The Forgotten Indie Film That Recreated Manhattan’s Old Jewish Enclave

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The Forgotten Indie Film That Recreated Manhattan’s Old Jewish Enclave

The Yiddish word naches conveys the idea of pride, specifically connoting the unique joy felt by a parent over the accomplishments of their offspring. As in “I ran into Maurice and Doris Micklin at the market! They were saying their daughter, the filmmaker, just finished her first movie. That’s a lot of naches!”

Joan Micklin Silver’s 1975 feature debut Hester Street, in which the nosy vernacular of Jewish socializing figures significantly, returns to theaters this week in a lovely 4K restoration. Excavated in the wake of Silver’s death this past December, the film was conceived in part as a dutiful child’s tribute to her parents. A pair of Russian Jews who settled in Omaha prior to her birth in 1935, they’d gotten a considerable slice of the American dream, with Maurice the proprietor of a family-owned lumber company. Like thousands of others in the shtetls of Eastern Europe, they packed up everything they owned and came to the United States, their customs and heritage the most valuable things they carried. To leave behind all they knew, to brave the difficult and often odorous transatlantic voyage, to begin again in a land alien to the language, dress, and philosophy of their religious orthodoxy — in this, the first-generation American Silver saw a courageous fortitude, and her work would demonstrate the utmost respect for it. Short of becoming a doctor or lawyer, this is the greatest honor a young Jew could hope to bring their family name.

From Hester Street

For Silver, the recognition is long overdue. Despite writing and directing some of the most empathetic, true-to-life comedies of her time — such as the alternative-newspaper-set Between the Lines, the neuroses-fueled romcom Chilly Scenes of Winter, and her masterpiece Crossing Delancey — she went under-acknowledged due to a combination of her insistent indie ethic and standard-issue industry sexism. Cinephiles have come to embrace her oeuvre, though obscurer works like her final feature A Fish in the Bathtub (currently available only via Tubi, inexplicably) have been hidden in remote corners of the streaming universe. But retroactive reappraisals through festivals like Cannes, where the Hester Street restoration premiered, have clarified how themes of Judaism and personal identity would run through her filmography.

Lead characters Yankel and Gitl travel the same path as Silver’s parents, though instead of Omaha, they settle in the immigrant capital of the US. Adapting Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto assigned a setting with a specific profile and history. Downtown Manhattan’s turn-of-the-century Jewish enclave provides a little slice of the Old Country in which new arrivals can feel slightly less out of place. The well-to-do Yankel (Steven Keats) takes to his adopted neighborhood like a gefilte fish in water, dubbing himself “Jake” and shearing his beard into a well-manicured mustache. As the first of his household to make the journey, he seizes the opportunity to reinvent himself unencumbered by his wife and child, shacking up with the dancer (or possibly “dancer”) Mamie. He earns the equivalent of a whopping 24 rubles a week, enjoying the same reshuffling of the social deck that reverses the stations of a lowly peddler and esteemed yeshiva student to boss and employee.

From Hester Street

Soon after Gitl — played by a revelatory Carol Kane, whose meekness gradually turns to quiet might — lands at Ellis Island with their son Yossele and disrupts this second act Yankel has engineered for himself. She sees every aspect of city life as a challenge to her faith, taken aback by women swanning around without their hair in sheitels. The core of Gitl’s struggle to assimilate pertains to the reconciliation of her devoutness (rooted as it is in quiet, amenable submission) with her newfound independence as a modern woman. She charts her own path forward, ultimately realizing she can use her agency to preserve the parts of her culture that mean the most to her. She musters the will to file for a gett and leaves “Jake” for the more pious Bernstein. A tableau near the film’s end posits Gitl as the embodiment of a new normal, having formed a reconstituted family unit with her second husband — a uniquely US phenomenon at the time.

Hester Street’s emotional components are as elemental as those of the silent melodramas its black-and-white photography evokes. The richness of Silver’s filmmaking lies in her attention to detail and texture, as she recreates a world that had largely vanished by the time she made New York her home. Beyond its ambitions to portray the resilience and other virtues of her forebears, the film had an air of purer historiography about it, the production design laboriously aping the matchbox apartments now preserved in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (which would later make a cameo in Crossing Delancey). She fills her frugally constructed slice of the past with snatches of quotidian life, her camera passing over people playing cards, buying fish, and talking about their plans for the Sabbath. Committing this to film ensured that these memories will not be forgotten or erased — Silver’s highest mitzvah of all.

The restoration of Hester Street is now playing in select theaters. The film can also be streamed on various platforms.

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