Assimilation And Aspiration On The Lower East Side



Gett, or get, is the traditional writ of divorce which a husband presents to a wife when ending marriage within the Jewish faith. Prepared by a Rabbi, and formally witnessed by impartial members of the community, the precise handling of the document, passed deliberately from the husband to the wife, frees the woman “to all men” and allows the man to re-marry “even on this day”. (A woman must wait 91 days to remarry, in order to establish paternity if she should then be unknowingly pregnant.)

Just such a gett, which denotes both the ceremony and the carefully written decree, is depicted in the 1974 film Hester Street, the feature debut of director Joan Micklin Silver, who closely adapted the first novel of social and political journalist Abraham Cahan (1860-1951) entitled Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, published in 1896. As shown in the film, set in 1896 among recently arrived Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side, the husband Jake, or Yankel, hands the gett uncertainly to his erstwhile wife Gitl, who accepts tentatively. But the action itself is decisive. Jake will soon be walking newly married to Mamie Fein in one direction up Hester Street, while Gitl and Mr. Bernstein will be strolling hand-in-hand with Gitl and Jake’s son Yossele, now Joey, down the other.

Set to the turn-of-the-century strains of John Philip Sousa’s first-cornetist Herbert C. Clarke, shot in luminous, still photographic-quality black-and-white, and capturing both the cramped interiors of tenement boarding rooms and sweatshops against the bustling exteriors of traffic and commerce, Hester Street opens a deceptively modest, screen-sized window onto the American immigrant experience that is expansive for the sharply-observed detail of its cultural and historical specificity. Recently restored in 4K resolution, Hester Street newly offers its intimate yet encompassing view of time and place on Blu-ray from the Cohen Film Collection, presented by Cohen Media Group and Kino Lorber.

Hester Street steps blithely into one of its busy dance halls as the opening credits flash rhythmically onscreen, with thoroughly Americanized Jake (Steven Keats) leading many eligible young ladies of the neighborhood to a Clarke-composed waltz. As the local strutting peacock, Jake dotes his bodily-rhythmic attentions on the elegant and energetic Mamie Fein (Dorrie Kavanaugh), who more than matches the bouncing step of Jake’s three-four, one-two-three prowess.

Both Jake and Mamie work in the garment industry, toiling over sewing machines by day and dancing through the night, meeting with friends at local cafes and teashops in between; escaping the crowded rooms where they live and the street-crowds where they daily walk.

“You betcha!” characterizes the upbeat, downtown jaunt of Jake’s American life, but he is soon reminded of a very different life back home in Russia when he receives unexpected news of his father’s recent passing, along with the need to now send for his almost forgotten wife and child. Gitl (Carol Kane) and eight-year-old son Yossele (Paul Freedman) soon arrive at Ellis Island, where Jake is further reminded behind the wire-fencing of the immigration hall of what he has left behind when confronted by his name, which was Yankel; his language, his own Yiddish now mixed with English; and the plain appearance of his wife, symbolized for Jake by Gitl’s unbecoming wig.

Hester Street is transformed once more with the arrival of Gitl as young Yossele becomes “Joey” and the small family takes possession of a larger set of rooms, which includes a kindly if quiet boarder named Bernstein (Mel Howard), a co-worker of Jake’s who was a respectable yeshiva student back in the old country (and is now a lowly pants-presser to Jake’s lead sewer). Shifting focus to Gitl’s attempts to adapt to a strange and new way of life in a very different country, her friend from across the hall Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts) is full of help and advice for Gitl during her long period of adjustment, but Gitl’s efforts in terms of housekeeping and appearance seem to have little effect on improving relations with Jake, who has seemingly severed all ties with the Yankel he once was.

Even as the situation with Gitl and Jake deteriorates further, the gentle and understanding Mr. Bernstein offers much needed sympathy for Gitl while the forthright and ambitious Mamie Fein provides similarly needed distraction for Jake. The tense situation builds climactically to Gitl foregoing both the severe wig and simple kerchief and finally appearing in her own hair soon after Jake has been laid off during the slack season. Jake’s angry rejection of Gitl’s difficult personal sacrifice to Hester Street, both in terms of modesty and her faith, leads Gitl, with continued advice from the selfless Mrs. Kavarsky, to seek a new life for herself and her son.

As described in the opening paragraphs, Gitl’s gotten gett and Jake’s Yiddish-yanked “You Betcha!” prove ultimately irreconcilable on Hester Street, and both go their separate ways in forging very different paths in a new country. Similarly, the faithful if notably diverging adaptation that first-time feature director Joan Micklin Silver carved from its source material, the story Yekl by Abraham Cahan, shifts focus from Jake/Yankel to Gitl, who in the film proves better able to make something new in America while also preserving the essential part of herself brought over from Russia. Gitl’s son Yossele may have become Joey (with her encouragement, no less), and Joey will become the indulged son and heir of newly-appointed shopkeepers, but Mr. Bernstein will continue to teach the boy to read and write Hebrew.

Cohen and Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray includes a multiplicity of special features imported from a previous 2004 DVD release alongside two recent interviews from director Silver, who soon after passed away in 2020 at the age of 85. Viewed with the considerable image-upgrade of the 4K restoration, an audio commentary from 2004 with Silver and her producer-husband Raphael, along with 2004 interviews from Silver, Raphael (who passed away in 2013), and cast members Carol Kane and Doris Roberts (who passed away in 2016), may further serve to remind one of an artist’s or performer’s, or indeed fictional characters’ or historical figures’, fragile relationship to time, and the ghost of assimilation and aspiration Hester Street revives for ninety minutes of screen time becomes all the more touching.

In addition, this special edition includes the recently recovered original opening title sequence of the film, with commentary from upcoming Micklin biographer Daniel Kremer, which interspersed historical footage from the 1890s with the scenes and settings Hester Street vividly recreates. In the last part of the 2004 commentary recorded by Silver, the director revealed that, beyond the film’s closing credits upon those vivid scenes and settings, Jake and Mamie would most likely set up a clothing shop and continue a lively if contentious relationship into the twentieth century, while Gitl and Bernstein would become very successful as grocers, but would also end up having “trouble with Joey”.

Whatever difficulty any of its participants experienced in making this independent film, Silver herself became established as a director because of this film, Carol Kane was nominated for an Oscar, and Hester Street itself has proved resonant to almost any audience that has experienced it – producer Raphael Silver having wisely pointed out that “every country is a country of immigrants” – so one’s hope for little Joey, Gitl’s lasting legacy, perhaps, is that he eventually became someone he couldn’t have become anywhere else. (As for Gitl in Hester Street essentially being the grandmother of actress Carol Kane’s character of Alvy Singer’s first wife in Woody Allen’s Annie Hall, that connection unfortunately will have to await a future review.) True enough, as a mid-film exchange between Jake and Bernstein points out, Joey as a non-naturally-born American could never become President of the United States, but one would like to think despite his difficulties that he might someday become an Irving Berlin. And then it might be possible to imagine little Joey writing, or even living, that other Russian-born immigrant’s Lower East Side-raised, and nationally self-invented, composer’s secular hymn of unabashed patriotism, “God Bless America”.

As Joey’s father Jake might put it, “the boy’s a real Yankee, you betcha!”

Composer Irving Berlin, celebrating newfound success in a New York City street parade, circa 1911.

Images used in this review are used only as a visual reference to the film and are credited to DVDBeaver. The final image was taken from Irving Berlin’s Wikipedia page.