Although Hollywood films including The Fixer (1968) and Fiddler on the Roof (1971) explored the experience of European Jews, Joan Micklin Silver’s debut feature, the independently made Hester Street, was among the first mainstream pictures to explore the experience of Jewish immigrants in America. For that reason alone, the movie is noteworthy, and it was added to the National Film Registry in 2011. Yet instead of being the stuffy museum piece one might expect, Hester Street is a tonally varied movie featuring comedy, drama, romance, and sociopolitical commentary. It’s not the smoothest film, since Silver was still finding her way as a storyteller and since she was hemmed in by a tight budget, but it’s quite rewarding.
Based on a novel from 1896 and set in that year, the movie re-creates the economically challenged milieu of European Jews who relocated to lower Manhattan and formed a tight community in and around Hester Street (which is now part of Chinatown). The film’s lead character is Yankel Bogovnik (Steven Keats), a Russian immigrant so thoroughly Americanized he calls himself Jake and conducts many of his conversations in English. Jake is a smooth-talking striver, even though he’s got a nowhere job in a sweatshop, and he has romantic designs on the beautiful and comparatively well-off Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh). The other figure in Jake’s world at the beginning of the story is Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), a kind-hearted boarder in Jake’s apartment who spends his time consumed in Talmudic study. Although Jake has accepted a significant sum of money from Mamie as a premarital dowry, he failed to tell her that he’s already got a wife and child back in the old country. So, when Jake’s wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and their son arrive on Ellis Island, Jake’s got some explaining to do.
Once this fraught situation is established, Silver explores the complicated ways that Jake and the people in his life try to balance their obligations to traditional Jewish orthodoxy with their aspirations to U.S. modernism. Some of the best scenes feature Gitl emerging from her shell, because when she arrives in America, she’s a mousy foreigner afraid to speak her mind; later, after exposure to progressive ideas, she endeavors to escape a bad situation.
The look of the movie is appropriate and interesting, since Silver shot the picture in hazy black-and-white images that recall turn-of-the-century photographs, and Silver’s tonal missteps are relatively minor. (The montage sequences that evoke silent-cinema comedy, for instance, are an acquired taste.) Keats is hard to take, committing to his character so wholeheartedly that he becomes repulsive, and it takes a bit too long for Kane’s character to find her strength. Still, the last 40 minutes or so of the picture are delicately orchestrated, and Kane’s characterization gains subtle power. No surprise, then, that Kane received an Oscar nomination.
Hester Street: GROOVY