While there may be some truth to the idea that Jews invented the Hollywood studio system, there’s no question about what ethnic group owns the narrative around immigration. Like a a great ship, The Godfather (1972) and the Godfather Part II (1974) have carried everything in their wake. Organized crime is now the key metaphor for immigration, assimilation, and the American dream, even for non-Italians. Cubans in Brian De Palma’s Scarface, Mexicans in Edward James Olmos’s American Me, and the Irish in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York all follow in the footsteps of Michael Corleone. Unlike Michael Corleone, they all die horrible, violent deaths. But that just goes to show you what happens when an outsider tries to act like a “made” man with connections.
Hester Street, Joan Micklin Silver’s low-budget black and white adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl: A Tale of the New York Ghetto, is a feminist “appropriation” of the immigration and assimilation narrative. Released only a year after Godfather Part II and beautifully shot — It almost looks like a lost, early film by Jim Jarmusch. — it tells the story of four Eastern European Jewish immigrants living on the Lower East Side of New York in the 1890s. Jake, played by Steven Keats, is a superficially Americanized young man with a taste for dancing, women, and smart outfits. He works in a small tailor’s shop sewing clothes. Fast and efficient, he thrives under the “piecework” system. Bernstein, a former Yeshiva student who works in the same shop, is different. He doesn’t care about money, and only does the minimum amount of work he needs to do to survive. He’d rather be home studying the Talmud. Bernstein is bullied, not only by his boss, an ex-peddler who resents educated men, but by Jake, who takes him under his wing as a kind of “greenhorn” little brother. Joan Micklin Silver doesn’t side with Jake or Bernstein. Hester Street is such a quietly subversive little movie that it actually endorses the idea that doing the minimal amount of work you can get away with so you can get home and study is just as good as working your ass off to “get ahead.”
Mamie, Jake’s mistress — He has a wife back home in Russia — is another assimilated Russian Jew. For Jake, whose real name is “Yankle,” Mamie, who speaks English “like a Yankee,” is the American dream. For Mamie, very much the typical American woman, Jake is that sexy bad boy she can’t help but fall in love with, even though he treats her like shit and uses her for her money. Things get more complicated when Jake gets a letter, which he needs read to him because he’s illiterate, informing him that his wife, and little boy, are both on their way to New York. He asks Mamie for a loan of 25 dollars, a lot of money back then, for an apartment, and a set of used furniture. Mamie half suspects she’s being played, but gives it to him anyway. After all, he might be setting up an apartment and buying furniture because he’s planning on proposing marriage. Jake also asks Bernstein to move in with him. He needs the rent money. Bernstein who’s already looking for a room, agrees. A bed in the kitchen and a place to keep his books is all he really needs.
Carol Cane, who was nominated for Best Actress for her portrayal of Jake’s timid, immigrant wife Gitl, is so good she almost throws the film out of balance. In her own quiet way, she dominates Hester Street as completely as Daniel Day Lewis dominated Gangs of New York. But Hester Street is a much better film than Gangs of New York, if only because, unlike Bill the Butcher, Gitl is the hero, the center of Joan Micklin Silver’s feminist message.I would guess her performance comes off even better today than it did in 1975. In 1975, it might have been halfway believable Jake would have preferred Mamie to Gitl. In 2015, however, Jewish Americans have been so thoroughly assimilated into the American mainstream for so long that Jake’s pride in his ability be mistaken for a gentile almost seems a little quaint.
Gitl’s transformation from backward, superstitious Russian immigrant to self-confident American feminist, on the other hand, is a genuinely radical “appropriation” of the story of the American Dream. Silver may have discarded Cahan’s social democratic politics, and Hester Street may be a quiet, understated movie, but both are strengths, not weaknesses. Cahan’s political becomes Joan Micklin Silver’s personal. Gitl’s victory is not the revolution. She gets to marry Bernstein, the man she genuinely loves. She successfully pressures Jake into giving her alimony and child support. Yet it is the revolution. It was difficult enough for a woman to break away from an abusive husband in 1975, let alone in 1892. Orthodox rabbinical courts aren’t exactly known for handing out equitable divorce settlements to women, even in 2015. Jake isn’t a villain, just a clueless working-class man with the wrong values. He gets what he wants, to marry Mamie and to be a real American. But Silver clearly thinks Gitl has better ideals than her ex-husband’s.
I suppose if Hester Street has any weaknesses it’s no fault of Silver’s. Zionism didn’t exist in 1892. So she could hardly be expected to work it into the narrative. But the old Jewish Daily Forward under Abraham Cahan was a social democratic newspaper, not the liberal Zionist newspaper it is today. By not confronting Cahan’s politics, by making the central conflict about “old world Jewish values” and “American capitalist values,” not about socialism and capitalism, Silver opens the door to a kind of chauvinistic Jewish nationalism. If Hester Street has never even remotely threatened the Italian American gangster epic’s hold on the immigration and assimilation narrative in American cinema, it’s not only the fact that it was a small, low-budget movie. It’s that Silver’s nostalgia for the Yiddish speaking world of the old Lower East Side seems almost as quaint as Jake’s pride in his ability to be mistaken for a gentile.