Revisiting “Hester Street”

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

Iran’s Calculations and America’s Mistake

There is little doubt that if Hizballah had participated more intensively in Saturday’s attack, Israeli air defenses would have been pushed past their limits, and far more damage would have been done. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Pollack, trying to look at things from Tehran’s perspective, see this as an important sign of caution—but caution that shouldn’t be exaggerated:

Iran is well aware of the extent and capability of Israel’s air defenses. The scale of the strike was almost certainly designed to enable at least some of the attacking munitions to penetrate those defenses and cause some degree of damage. Their inability to do so was doubtless a disappointment to Tehran, but the Iranians can probably still console themselves that the attack was frightening for the Israeli people and alarming to their government. Iran probably hopes that it was unpleasant enough to give Israeli leaders pause the next time they consider an operation like the embassy strike.

Hizballah is Iran’s ace in the hole. With more than 150,000 rockets and missiles, the Lebanese militant group could overwhelm Israeli air defenses. . . . All of this reinforces the strategic assessment that Iran is not looking to escalate with Israel and is, in fact, working very hard to avoid escalation. . . . Still, Iran has crossed a Rubicon, although it may not recognize it. Iran had never struck Israel directly from its own territory before Saturday.

Byman and Pollack see here an important lesson for America:

What Saturday’s fireworks hopefully also illustrated is the danger of U.S. disengagement from the Middle East. . . . The latest round of violence shows why it is important for the United States to take the lead on pushing back on Iran and its proxies and bolstering U.S. allies.

Read more at Foreign Policy

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, U.S. Foreign policy