Revisiting “Hester Street”

April 27 2022

In 1896, Abraham Cahan, the longtime editor of the socialist, Yiddish-language daily paper the Forverts, published a short story, titled Yekl. Its title character, like Cahan himself, moved from Russia to America as a young man and left the traditional Judaism of his childhood. In 1975, Joan Micklin Silver made a film adaption of Yekl, titled Hester Street, which has recently been restored and released in select theaters. Devorah Goldman contrasts it to many more recent works about religious defectors—including such popular television series as Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life—that ridicule religion while glorifying the decision to leave it. Yekl’s choice is not so easily vindicated:

Stories about leaving religion tend to be told by those who have left, and so they often emphasize the bravery of that choice. Hester Street, by contrast, acknowledges both the temptation to leave and the commitment required to stay. The religious figures in Cahan’s fiction are rarely caricatures; in Yekl, they are noble. Hester Street depicts a blunt encounter between traditionalism and modernity, but one in which religion is not the enemy and its defectors are not heroes. This is a testament to the insight and empathy of Cahan.

Directed by Silver and filmed in black and white—the better to evoke its 1896 source material—Hester Street often feels like a silent movie. There are long stretches with no dialogue, only ragtime-style music. The handsome and restless Yekl (played by Steven Keats) lives in the Lower East Side of New York, attends dances with a rotation of girlfriends, and does his best to forget the wife and child he has left behind in Russia. In an effort to rid himself of any hint of Jewishness, he shaves his beard, removes his skullcap, and changes his name to Jake. Jake does not pray or observe Jewish law; he ruthlessly mocks those who do.

When Jake is compelled to send for his wife following the death of his father, he treats her like a bad dream he’d like to shake, or like an unpleasant, lingering smell. Gitl, played by the luminous Carol Kane, is every inch the woman he has left behind: she arrives not knowing a word of English; her hair covered by a stiff, unfashionable wig; her person shrouded in a heavy peasant’s cloak. Worse, she believes in the religion Jake has abandoned. She is exactly the sort of person the heroines of Unorthodox and My Unorthodox Life are eager to escape, a bad memory made flesh.

Read more at American Purpose

More about: American Jewish literature, American Jewry, Assimilation, Film, Lower East Side


The U.S. Is Trying to Seduce Israel into Accepting a Bad Deal with Iran. Israel Should Say No

Last week, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) released its quarterly report on the Iranian nuclear program. According to an analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security, the Islamic Republic can now produce enough weapons-grade uranium to manufacture “five nuclear weapons in one month, seven in two months, and a total of eight in three months.” The IAEA also has reason to believe that Tehran has further nuclear capabilities that it has successfully hidden from inspectors. David M. Weinberg is concerned about Washington’s response:

Believe it or not, the Biden administration apparently is once again offering the mullahs of Tehran a sweetheart deal: the release of $10 billion or more in frozen Iranian assets and clemency for Iran’s near-breakout nuclear advances of recent years, in exchange for Iranian release of American hostages and warmed-over pious Iranian pledges to freeze the Shiite atomic-bomb program.

This month, intelligence photos showed Iran again digging tunnels at its Natanz nuclear site—supposedly deep enough to withstand an American or Israeli military strike. This tells us that Iran has something to hide, a clear sign that it has not given up on its quest for a nuclear bomb.

Meanwhile, Antony Blinken today completes a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia, where he is reportedly pressing the kingdom to enter the Abraham Accords. This is no coincidence, for reasons Weinberg explains:

Washington expects Israeli acquiescence in the emerging U.S. surrender to Iran in exchange for a series of other things important to Israel. These include U.S. backing for Israel against escalated Palestinian assaults expected this fall in UN forums, toning down U.S. criticism regarding settlement and security matters (at a time when the IDF is going to have to intensify its anti-terrorist operations in Judea and Samaria), an easing of U.S. pressures on Israel in connection with domestic matters (like judicial reform), a warm Washington visit for Prime Minister Netanyahu (which is not just a political concession but is rather critical to Israel’s overall deterrent posture), and most of all, significant American moves towards reconciliation with Saudi Arabia (which is critical to driving a breakthrough in Israeli-Saudi ties).

[But] even an expensive package of U.S. “concessions” to Saudi Arabia will not truly compensate for U.S. capitulation to Iran (something we know from experience will only embolden the hegemonic ambitions of the mullahs). And this capitulation will make it more difficult for the Saudis to embrace Israel publicly.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Antony Blinken, Iran nuclear program, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, U.S.-Israel relationship