"Hester Street"

Director and Screenplay: Joan Micklin Silver
Released 1975
With Steven Keats, Carol Kane, Dorrie Kavanaugh, Mel Howard, and others

The place is the Lower East Side of Manhattan, one of the most crowded and liveliest areas in New York City, and the point of arrival for innumerable Jewish immigrants in the New World. The year is 1896. The film is shot in black and white; the absence of color lends a documentary quality to the story of the film.

The opening shots show us scenes at Peltner's Dance Academy, where people of the neighborhood socialize and learn the basics of ballroom dancing. Jake (Steven Keats), the handsome protagonist of the story, has his eyes on Mamie Fein (Dorrie Kavanaugh), and we can see that Mamie is very interested in Jake's advances.

When a group of the dancers finally congregate around a table to chat, someone urges Mamie to pay more attention to one of the elderly gentlemen who had shown an interest in her. She is advised that this gentleman is rather well off and well connected. "What is this?" Mamie shouts with contempt. "Is this the old country? Are we in Russia? Are we in Poland?" "She is entirely right," Jake states in support of her. "In America you marry for love!"

The exchange at the table introduces the main theme of the film: the difference of life in the Old World and the New, and the bearing that this difference has on who one is—on a person’s inner identity. The question of who one is constitutes the philosophical center of "Hester Street,” the question whether it is better to find one's identity as a member of a traditional community with its time-honored ways and values, or whether people would be happier and more authentic by leaving behind the old ways and becoming individuals of a new type—the modern, American type.

Jake and Mamie quickly profile themselves as representatives of the new breed. They wear the fashionable clothes of the day, they speak English instead of Yiddish, and they deliberately behave like "Yankees" whenever they can. This evening they sneak off together to become physically intimate, not caring too much for conventional proprieties and customary rules. They are both full of life and enterprising energy, and more than ready to embrace the American way of life. “In America you marry for love” means: Even a woman can afford to follow her own feelings; in America you can be your true self.

The theme of life in the New World is taken up again when Jake is shown at his work place the next morning. Like a dozen other men he is operating a sewing machine, and he is a diligent worker. Bernstein (Mel Howard), one of his co-workers, is much slower and altogether less successful in the economic sphere. It is for this reason that the bossy owner of the shop is picking on him: "What were you in the old country, Bernstein?" the owner asks the quiet and bearded man, "A yeshiva student?" Bernstein confirms this in his quiet way. He was and still is a serious student of the Talmud, and his working at the shop is nothing more than a matter of making a modest living. In his overbearing manner the owner tells Bernstein that he used to be a small-time peddler in Lithuania, while now he can order people around. "The peddler becomes a boss, and the yeshiva bocher sits at the sewing machine.”

The scene highlights the democratic nature of America in terms of social mobility and lack of established ranks. The shop owner has none of the respect that traditional Jews had for individuals who study the Talmud and other serious books. Although the owner’s harangue of Bernstein is vulgar and sadistic, he is not wrong in rejoicing in the great openness and wealth of opportunities that exist for many people in America. The scene also indicates that bookish intellectuals like Bernstein may not necessarily find a congenial environment in the New World.

Jake receives a letter from Russia. Since he is illiterate, someone has to read it for him. The news is that his father has died. This means that his wife and his little son, who had been staying with his father, will be coming to America. It turns out that Jake's seemingly unencumbered bachelor life was based on his having kept his marital status a secret. From now on his ways will have to change significantly. For one thing, he will have to rent his own apartment, and he will have to buy furniture for his family. Since he does not have enough money for all this, he gets Mamie to lend him twenty five dollars. He succeeds in doing so by creating the impression that he is preparing the apartment for Mamie and him, and that Mamie will soon be his official fiancée.
He also convinces Bernstein to board with him, as that will help to pay the rent.

On the appointed day Jake goes to Ellis Island to pick up his wife Gitl and his son Yossele. Gitl is anxious to be reunited with her husband, but Jake is visibly unenthusiastic. He misses his unencumbered bachelor life already, and the traditional dress and wig of Gitl turn him off right away. His foul mood does not improve when the couple settles down in their new home. Soon all the differences between the old customs and the American way of life turn into barriers between the two spouses. Gitl is dismayed that her husband has shaved off his traditional beard and changed his old name Yankel to Jake. Gitl also becomes hysterically upset when Jake orders his son to be called Joey instead of Yossele, and when he cuts off the boy's locks. "Now you look like a real Yankee!" Jake exclaims, looking enthusiastically at his son. He takes Joey for a stroll through the colorful neighborhood, while Gitl has to stay home. All she can do is secretly put some salt into the pocket of Joey's jacket--"to keep away the evil eye."

Time passes, but the marital tensions persist. Gitl has trouble adjusting to American and Gentile ways, and Jake has lost any passionate feelings for his wife. While Jake feels constant anger and frustration, Gitl suffers from loneliness and humiliation. When their neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (Doris Roberts) overhears one day that Gitl is trying to buy a love potion to make her husband love her again, she interferes and makes Gitl wear a new dress and a different hairdo instead. Only adopting American ways will rekindle Jake's love, the neighbor suggests. But it seems too late for such adjustments; Jake does not like Gitl's new apparel. He takes to not coming home after work, and Gitl sinks into a quiet despair.

Bernstein begins to play an important role in the couple’s lives. Not that he takes any advantage of the estrangement between the spouses; he is too pious and decent a man for that sort of thing. He tries to console Gitl and lift her spirits by telling her that Jake loves her sincerely, and that her arrival in America has made him a different person. But it is clear that this is not so, and that a quiet sort of attraction between Gitl and Bernstein is forming. Gitl admires the education and Talmudic scholarship of her boarder, and Bernstein is amazed that Jake can be indifferent to the fine qualities of Gitl as a woman and impeccable house wife. In many ways Bernstein and Gitl are made for each other. Bernstein has also begun to teach little Joey reading and writing.

One day Bernstein and Gitl have a conversation in which Bernstein reveals how profoundly he is a stranger in the New World. Knowing how much he disdains most things American, Gitl asks him why he ever came over in the first place, instead of living his life in the old country. "Over there you could have become a teacher. Even a Rabbi," she submits. "I wasn't worthy," Bernstein replies. "I couldn't take my mind off vanities." He quotes a Talmud passage in which it is said that watching even the little finger of a woman is no better than watching a woman entirely naked. "So I bought a ship's ticket and came to America," he explains. And after a pause he adds: "A pox on Columbus!" "A pox on Columbus," Gitl repeats, amused and not unpleased by this disdain for America.

For Bernstein America with its modern way of life is quite simply a godforsaken country. "Good-bye, Lord, I'm going to America," he describes himself as saying when he left the Old World. In Russia studying the Torah had been an important way of loving God. "Not here," Bernstein asserts. ("America has made a mountain of ashes out of me," Bernstein complains in Abraham Cahan's novel Yekl, the book on which “Hester Street” is based.)

During an outing in the country the differing views of life in America are further highlighted by the respective talk and conduct of Jake and Bernstein. While Gitl unpacks the picnic bundle, Jake rises like an orator and praises the emancipating aspect of life in the New World. Displaying his fashionable suit, well-groomed mustache, and modern haircut, he rhetorically asks: "Do I look like a Jew? Just from looking at me: Could you tell I am a Jew?" "A Jew is a Jew," Bernstein replies. For him being a Jew is not a matter of appearance and fitting in, but an inner calling—a calling that comes from God, not from the choice of the individual. "In America I am a mensch," Jake insists. A mensch is a human being, a person who is not defined in terms of any particular religion, ethnicity, nationality, or race, but in terms of his humanity alone. In Russia, as Jake reminds the others, he was not tolerated within ten feet of a Gentile; in America he is an equal among equals, a human being.

This does not wash with either Gitl or Bernstein. Why are there only Jews at the Lower East Side? Gitl wants to know. Do the Gentiles in America not prefer to stick to their own places? Bernstein agrees with her; for him assimilation to the American mainstream is as illusory a goal as it is undesirable. The conversation ends by Jake going off to teach Joey how to play baseball, while Bernstein immerses himself in his books.

Jake spends as little time at home as possible. He tries to revive his relationship with Mamie. But after Mamie discovers that her beau is a married man, who furthermore has talked her out of twenty five dollars under false pretenses, she gives him the cold shoulder. She seemingly makes plans with another man to open a dancing school. Jake is as angry as he is unhappy. When Gitl makes yet another attempt to seduce him by dressing up fashionably and sporting a new hairdo, Jake blows up at her, and comes close to assaulting her physically. His brutal behavior finally changes Gitl's mind. When Mrs. Kavarsky tries to effect a reconciliation between the fighting spouses, Gitl announces: "I don't want him back anymore. Enough is enough." Jake, in agreement, leaves the apartment to never return.

Under these new circumstances Mamie is ready to renew her relationship with Jake. She proposes that with her savings they open a dancing school and start a new life. "You are done in the sweatshop," she tells Jake, "finished." The only difficulty to be resolved is Jake's divorce. A lawyer approaches Gitl, offering her fifty dollars if she agrees to the divorce. Gitl is speechless. Although she has somewhat adjusted to American ways, the dissolution of her marriage is still a weighty matter for her. The lawyer, misunderstanding her silence, keeps increasing the sum that would get Mamie her desired husband. As it turns out in the end, Gitl gets all of Mamie's savings in exchange for the divorce. "She skinned us alive," as Mamie puts it. Jake, after getting married to Mamie, humbly returns to the sweatshop as an ordinary worker.

Earlier in the movie Jake had frequently and crudely made fun of Bernstein because of the latter's seeming inability to find a suitable wife. "Go to a match maker who will get you a hunchback with money," was one of his suggestions. "The hunchback can buy a store and run it for you, while you sit in the back and read your books." The poetic justice of the story has it that Gitl decides to use her newly found wealth to buy a store and to run it herself. At the same time she gets the shy Bernstein to propose to her and be the father of Joey. She assures him that she does not want him to get involved in the business; she wants him to spend his time studying his beloved books. It was Bernstein's intellectuality, after all, that she had always found attractive--together with his unassuming modesty and lack of worldly ambition.

The end of the story seems to be, then, that the modern characters, Jake and Mamie, find each other and set out to realize their American dream, while the traditionalist couple, Gitl and Bernstein, get a chance to preserve as much of their cultural heritage as they wish. There is, however, a subtle irony in the way things turn out for everyone. For the Americanization of the immigrants will in the end not be limited to Jake and Mamie, but will include Gitl and Bernstein as well. The assimilation of the seemingly inassimilable Gitl to the culture in which she is beginning to feel at home is particularly striking. The glances she occasionally casts at Bernstein are quite frank and those of a woman who is finding her own center. And as she increasingly masters the English language, it is she who now insists that her son be called "Joey," not "Yossele." She also grows visibly comfortable with her modern dresses and fashionable hair style. But most importantly, Gitl is on her way to become an independent and self-confident business woman, a role that is lifting her rapidly out of her former insecurity and docility vis-à-vis men and tradition. And having, in a way, outsmarted the lawyer of Mamie and Jake might well be seen as a further step toward Git's integration into the world in which she will have to survive from now on.

Bernstein, too, adjusts to his new living conditions; he is beginning to overcome the Old World. The last remark that we hear coming from him is a recommendation to take it easy as far as religious restrictions on doing business are concerned; he sees no point in being excessively pious when economic survival in New York City is at stake. In the long run, in other words, America and Modernity prevail; tradition will inevitably be modified and undermined by the practical needs of survival in a new and liberal environment. While Gitl and Bernstein may forever be more mindful of their past and original culture than Mamie and Jake, it is clear that their real life takes shape here and now, and that they are involved in a process that will transform everything.

(From Jorn K. Bramann: The Educating Rita Workbook, Copyright © 2006)


De Tocqueville: Democracy in America