Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Hester Street

The Washington Jewish Film Festival was held at AFI Silver in late February - Early March.  We attended a screening of Hester Street (1975), directed by Joan Micklin Silver, and starring Carol Kane as Gitl Bogovnik, a Jewish immigrant from Poland.  We were fortunate to have Ms. Kane participate in an interview session after the film.

Hester Street is a story of immigration and assimilation.  Jake (Yankel) Bognovnik (Steven Keats), has been living in America for several years, working in garment sweatshop.  Jake lives as an American, not as a Jew; he has changed his name, shaved his beard, no longer wears a yamaka, sees women when he feels like it, and generally lives a secular life.  Though he cannot read or write, he has learned to speak English.  He looks down on his fellow immigrants who have not learned English, or who still cling to the old ways.  He's very attracted to Mamie (Dorrie Kavanugh), a young woman who is a frequent visitor to a local dance hall.  Mamie is very Americanized - dresses well, and, it turns out, is carefully saving her money to open her own dance hall.  But, just as Jake is getting to know Mamie better, he discovers that his father in Poland has died.  It becomes imperative that he bring over his wife Gitl, and their small son, Yossele (Paul Freedman).
Jake is horrified when he sees Gitl and Yossele.  She wears a sheitel, and conservative clothing.  Her son has a pais.  Jake's embarrassment is immediately obvious - he slaps Yossele for stroking his face (the child has never seen a man without a beard), and cuts off the pais the minute they arrive home.  He scolds Gitl for her garb, and demands that she remove her sheitel; she agrees to don a kerchief, but is horrified at the idea of showing her hair - she is a married woman - it would shame her to show her hair.

Just how much assimilation is required to make a home in a new world? For Jake, it is total, to the detriment of his religion and his culture.  To Gitl, a more moderate course is required.  She will learn English, she will adjust her garb to better fit into her new environment, but she will not give up her religion.

Gitl's mentor in change in played by Doris Roberts.  Her Mrs. Kavarsky is now a woman of New York, but one who understands the  collision of cultures that Gitl is trying to circumvent.  Mrs. Kavarsky is also aware that Jake is more interested in starting a new life with Mamie than in learning to accommodate his wife's needs.  Roberts is wonderful in the role.  She is strong and protective; she is also cagey.  She understands the workings of this marriage - Ms. Roberts gives the impression that perhaps Mrs. Kavarsky has lived through a similar problem.  Regardless, she comprehends the need to adapt, and carefully educates her new charge in the ways of the city.
The other influence on Gitl is Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), the boarder in the Bognovnik apartment.  Mr. Bernstein is an educated man, who in his youth wished to be a rabbi, but found he did not have the temperament for the job.  He now works in the garment factor with Jake, but his evenings are devoted to his studies, as he reads and comments on the Torah.  He also begins to tutor young Joey in Hebrew, something his father is unwilling - and unable - to do.  Thus, Gitl is able give Joey his culture, while still allowing him to adapt to a new land.  And Joey will get the education his parents do not have - he will also be able to read and write.

The performance that is most impressive is that of Carol Kane.  Much of her dialogue is in Yiddish (we learned in the Q&A that accompanied the film that Ms. Kane learned the script phonetically), and she must convey her story with her eyes.  Below is the scene in which she arrives at Ellis Island.  Watch her as she tries to comprehend the confusion around her, as she first sees her husband, and as she begins to understand that the man that she married is gone.

Filmed at a miniscule budget of $400,000 (it was filmed in New York City in 34 days), the film was only seen by the public thanks to the tenacity of producer Raphael Silver (the husband of the director), who brought it to the Cannes Film Festival.  The word of mouth allowed them to open it in New York, and finally to a wider audience.  This TCM article goes into greater detail on the trials of getting the film produced and out to its audience.  This glowing review from the New York Times provides a glimpse into the reception the film received at the time.

As promised, we leave you with Gitl's arrival at Ellis Island:


  1. My mother took me to see this movie in the theatre. We were living in Baltimore at the time. I don't remeber much of the movie, as I was 7 or 8 years old, just the people in funny clothes and with funny accents. I would like to see it again, Maybe it is on Netflix. I will search for it.

    1. It just recently came out on DVD. It's a lovely movie, and a real look at the immigrant experience in the US.


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