The Lower East Side Is a Foreign Country: Joan Micklin Silver on Hester Street

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Hester Street, Joan Micklin Silver’s independently financed 1975 debut feature, will screen at Film Forum Tuesday, October 4th on an archival 35mm print, with Silver in person alongside star Carol Kane. The film is set in 1896 within a Jewish community on New York’s Lower East Side. It explores the tensions between assimilation-minded Russian immigrant Yankel (played by Steven Keats), who has grown accustomed to a new lifestyle in America, and his wife Gitl (a subdued yet luminous Kane, who was nominated for an Oscar), who arrives from “the old country” with their young son in her arms and a desire to hold on to her traditions and routines.

“I desperately wanted to direct my first feature film and couldn’t find the opportunity to do it,” says the filmmaker. “My husband, Ray Silver, finally said that if I would write a script, he’d raise the money. I had a good source story to work from, Abraham Cahan’s “Yekl,” written by an immigrant to America who edited the Jewish Daily Forward for over 50 years and wrote short stories in English. I also had recollections of my father, a Jewish Eastern European immigrant that had come to America when he was twelve and remembered everything. He told us stories about the good and bad experiences that he had had as someone learning English in a new country that grabbed my attention and imagination. My father died when I was in college, and I always thought that if I had the chance to make just one film, I would make something that had to do with my family.

“Cahan’s story focuses on the husband, Yankel, who insists on being called ‘Jake.’ I wanted to make the film Hester Street more about the wife, Gitl, who was the character for whom I felt the most compassion. I thought that she made an amazing journey in terms of where she started, how she came over, and what happened to her from there. I loved Carol Kane’s performance so much. Someone said to me that her close-ups are like monologues, which is extremely bright—you watch her face and see everything she goes through.

“Two things happened that might not have if we had made the film for a studio. One was that we were able to shoot in black-and-white. This choice came out of the period research I did at the New York Public Library and was influenced by the photographs of Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis shot on the Lower East Side. Another was having so much of the film’s dialogue in Yiddish. At the time, it was thought that filmgoers didn’t like to read subtitles. My father had conveyed to me, though, a sense of all the difficulties that are added to your life when you’re learning the language of a new place. The presence of this difficulty seemed right for the film’s story.”

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