The scenes, filmed in rich black-and-white, are iconic, the Mother Neighborhood from the turn of the last century brought lovingly back to life: the teeming streets, with overstuffed pushcarts selling everything an immigrant just off the boat could want; the impossibly cramped tenements, where a boarder’s single bed fits snugly into the corner of a kitchen; the fast-assimilating, clean-shaven husband and his sheitel-wearing greenhorn of a wife, the very picture of pious goodness.
Forty-two years after it appeared in movie houses across the country — its very existence a kind of Jewish miracle — Joan Micklin Silver’s beloved “Hester Street” came to Film Forum Sunday. Based on an 1896 Abraham Cahan novella, the tale of Jake and Gitl is the classic collision of Old World and New played out on the Lower East Side, a story of first-generation immigrants that put the original hyphen in Jewish-American. It’s the universe that Irving Howe chronicled famously in “World of Our Fathers: The Journey of the East European Jews to America and the Life They Found and Made.”
The sellout crowd at the West Village art house included some Lower East Side royalty: Mark Russ Federman, part of the third generation at the helm of the century-old Russ & Daughters appetizing shop at Houston and Orchard, was on hand. So were the son and grandson of Steven Keats, who played the combustible and philandering Jake, who ditches his old Yankel name and rushes headlong into America (baseball included!), for better or worse. Peter Reigert, who starred opposite Amy Irving in Silver’s “Crossing Delancey,” from 1988, was there too.
Silver, now 81, who spoke after the screening, may seem like a surprising conduit for such a New York-centric, comic-tragic story: She hails from Omaha, of all places. And she began her foray into the American immigrant story with Polish Catholics in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, one of three short films she made for an educational film company. Her bosses there, she recalled, thought the Jewish story was “too special.”
But it was her father’s own immigration story that sent her to the typewriter for what would become “Hester Street.” Nobody wanted the script, and her husband, Ray Silver, a real estate developer turned film producer, eventually raised the $350,000 needed to shoot the film. (Morton Street in the West Village was a stand-in for Hester.) Silver is currently working on a book about the making of the film; in a sense it’s the story of a film business greenhorn who strikes gold. And a Broadway “play with music” is said to be in the works.
Nobody was right for Gitl. One night Silver came across a Canadian film called “The White Wedding” with a young actress named Carol Kane. But how to afford bringing her down and putting her up, on the film’s low budget, if she was from Canada? “She lives across the Park,” someone on the production team said. Silver brought her in and Kane was soon cast. The producers couldn’t afford to keep the Yiddish coach after he’d worked for a week with each actor, so they made tapes of him speaking the lines. And once the film was shot, in 34 quick days, one day less than the 35 on the budget, no one would distribute it. Ray Silver, who didn’t know anything about film distribution, called John Cassavetes, the indie film legend, who urged him to distribute the film himself. Cassavetes dispatched two aides who knew distribution (a third eventually came on board), and the three helped Ray get the movie distributed through the Omaha-inspired company called Midwest Films.
On a day of torrential rain in October 1975, just after a favorable advance piece in The New York Times, “Hester Street” — a film in Yiddish (and Yiddish-inflected English) and with English subtitles — opened at the Plaza. “People holding umbrellas were lined up around the block,” Silver said, a note of awe still in her voice after all these years.
While getting the film made and distributed was an ordeal, an early decision of the writer’s proved telling: Silver changed the point of view of Cahan’s story, which focused on the husband, to Gitl. And so the immigrant experience in her film is filtered through the eyes a of long-suffering woman who, learning the lessons of America, liberates herself. (Kane was nominated for an Oscar for her touching performance.)
“I can’t think of any other film that gets it so well,” Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein told The Jewish Week, referring to the milieu of the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. “Everything is so real.” He even speculated that the film “may have helped start” the renewed interest in the Lower East Side that coincided with the roots-inspired klezmer revival of the mid-’70s.
It was Reigert who voiced what surely was on the minds of many of those in attendance: that the film, about immigrants finding their way in America, speaks to our fraught political moment. This country, Reigert said, is about welcoming immigrants. The audience erupted in cheers.
And it was emcee Goldstein who brought the evening full circle. Dispensing with the usual flowers he gives to interview subjects, he handed Micklin Silver a package of rugelach from Russ & Daughters and some half-sours from The Pickle Guys on Essex, which was featured in “Crossing Delancey.” It was the perfect gesture — two armfuls of poignancy — on behalf of those who had come to catch a glimpse of the way we were.