The scene is New York City’s Lower East Side. The year is 1896. A Russian Jewish immigrant has abandoned the traditions of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry. To look more like “an American”, he has cut off his ear locks and shaved his beard. Then he is summoned to Ellis Island to pick up his wife and young son who have followed him from the old country. Will she be able to assimilate fast enough to satisfy her husband? Does she want to?
“Hester Street” is based on a story by Abraham Cahan first published in 1896 in the Jewish Daily Forward (Forvarts), a Yiddish language newspaper published in New York City. It was later republished as a short novel under the name “Yekl.”
1975 Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Kane).
Carol Kane, Doris Roberts, Steven Keats, Mel Howard.
Joan Micklin Silver.
This movie shows life in the Jewish sections of New York City’s Lower East Side during the years of massive immigration from Eastern Europe. It tells the story of a Jewish family during that period and shows some of the strains that emigration placed upon husbands and wives.
Most of the dialogue is in English but some conversations occur in Yiddish with English subtitles.
MINOR. The viewer gets a short, blurred look at a prostitute’s exposed breasts before Jake employs her.
Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If any of your ancestors came to the U.S. during the migration from Eastern Europe of the late 19th and early 20th century, tell this to your child. If your child is very interested in the film, go through some of the other discussion questions.
More than two million Eastern European and Russian Jews immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924. This immigration was caused not so much by the increased opportunity in the United States as by conditions in Europe, including violent pogroms, laws restricting Jewish employment, denial of education, restriction on areas of settlement and the threat of long military conscription. See, for example, Fiddler on the Roof. In 1924 Congress passed severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe.
Dance halls proliferated in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. They introduced their students to American ideas of style and class and offered unmarried working class people the chance to meet each other.
Marriage was often a casualty of emigration. In the early part of the 20th century the Lower East Side, where millions of recently arrived Eastern European Jews first settled, had one of the highest divorce rates in New York City. The Jewish Daily Forward, a New York-based Yiddish newspaper edited by Abraham Cahan, had a section called “Gallery of Missing Men” featuring photographs of men who had deserted their families together with pleas for their return. One mechanism by which immigrant families were broken apart is shown in the movie. Often the men came first and worked to save the money needed to pay the transportation costs for their families. During this period, the men would assimilate and adopt American culture rapidly. Even when the men came with their families, the men usually assimilated more rapidly than the women. The men went to the outside world to earn a living while the women stayed at home. When one spouse did not change as fast as the other, friction often developed in the family. When Jake, in an angry outburst calls his wife a “greenhorn,” he is referring to her failure to adopt the customs of her new country.
One of the major differences between emigrants who had assimilated into American society and those who maintained the old ways was in their appearance. In Russia and Eastern Europe, married women wore wigs (called “sheitels”) to demonstrate their modesty and piety. Men wore beards and ear locks. Jake cuts the ear locks off of his son shortly after the boy arrives in America.
A “get” is a Jewish Divorce. This movie shows the couple obtaining a get. One of the themes of the film is how the wife prevails over the husband who spurned her. She won’t give him the divorce he wants until she is paid every penny that his girlfriend has saved. This is enough money to set her new husband up in business.
1. Describe what Gitl and Jake each brought to their marriage.
2. What led Jake to leave his family and marry his girlfriend? What did the girlfriend give to Jake that his wife did not?
FAMILIES IN CRISIS
3. Was Jake’s wife right to strip the girlfriend of all her savings?
4. At the end of the movie, were both couples better off than they had been before the divorce?
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Be honest; Don’t deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable — do what you say you’ll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal — stand by your family, friends and country)
1. Divorce often involves a conflict between values. The values which stand against divorce include the ethical values of trustworthiness and responsibility, as well as the goals as maintenance of families. Some religions prohibit divorce. On the other hand, the ethical value of self-respect and the goals of self-realization and the pursuit of happiness, lead people to jettison bad marriages. Given the divorce rates in the United States, the decision of most people is that trustworthiness, responsibility and maintenance of the family unit, as important as they are, give way to self-respect and the need for people to be with those that they love and to be happy in their family relationships. There are, however, substantial segments of our society which still believe that divorce is immoral. What do you think about this?
(Additional questions are set out in the “Marriage” section above.)
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
2. When you evaluate Jake’s conduct, whether or not you agree that the divorce was the right thing for him to do, there was something that he did that was worse than merely finding a new girlfriend who was more compatible with his lifestyle. What was it?
Jake’s abandonment of his family when they were in a new and strange environment made the breach of trust and lack of responsibility worse than in a usual divorce.
“Yekl” by Abraham Cahan is the novel on which the film was based. Mr. Cahan developed the themes of assimilation in his novel “The Rise of David Levinsky.”
Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.
This Learning Guide was last updated on December 10, 2009.