Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Looking Back on “Hester Street” and the talented Joan Micklin Silver

 On the first day of a new year that we hope will bring better times, it was sad to read of the passing of a filmmaker who once showed great promise. Joan Micklin Silver, the barrier-breaking director of seven feature films, died on December 31 of vascular dementia. Her best-received film was doubtless 1988’s Crossing Delancey. It featured Amy Irving as a hip, well-educated escapee from New York’s ultra-ethnic Lower East Side: she finds love, despite herself, with the nice young man who owns the local pickle shop. It was Irving’s then-husband, Steven Spielberg, who made the project happen, after studio bosses had resisted it for being too overtly Jewish. Happily, audiences felt otherwise, falling in love with the story’s ethnic charm and with the essential Bubbe character—she’s the one who calls in a matchmaker to improve her granddaughter’s marital choices—played by a veteran of Yiddish theatre, Reizl Bozyk.

 Silver’s very first film was even more “ethnic,” which is why Hollywood brass (completely ignoring the industry’s historic Jewish roots) unanimously passed on it. It eventually became a family project, with Silver’s husband, real estate developer Raphael Silver, stepping in to finance, produce, and even help with distribution. Yes, I’m talking about Hester Street, a low-budget 1975 gem based on a story called “Yekl,” by Abraham Cahan. Cahan was a fascinating character. His English-language masterwork, 1917’s The Rise of David Levinsky, reflects something of his own journey from Tsarist Russia to New York City. But today he is mainly remembered as the longtime editor of the Yiddish-language Daily Forward. In an ongoing advice column know as “A Bintel Brief” (“A Bundle of Letters”), he helped recent Jewish arrivals from eastern Europe adapt to American life.

  “Yekl,” first published back in 1896, focuses on a recent immigrant, a strapping young fellow, making his way on New York’s Lower East Side. He’s renamed himself Jake, found a job as a presser in a garment factory, and on his free evenings enjoys dances at the local social hall. Though he’s been making time with a vivacious young lady named Mamie, he’s saving up to send for his wife and young son who are still back in the Old Country. When Gitl finally leaves the shtetl to resume her role as Yekl’s spouse, he realizes that she – pious and old-fashioned – can’t hope to measure up to the charmers who’ve learned modern ways in Manhattan. Naturally, the old-world marriage can’t hope to survive, given the temptations of the new.

 Silver brilliantly adapts this material to focus less on Jake and more on Gitl, who quickly discovers that her values and her standards (like the pious insistence on keeping her hair covered with a wig) are no longer respected in her new life. She tries hard to adapt to her husband’s ways, but as a just-off-the-boat “greenhorn” she can’t hope to compete with modernized Jewish women like Mamie. What’s fascinating in Silver’s film is the way Gitl evolves, turning a marital crisis into a success story, without losing her own soul along the way. The film has an ending that’s Silver’s loving tribute to the American Jews who’ve come before her, showing a resilience and a gift for adaptability that have paved their way to success American-style.

 This small black-and-white film introduces us to a Lower East Side that might have been known by our grandparents. Its cast, headed by a luminous Carol Kane, speaks mostly in Yiddish (with subtitles), so their struggles with the English language make perfect sense. Kane was Oscar-nominated, and the film earned an honored place on the National Film Registry.


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