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).
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.
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: