Barbra Streisand is all about elevating the stories of iconic Jewish women — fictional and real.
The “Yentl” director and original “Funny Girl” recently received an award created in honor of fellow Brooklyn native Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She’s working on a series about Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, and this August, you’ll be able to see her in a documentary about another New York Jewish icon: Bella Abzug.
“Bella!” which is coming out in select theaters on August 18, is directed by Jeff L. Lieberman, who directed “The Amazing Nina Simone” and “Re-emerging: The Jews of Nigeria.” It not only features Streisand, but also Gloria Steinem, Renee Taylor, Lily Tomlin, Shirley McClain and Hillary Clinton, to name but a few.
In the trailer, which was shared by Streisand’s team on her official YouTube, Clinton says that the New York politician’s run for congress back in 1970 was a “unicorn event.”
“She was blunt, she was candid, she was poking the beast,” Clinton recalls.
Abzug ran with the slogan that many later used when Clinton was running for the White House in 2016: “This woman’s place is in the House — the House of Representatives.”
Streisand, who was then in her late 20s, just coming off of the release of “Funny Girl” two years prior, felt compelled to support Abzug during her run for office. “I really wanted her to get elected because we desperately needed her voice,” Streisand said, recalling how she’d join her on a truck to campaign. Streisand also participated in a concert called “Broadway For Bella,” along with Joel Grey and other Broadway stars.
Abzug, who was born in New York City in 1920, earned the nickname “Battling Bella” for her fierce work on behalf of her constituents and in her fight for human rights. After winning that 1970 election, she became one of the first politicians to advocate for gay rights, sponsoring the first Federal bill to support gay and lesbian civil rights. Famously, Abzug and her cohorts attempted to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), a process that recently got the spotlight in the excellent series “Mrs. America,” where she was played by Margo Martingale.
Originally a lawyer who practiced labor law, Abzug’s career in congress between 1971 and 1977 was prolific, and she continued her advocacy work for women’s rights in the U.S. and around the world until her death in 1998. She co-founded the Women’s Environment and Development Organization in 1991. She inspired a generation of activists and politicians.
The daughter of Jewish immigrants, Abzug said that it was her time spent in synagogue, sitting in the women’s balcony, that first informed her feminism and her desire to fight for women’s equality. She defiantly said Kaddish for her father at synagogue after his death, even though her Orthodox congregation forbid women from doing so.
Abzug was also iconic because of her great hats, which she refused to take off on the floor of the senate and said she felt “naked” without. Watching her outfits in this trailer, I want to be the first to suggest we all have a “Bella Abzug fall” — her fashion sense was simply impeccable.
In the trailer, Steinem recalls that when she walked down the street with Abzug, people would yell, “Give them hell, Bella!”
From her admonishment of Nixon, urging for his impeachment after the Watergate scandal, to her questioning of George H.W. Bush and the CIA towards the end of her political tenure in Washington, you can see the chutzpah and fearlessness she carried into her work.
“I was bold because of Bella,” California representative Maxine Waters confesses in the trailer, and Nancy Pelosi says that Abzug “knew she wasn’t there just for Bella and her generation… she was there to make sure that the doors were open for what came next.”
“Bella was way ahead of the curve, and the world had to catch up,” Streisand says. At a time still fraught for women’s rights in this country, I’m afraid we’re still doing just that.