Hester Street: Joan Silver Modestly Impressive Directing Debut Starring Carol Kane in Oscar Nominated Performance

Striking out on her own, Joan Silver began in shorts before making her directorial debut with Hester Street, a modestly shot black-and-white film set on the Lower East Side circa 1896.

Adapted from Abraham Cahan’s story, the movie centers on the assimilation of a Russian-Jewish immigrant to the New World, and the costs and rewards of that process on his life.

Jake (Steven Keats) has been working in a sweatshop for three years when his wife Gitl (Carol Kane) and their son join him. In her absence, Jake has fallen for Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), a down-to-earth dresser who works at a dancing academy, the social center for greenhorn Jews trying to become more American. Jake wants to detach himself from Gitl, a pious waif in drab clothes and Orthodox wig who only speaks Yiddish.

Shy, passive, and superstitious, Gitl evokes a culture in which he was never respected or accepted. Clearly, Silver sides with Gitl, the movie’s emotional center, whereas Jake is portrayed as a fool, abandoning a sensitive woman for Mamie, whose crass gaiety–and large bosom–represent freedom to him.

The film is nostalgic for what Jewish immigrants lost by becoming Americanized, but it doesn’t address what they have gained. Condescending to Jake, who stands for vulgar American materialism, Hester Street fails to demonstrate what the newly obtained freedom meant to semi-literate Jews like Jake, who grew up in a tradition that valued learning above all. Jake escapes not only Russian persecution, but the oppression of his own culture.

Part of the film’ s commercial appeal, as the critic Pauline Kael noted, stems from its class putdown. If Gitl’s docility seems sweet and refined, it’s only because Silver idealizes her. After years of dejection, Gitl learns English and slowly comes into her own. Like a fairytale, at the end, the timid Gitl, betrayed and humiliated, gets a better man and a measure of financlial independence.

The amiable ensemble struggles with their accents and shallow roles. The shyster lawyer, hired by Jake to get a divorce, is a cartoon, and so is the yanta (Doris Roberts), who mutters while lacing Gitl into a corset, “If you want to be an American, you gotta hurt.” Bernstein (Mel Howard), the scholar-boarder who sleeps in the kitchen, is also a type, a kind of hippie scholar.

The movie identifies with Bernstein’s commonsensical wisdom and sarcasm–his old-fashioned attitudes and suspicion of the New World blended neatly with the late 1960s counterculture, still felt in the 1970s, when the movie was released.  This may explain why young viewers embraced the film.

Small and anecdotal, Hester Street lacks deep plot or in-depth characterization, but Silver filters the folkloristic material through feminist attitudes of the 1970s. Her directorial touch is unassured, and her dialogue blunt and repetitive, but the subject matter and restrained style makes for a likable movie, even if many scenes are underwritten and underdramatized.

The black and white cinematography and simple characterization recall Hollywood’s naive movies of the 1930s about the Big City.

As a commentary on the Jewish-American experience–materialism vs. spiritualism–the film assumes the shape of a pedagogic fable.