Hester Street: The Past Isn’t Through with Us, by David Bax
Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street, set in a New York City Jewish immigrant neighborhood around the turn of the twentieth century, opens as a silent film. It is to be only the first of recurring silent segments detailing daily life throughout the movie. People shop for hats or stroll through parks. There’s a documentary feel, not unlike the one Bill Duke would later employ in 1984’s The Killing Floor. Throughout her career, Silver exceled at establishing a sense of place and community. That skill produced perhaps no greater result than it does in Hester Street.
Crucially, we see nothing of the European towns and villages from which these folks traveled to be in America. And that’s just how Jake (Steven Keats) wants it. Having changed his name from Yankel, he has fully embraced his new home and is eager to forget anything about the culture and traditions of where he hails from, starting with his religion. More importantly, he’d like everyone else to forget as well, or at least not to associate him with those places and people when they see him. He brags loudly that, in his clothes and mannerisms, a stranger on the street wouldn’t even know he was a Jew. That becomes a problem when his wife, Gitl (Carol Kane), arrives from overseas to join him, with their young son Yossele. She has no intention of changing from the ways that mean so much to her and is as committed to maintaining those connections as Jake is to severing them.
Hester Street hinges on Kane’s performance, for which she was quite deservedly Oscar-nominated. From Jake’s point of view, she must be merely a symbol, a physical reminder of everything he’s trying so hard to forget. From our point of view, though, she is a person, a woman who has not only values but also desires, including to salvage a capsized and sinking marriage.
Her efforts to do so include befriending and trying to learn from another woman who lives in the building, Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts), who has more successfully found a balance between her devoutness and the cosmopolitan pressures of New York City. Silver gives us a circa 1900 version of the rom-com staple makeover sequence that’s a delight and also proof that, right under our noses, Hester Street has switched protagonists. Gitl started as a stubborn burr poking into the perimeter of Jake’s story but, by this point, her goals and the film’s have aligned.
Jake doesn’t go away, exactly, but what keeps him from being the lead is his refusal to change. Basic storytelling guidelines require a dynamic protagonist but Jake’s bullheaded arrogance is a static trait.
Another word for arrogance is pride. And, according to the third book of the Hebrew Bible, that goeth before a fall. The closest Jake comes to changing is when he’s forced to speak Hebrew–something he swore he’d never do again–in order to get what he wants from Gitl. It’s a triumphant moment for her, a shameful one for him and, for us, a reminder that the past doesn’t go away even if we want it to.