the world of the Jewish Conservative Orthodox community, a divorce is truly
final only when the husband presents his wife with a “get”—a document in Hebrew
that grants the woman her freedom to be with other men. Likewise, the wife must
accept the get before the man can re-marry, too.
is the crux of the story behind Hester
Street, an independent art-house film that appeared in 1975, written and
directed by Joan Micklin Silver. Starring Carol Kane, who was nominated for
Best Actress for her performance as Gitl, a newly arrived immigrant to New York
City in 1896, and Steven Keats as her husband Yankl, who, in an attempt to
assimilate, in public goes by the name “Jake.” Jake has been in America for a
while and isn’t looking forward to the arrival of his wife and son from Europe,
for he has begun an affair with a wealthy, assimilated actress in the Yiddish
theatre named Mamie. When the very traditional Gitl arrives with her son, the
Gitl meets Bernstein, an Orthodox man who is much more suited for her
requirements, seeing that Jake has become something of a capitalist cad.
Therefore, she needs a “get” from Jake so that both husband and wife can
divorce and go their separate ways. That’s when Mamie’s money comes into play.
beautifully rendered this period drama on a miniscule budget. Location shooting
took place in and around New York’s lower east side, where much of the flavor
of the late 19th Century Jewish Orthodox community is still pretty much the
same. Replace the cars with horses and buggies, get the correct vintage
costumes, and you’re more than halfway there. The dialogue is mostly in Yiddish
(with English subtitles), thus making it an American foreign language film—an
oddity in 1975, to be sure (although Coppola’s The Godfather Part II appeared a year earlier with a great amount
of its dialogue spoken in Sicilian).
plays Jake as a rake and a rascal, but our perception of him is not that of a
villain. In many ways, he is the generic immigrant who came to America and
sincerely tried to assimilate, become “American,” and leave the Old Country
traditions behind. His fault is that he dreams of making big money in the States and this becomes his all-consuming desire,
forgetting that he has a wife and son. Kane’s character and spot-on portrayal
not only illustrates the role of females in the Orthodox community, but in many
ways is a commentary on the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s.
Hester Street is a terrific
little film that went out of print on DVD years ago and became a collector’s
item on the resale market. Kino Lorber has thankfully re-issued the movie on
Blu-ray (and DVD). Filmed in black and white by Kenneth Van Sickle, the picture
is grainy and flat—much like the early silent cinema of the that era!—which
actually is quite appropriate for the movie’s setting. There are no extras.
Hester Street is an excellent synagogue
discussion-group item for American Jews who want to explore the immigration
scene and the topics of tradition and assimilation; but it is also a good
educational piece for non-Jews who want to learn a little bit about New York
history and the Jewish Orthodox religion. Recommended.