The 1970s in America was a time when, largely as a result of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s and the women’s liberation movement of the 1970s, there was an increased awareness of ethnic identity and a more perceived empowerment for women.
It was in this environment that Joan Micklin Silver decided to adapt for the screen Abraham Cahan’s 1896 novella, “Yekl: A Tale of a New York Ghetto.” Cahan, who had founded “The Jewish Daily Forward” a decade earlier and made it the pre-eminent Yiddish language newspaper in America, had in this, his first novel, dealt with the challenge for immigrant Jews to assimilate in their new adopted country.
With Congress reopening “The Golden Door” to immigrants in the mid-1960s, Silver saw “Yekl” as a story that might resonate for all Americans. After all, Cahan’s main character Jake, like other new immigrants, was having an identity crisis stemming from the strain between the outright freedom that America offered and the religious tradition that he brought with him to this country — a nineteenth century story that still resonated in the 1970s.
Joan Micklin Silver grew up listening to stories about the immigrant experience. While many newcomers to America were reluctant to share their histories, her father, who had come with his family at the age of 12 from Russia to Omaha, would constantly be sharing his memories with her. “My father loved to tell stories about his experiences, about his becoming a peddler and selling in the streets,” said Silver. Silver’s mother was also an immigrant, though she arrived here at the age of 18 months. It seemed natural that the aspiring filmmaker would choose an immigrant’s story for her first movie. In preparing for the film and reviewing sepia photographs from the period, it also seemed right to shoot the film in black and white. As for language, there was little doubt in the writer/director’s mind that Yiddish, the language of the Eastern European immigrant Jew, would very much be a part of her film, “Hester Street.”
On Sunday, January 31 at 3 p.m., the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, in conjunction with Folksbiene — National Yiddish Theater, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the production of “Hester Street.” There will be an award given by the Library of Congress to Ms. Micklin Silver for the film’s selection by the Library for the National Film Registry. The film’s star, Carol Kane will join director Silver for a post-screening discussion.
Author Eric A. Goldman, who teaches cinema at Yeshiva University, and is a film critic for the Jewish Standard, will moderate a post-screening discussion. The museum is at 36 Battery Place in Manhattan. For information, call (646) 437-4202 or go to www.mjhnyc.org.