Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Cohen Film Collection

By Nora Lee Mandel
Presented at Forest Hills Jewish Center Adult Education Shabbaton
June 20, 2022

- Criterion

Joan Micklin Silver died December 31, 2020, at age 85. The first biography of her is now being completed, by film scholar Daniel Kremer for publication next year by Oxford University Press, so we’ll more easily learn about her background. As a writer/director, HESTER STREET was her debut feature film. During 2020, her daughter Marisa, also a filmmaker, worked to restore the film in 4K from the 35mm original negative by the Cohen Film Collection at DuArt Media Services. When I saw it with the NY premiere at last year’s New York Film Festival, I was startled to see this credit:

Based on “Yekl” by Abraham Cahan

I doubt I noticed that when I originally saw the movie in 1975. If I did, I just assumed:

1) His story was originally written in Yiddish, and

2) Silver substantially changed the story.

Both assumptions are wrong. I’ll talk about Cahan as source material, how Silver adapted the story into film, and their relation to the real history.

Abraham Cahan is known as the full-time editor of the Yiddish newspaper Forverts (The Forward) for 50 years to his death in 1951. But the novella that became HESTER STREET came before that. He was not writing nostalgia, but his contemporary 1896 portrait of his fellow Jewish immigrants in what would become known as the “Lower East Side” – observing with a journalist’s eye what he then called “a small Jewish world”.

Cahan wrote in his autobiography that he “was not an ordinary immigrant. I had evaded arrest.”

When he graduated in 1881 from Russia’s rigid assimilationist Vilna Teacher Training Institute, that usefully shielded him from the draft, he was assigned to teach at a government school “in a small provincial town” in western Russia.

But in 1882 he fled the increased police surveillance after the Czar’s assassination, through what is now Ukraine, through places now in the news. Because Cahan at age 22 was a forbidden Socialist. He later gave himself credit for giving the “first Socialist speech in Yiddish in the U.S.” There’s snatches of political discussions in his source story and bits in HESTER STREET; the talk among the workers in the sewing shop reflects his politics. But I think the portrayal of women’s positions in Jewish society do, too, and that’s what appealed to Silver for adaptation.

Cahan joined the flood of Russian Jewish migrants fleeing the pogroms that also followed the Czar’s assassination; he headed to England for the first ship to the U.S. Cahan landed in Philadelphia, but he immediately took the train to NYC. He was participating in an important event in American Jewish history - the First Great Wave of Jewish immigration to the U.S. from Russia (including my ancestors).

- source: Jewish Encyclopedia

What Cahan witnessed from 1882 – 1896, he brought to writing Yekl – as Eastern European Jewish immigration went from about 17,500 in 1882 to over 45,000 in 1896, such that the United Hebrew Charities recorded the nationalities of all Jewish immigrants landing at Castle Garden and Ellis Island as more than 622,000, over those years, with over 65% Russian like Cahan.

Cahan called himself “one of the first Russian Jewish intellectuals in the U.S.” He took on tutoring written Yiddish and Hebrew to pay his rent, while trying to learn English from the Appleton Dictionary and Grammar. But he was determined to learn perfect English, much as he’d learned Russian himself in Vilna.

He convinced a principal of an elementary school at Chrystie & Hester Streets to let him audit a class, so for three months he joined 13-year old boys in school - and also studied their idioms and slang.

By the next year he was teaching English at the YMHA night school, at 206 East Broadway. A year later, he fulfilled his dream to write for the New York Sun.

Editor Erasmus Darwin Beach accepted his vignettes about the people around him-- after he first asked Cahan: “What is a ghetto?” Cahan felt “I was in heaven”. Novelist Paul Auster, author of the recent The Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane, notes that such “sketches” were common in newspapers of the time.

In 1885, Cahan married Anna Bronstein, an immigrant from Kyiv, a fellow Socialist; they’d stay married for more than 60 years.

Anna’s photograph, along with the rest of my talk on “Hester Street ReVisited”, were recorded via Zoom and are available on video and audio only.

Additional links: My review of the 1975 film and commentary on the 2020 Restoration.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. My reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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