Revisiting “Hester Street”

April 27, 2022 | Devorah Goldman
About the author: Devorah Goldman is a contributing editor at Mosaic and other publications and a visiting fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She writes frequently on medicine.

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.

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