I’ve always had a soft spot for immigration stories, especially considering both sets of my grandparents came to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. By escaping the oppression they faced as Jews, my grandparents traveled to a new world rife with problems of its own. They struggled to fit in and were drawn to communities of other Jewish immigrants.
As such, Hester Street, the late great Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 feature film debut, resonates so much for me. Telling the tale of Gitl (Carol Kane in her Oscar-nominated performance), an Orthodox Jewish woman who in 1896 arrives in Manhattan from Russia with her young son to reunite with her assimilated husband Yankel (Steven Keats), now known as Jake, the film could not be more relevant now, with immigration issues at the forefront of our modern world.
The Cohen Film Collection has released a 4K restoration of this classic where it hopefully will inspire a new generation of fans. Silver, who sadly passed away last year, has rarely been mentioned in the same conversation as the male directors of her era, yet deserves the praise for this film, along with Crossing Delancey, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and more. At a time when very few women had the chance to direct feature films, she proved herself a maverick with her own distinctive voice.
Filmed in black and white with an appropriate simplicity often seen in silent films or Yiddish theater, Hester Street first introduces us to Jake, who works in a sweatshop and carries on an affair with a dancer who possesses the relaxed bluster of a modern American woman. Jake seems happy to have shed his European influences and has his bubble burst when news comes to him of his wife’s impending arrival. He arranges with his neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (a young Doris Roberts) for some furniture and a roommate, Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), to help provide a place for his family.
His first glimpse of Getl and his son tells us everything we need to know. Clearly devout, Gitl wears a traditional wig and speaks Yiddish. Jake seems embarrassed by them, so Americanized is he that he looks at them with a disdain that has seemingly always been a part of the U.S. experience. Afraid and obedient, Gitl clings to her traditions while trying to make a nice home for her husband and son. Kane’s performance, almost silent for most of the running time, remains a work of pure beauty. We can see everything in her eyes as she navigates a difficult, abusive situation and finds her strong, confident voice. A gifted comic actor ever since, this film serves as a reminder of Kane’s great dramatic talent as well.
Hester Street gets able support from its cinematographer, Kenneth Van Sickle, and production designer Stuart Wurtzel, who give us the rich atmosphere of the Lower East Side, from its market stalls to the dingy, barren walls of the tenements. It may feel less grand than the visuals from The Godfather: Part II, but it has a similar nostalgic impact.
Silver packs a lot into her adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella, Yekl, exploring the issues of xenophobia, sexism, spousal abuse, assimilation, and how to assert yourself in a scary new world. All of this gets covered in a deceptively slight, unassuming package.
If I had one quibble, it’s that the restoration is a bit too perfect. The style of this film calls for a little wear and tear, a little grain in its images. The clarity here detracts a bit from the immersive feeling of the original release. Don’t let that stop you, however, from seeking out this gem and honoring the special talents of Carol Kane and Joan Micklin Silver.
By Glenn Gaylord, Senior Film Critic
Hester Street is in select theaters now and is also available on VOD.