Hester Street (Joan Micklin Silver, 1975)
Eastern European émigré Yankle (though he now prefers ‘Jake’, thank you very much), having eagerly embraced American values and mores (including jumping into lots of affairs, with the most current being with a dancer Mamie played by Doris Roberts who has her eyes on marriage with him) finds himself deeply uncomfortable with his newly arrived young wife Gitl (Carol Kane), with son Yossele in tow, who struggles to let go of her coveted Jewish traditions and values.
Shot in evocative black & white with much of the dialogue in Yiddish subtitled into English, Hester Street may not be riveting drama, but it certainly provides a captivating portrait of a struggling yet determined immigrant community on the Lower East Side of Manhattan at the turn of the century. I can’t say I have any idea if it’s accurate (with the Jewish characters’ mannerisms and voice inflections constantly reminding me of Mel Brooks doing an old Jewish man routine), but the film certainly manages to create a world of outsiders trying to make ends meet in a New World as well, as figure out how to dance with that enticingly seductive and seemingly tradition-free world just off Hester Street.
Kane, as the dutiful Gitl quietly suffering under selfish blow-hard Yankle (played by Steven Keats), a naïve woman who ever so slowly begins to grow up, as well as finding herself quietly drawn to Bernstein (Mel Howard), the introverted orthodox Jew they share their small tenement space with, who spends much of his time buried in religious texts (and acting more like a father to Yossele than his real father), may play the part with less overt quirkiness and eccentricity than she’s usually known for (to see her dive full-blown into maniacal territory, head on over to the truly bizarre The Mafu Cage which also played in this ambitious all-female director series, but more on that 1978 shining oddity in a later post), she remains a fascinating actor nonetheless, managing to quietly capture the growth of this character from subservient and meek to empowered and wilful (assimilating, yet still holding on to her identity). Along with her more celebrated ‘method’ counterparts of that era (Keaton, Pacino and the like), Kane was definitely one of the great cinematic thespian voices to emerge from the 70’s.
Director Silver (who, along with a lot of the female filmmakers in this series, I knew little about as they often didn’t get too many chances to develop) does a confident job capturing the moments – both dramatically large (such as Yankle flying into a rage over Gitl trying to seduce him while wearing traditional garb) and quietly humorous (such as the later one of a more confident Gitl making gentle overtures towards the very nervous Bernstein). Along with the wonderful Kane, whose performance anchors the film, the other thesps do really nice work manifesting their roles.
While I’m certainly not against the notion of American capitalism as being amoral (represented by the loose values of Yankle and Mamie), I was a bit concerned that the film’s message was going to adhere to a notion of a strict religious perspective as being the way to go. Fortunately, the film’s ending (while still providing a movie-friendly comeuppance) manages to end, with where our characters end up, on a culturally ‘open’ note; calling not for total assimilation, nor for fundamentalism, but for somewhere in-between.
While not an intense film, Hester Street is an admirable evocation of a period and a place. It may not blow us away, yet it remains an intriguing and thoughtful portrait nonetheless and well worth a visit.