[Film Review] Hester Street (1975)

Hester Street poster

Title: Hester Street
Year: 1975
Country: USA
Language: Yiddish, English
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director/Writer: Joan Micklin Silver
based on the novel YEKL: A TALE OF THE NEW YORK GHETTO by Abraham Cahan
Music: William Bolcom
Cinematography: Kenneth Van Sickle
Steven Keats
Carol Kane
Dorre Kavanaugh
Mel Howard
Doris Roberts
Paul Freedman
Stephen Strimpell
Martin Garner
Lin Shaye
Philip Sterling
Rating: 7.6/10

Joan Micklin Silver is an unheralded, enterprising US indie film-making, a pathfinder for women daring to break the glass-ceiling in the probably most sexist post in the film industry. Her debut feature, produced by her late husband Raphael D. Silver, is based on Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella, an exclusively Jewish tale about immigrants who come to Lower East Side of NYC, and their acclimatization of a new life in the land of hope, where the collisions of culture, religion and moral codes escalate concomitantly.

Jake (Keats), whose yiddish name is Yankle, is a young Ashkenazi Jew from Russia, assimilates himself to the American lifestyle quite smoothly, staying in a tiny room on the titular street in Manhattan and earning his living as a seamster, he hooks up with a single dancer Mamie (Kavanaugh), who is also a Jewish immigrant, in a dancing ball during the opening sequences, where the vintage tactility honed up amazingly by Black-and-White graininess and yesteryear finesse, instantly charms and attracts viewers as a comedy skit from the silent era.

Jake is rakish, all spruced up, he is determined to erase his ethnic traces and aims to be a real Yankee, proudly. Through his impertinent jokes about a greenhorn, Silver seems to inform us, he is not a character we should show a certain amount of appreciation. Steven Keats comes into his own to characterize a stomach-churning impression defies any sympathy.

Jake’s carefree bachelor days are over once his wife Gitl (Kane, who was Oscar-nominated for her brilliant caliber in seething intensity trapped inside a serene mound, and it is one of the most inspiring nominations accredited to the often publicity-steered Academy) arrives with their son Yossele (Freedman), whose name is changed to Joey under his insistence. In order to provide a place for the family reunion, Jake borrows Mamie’s savings with an unwittingly false promise, and takes his co-worker, a bookish bachelor Mr. Bernstein (Howard) as a room to split the expense.

Gitl is a beautiful, unassuming and sensible girl, in everyone’s eyes, she is the perfect wife should be cherished by her husband, especially to the neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (the late Doris Roberts, thrust by her spitfire probity), her stalwart protector. But not for Jake, Gitl represents everything he is eager to jettison, their conjugal bond is flimsy with Mamie hovers around under the pretext of collecting her money. It always takes two to tango, at this step, if Mamie still wants Jake, and is willing to help him get out of the marriage, what else can we say? They truly deserve each other.

On the other hand, Gitl and Mr. Bernstein finds some kindred spirits under the aegis of Silver’s tender characterization confined in their cramped apartment. The third act can be captioned as “a divorce: Jewish style”, improbably farcical thanks to the committed recreation of the scenario. Don’t expect Gitl to relent under the influence of sentimentality or for the old time’s sake, she might be a shrinking violet but never stupid, Jake is good-for-nothing, but at least, he has the knack to provide a handsome alimony for jilting his family.

HESTER STREET superbly overreaches its ethnographic demography and it is not merely a film for Jews only as it has been merchandised since its self-sustained distribution, in the eyes of a local Chinese who has never been to America or familiar with Jewish culture, the film enchants, seduces and competently relishes in a woman’s self-reliant awakening in a foreign land, moreover, it teaches an edifying lesson about how important to preserve one’s own distinctive traits without becoming homogeneous. Surely, it is a humdinger of a greenhorn’s debut enterprise, where sex is irrelevant.

Hester Street 1975


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