The crowd filtered into the reception hall from Pico and up the elevator to the ticketing window from the sublevel parking garage. Many pushed walkers and carried canes. Some women covered their hair with scarves, and more than a few men sported yarmulkes. The sounds of laughter and pleasant reunion filled the air but fell mute before a hushed, reverent sense of anticipation. A great chain of rediscovery was about to kick off inside the Peltz Theater at the Museum of Tolerance. The Cohen Film Collection premiered its pristine, 4K restoration of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street on September 30th at the museum, but it’ll be available to stream on their website through the end of the year.
Hester Street is the American filmmaker Joan Micklin Silver’s intimate epic of Jewish assimilation in 1890s New York. Released in 1975, it marked Silver’s debut as a writer and director of feature films. When Silver passed away at the age of 85, on the last day of 2020, she left behind a voluminous catalog of shorts, features, TV movies, educational films, and undeveloped screenplays that is crying out for deeper engagement. You could see new critical mass began to form around Silver’s work in the years leading up to her death in pieces like Shonni Enelow’s wonderful 2017 career retrospective for Film Comment, and the Cohen Collection’s decision to restore select titles from Silver’s filmography, starting in 2019 with Between the Lines (1977) and A Fish in the Bathtub (1998). But the sheer volume of reconsiderations of her work still being published in the wake of her death signals either that Silver’s position in the firmament of film history is being recalculated, or that the flock of onlookers who ritually gather around the corpse of the latest lost artist is doing what they always do—decrying that this one was special; they were different from the rest.
It’s clear from the solemnity, the force, and the exuberance with which these reconsiderations are being issued, however, that Silver’s work really was different from the rest, and that perhaps we failed in her lifetime to accord that work the distinction it deserves. I can attest from attending the premiere of Hester Street’s restoration—energy that rapturous and participatory is hard to come by at a film screening. The problem is that few people seem to be able to articulate just what Joan Micklin Silver’s work was all about. What thematic pulse did she have her finger on that no one else did? What formal properties arrange themselves into distinct, identifiable patterns when viewed in retrospect, now as part of a complete body of work? Certainly not least, in what ways did she exemplify or exempt herself from the taxonomic groups she was always sorted into—woman filmmaker, Jewish filmmaker, independent filmmaker, filmmaker who got her start in the New York of the seventies?
A verdict has not yet been reached by the apparatus of critics, historians, exhibitors, programmers, and other filmmakers who together, very loosely, write the history of the movies. But that’s appropriate enough for Silver, whose films in their best moments rejoice in and let themselves be guided by, in Enelow’s words, “the improvisational energy of women who are making it up as they go.”
A resistance to assimilation into intelligible structures indeed characterizes Silver’s whole oeuvre, which slinks from intimate portraits of feminine self-revolution (Bernice Bobs Her Hair, 1976), to blood-curdling character studies of shitty, yet sympathetic men (Chilly Scenes of Winter, 1979), from screwball sex comedy (Loverboy, 1989) to brutal documentary realism (In the Presence of Mine Enemies, 1997), and from traditionally scripted, swooning romance (Crossing Delancey, 1988) to torrid after-school special moralizing (Hunger Point, 2003). That ambivalence toward easy identification moves beyond mere thematic exploration to form the driving character logic and narrative architecture of the film that started it all—Hester Street.
Hester Street tells the story of Yankel and Gitl, a husband and wife from the old world who decide to strike it out in America. It’s 1896 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, and life is rough. At the time, the Lower East Side was the most densely populated neighborhood in the world, packed with immigrant families of seven, eight, even nine members sharing single bedroom tenement flats over sweatshops and smelter’s factories. Throughout the second half of the 19th century, Jewish migration from Eurasia shifted eastward, as antisemitism ratcheted up in countries like Poland, Romania, Lithuania, and Russia, leading to large-scale pogroms and the passage of economic and landowning restrictions like Russia’s May Laws. Hester Street thrums with an abiding warmth even in its darker moments, but memories of persecution and the specter of xenophobia loom over the humor, lacing it with a dark and knowing cynicism.
Yankel (Steven Keats) arrives first, in 1893, three years before the film starts. He’s young, dashing, and eager to assimilate: “Give a look at me,” he pompously commands of Bernstein (Mel Howard), a boarder he’s taken in who sleeps on a cot behind a sheet in the kitchen. “Am I a Jew or gentile? Just by what you see. What do you say?” Yankel, who in America goes by Jake, dresses in the modern fashion—sleek trousers, close cropped hair, no yarmulke or shtreimel but a bowler hat, bought for a nickel on the street. He speaks near-fluent English and goes to dance halls, where he flirts with other women (who don’t know he has a wife and child back in Russia). “A Jew is a Jew,” Bernstein nevertheless replies, undercutting more than just Yankel’s pride.
Silver’s own parents fled the terror of turn-of-the-century Russia for America, her mother’s family settling in Kansas City and her father’s in Omaha, where she was born. Nothing in Hester Street is directly autobiographical, but generations of family lore she grew up hearing and loads of research she conducted at libraries and archives across New York infuse the screenplay with a rich specificity that makes the film feel both warmly lived-in and entirely new.
Growing up in Omaha in the 1910s, for example, Silver’s father worked as a street peddler to supplement his family’s meager income. In Hester Street, the boss at the garment shop where Bernstein and Yankel work booms, “I wasn’t no boss in Lithuania. Give a guess what I was.” “A peddler,” Bernstein says, in a flat tone of irritated defeat. “Ah, I told you already!” he replies in mock surprise. “Some country, America. The peddler becomes the boss, and the yeshiva boy sits by the sewing machine!” He turns to Yankel, who smokes a cigarette and happily sews, surrounded by sweating men and women mending on overturned crates. “Some country, huh Jake?” “You betcha!” he replies, in almost unaccented English.
Yankel and Bernstein present divergent attitudes on the American dream: one eager and enthusiastic, running toward it with arms open. The other suspicious, reserved, arms folded and head bent over a Torah, one eye cranked outward, watching people slip left and right through the cracks of upward mobility. Into this split, Hester Street’s true star arrives: Carol Kane. When Yankel’s father back in Russia dies, it is with great reluctance that he sends for his wife Gitl (Kane) and son Yossele (Paul Freedman). Silver signals the upheaval to come with a sly visual metaphor. Yankel pays a visit to Mamie Fein (Dorrie Kavanaugh), the modern, thoroughly assimilated woman with a savings of her own that he’s been courting. She thinks he’s finally going to propose; he instead asks to borrow $25 to buy a child’s bed.
Gitl lands on Ellis Island with Yossele in tow in 1896. She is every bit the innocent bride from the old country—she wears a sheitel, or wig to cover her hair, she is unmade up and dressed in bulky, traditional dresses, and speaks only Yiddish. When Yankel takes Yossele out onto Hester Street for the first time, Gitl sprinkles salt in his little coat pockets—”to keep the evil eye away.” And when Yankel cuts off Yossele’s payess, or earlocks, she screams in horror, as if it’s her son’s heart he’s cutting out. Yankel constantly expresses resentment over Gitl’s inability to immediately shed her heritage and customs. “Look at you, and look at me!” he screams, in front of Bernstein, who bows his head in shame. Yet when Gitl enlists the help of Mrs. Kavarsky (a young, vibrant Doris Roberts) to style her hair naturally and dress her in modern clothes, Yankel flies into a rage and attacks his wife, punishing her for his own guilt over assimilating.
Hester Street was adapted from Abraham Cahan’s Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, published the same year the film is set—1896. Cahan’s novella focuses on the Yankel character (called Yekl in the text), exploring the way he embodied the dilemma of his era’s Jewish man: ship out ahead of your family to the new world to make the money to bring them over, but by the time they come you’ve so thoroughly Americanized you can’t bear to be with them. Historians like Annie Pollard and Daniel Soyer have written about the burden these patterns heaved onto the shoulders of Jewish women. The leading Yiddish-language newspaper of the time, for example, the Jewish Daily Forward (founded in 1897 by Cahan), ran a regular column called “Gallery of Missing Husbands,” where women could post pleas for their men to return home to their families.
This is the focus Silver locks into, shifting the protagonist from Yankel to Gitl part way through the film, and depicting the assault assimilation committed on the Jewish family from the very beginning. In one of the film’s opening scenes, Yankel encounters a freshly arrived Russian Jew looking for his cousin. “He’ll soon find out,” Yankel laughs, “that in America there’s no such thing as relatives.”
In the tradition of all great women’s pictures, the totality of action boils down to a single choice that Gitl must make: leave, or stay. And as Jeanine Basigner, the great historian of the genre has written, these choices often place women in “a no-win situation in which the choice is, in some fundamental way, always wrong.” If Gitl stays with Yankel her son keeps his father, but she herself consents to a life marked by treachery and promises broken. If she leaves and say, gets together with Bernstein, whose ability to both navigate the outside world and remain faithful to tradition she admires, she secures a more stable father figure for Yossele, but significantly downgrades her own economic prospects.
The choice that Gitl ultimately makes is astonishing, capturing a woman in a glorious, unfinished state of transformation, from meek to bold and from object to subject. Gitl easily earns her place in the pantheon of feminist heroines from cinema’s revolutionary period, alongside Barbara Loden’s Wanda in Wanda and Jane Fonda’s Bree in Klute. Carol Kane earned an Academy Award nomination for performance, and Silver’s screenplay got a nomination from the Writer’s Guild—not bad for an independent debut made by a woman filmmaker in an era where her kind were routinely dismissed as “one more problem we don’t need.” Hester Street, quite simply, is a triumph. If you still haven’t seen any of Silver’s films, do yourself the favor of starting at her remarkable beginning.