Today I had the fortune of stumbling upon most of this wonderful film from 1975. A black and white picture, mostly spoken in Yiddish (with subtitles), Hester Street is about one immigrant couple’s struggles and eventual demise as they adapt to life in New York City in 1896.
Carol Kane is startlingly brilliant as Gitl, the wife of Jake – who is obsessed with being American, despite his having been born in Russia. With his fervent devotion to all things Yankee, and his lack of respect for the sanctity of marriage (that’s putting it lightly) their relationship quickly dissolves, despite their eternal connection – their son Joey.
Gitl’s struggle to not only understand English, but the behavior and desires of her husband, is fascinating. Though rather small in physical presence, she proves mighty when it comes to her negotiation skills, using her deadpan expression in dealing with a divorce lawyer. Yes a divorce at the turn of the 20th century! The actual divorce ceremony, presided over by a rabbi, really surprised me. I would not have fathomed that people could divorce so easily during that time, especially not a couple of Russian Jewish immigrants.
Gitl seems frail and perhaps too meek initially to be able to survive without unfaithful Jake, but she learns English and, perhaps with the help of some friends, gathers the chutzpah to not only see the divorce through, but change her appearance (ditches her wig and adopts more fashionable “American” clothes). The best part is when she boldly suggests marriage to another man – Bernstein – the pious and kindly man who teaches the Torah to Joey, and consistently demonstrates his goodness, naturally, providing quite the contrast to Jake.
It presented quite a powerful feminist statement for a story set in that era, but maybe that is because it was filmed in 1975. Hester Street was based on Abraham Cahan‘s 1896 novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto and was adapted and directed by Joan Micklin Silver.
Here’s the one clip I could find on YouTube – Jake with his mistress and friends, mocking a fresh immigrant – Shloyme Noversky…