee's storylines. Sure, there's bound to be suffering, alienation and lots of Slurpee facials on the road to that success. And one of the most moving aspects of the scene of Rachel's emergence at Sectionals is that she finally finds a receptive audience for the gifts cultivated through her regimes of freakishness: of all the meticulousness she demands from her self and others, of all the hours spent making Myspace videos singing "On My Own," practicing tap, finding her good side in the mirror--in short, of all those hours spent learning how to become a diva. I could go on and on about Barbra, Broadway, and about how she opens so many affective channels for queer discovery and sexuality on the show. But I've already said much of that elsewhere. Barbra has been a locus for my difference (sexual, ethnic, geographic) for many years, and I'm happy to see Lea Michele bring some of that magic to the small screen.


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