Anatomy of a Heartache: Hester Street and Joan Micklin Silver’s Luminous Career

Movies Features Joan Micklin Silver
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Anatomy of a Heartache: <i>Hester Street</i> and Joan Micklin Silver&#8217;s Luminous Career

Love triangles, workplace woes and questions of faith are the thematic backbone of director Joan Micklin Silver’s work, who expanded the parameters of who (and what) women-led romance films are allowed to focus on over the course of a three-decade career. The boundary-pushing independent filmmaker is tandemly noted for her interest in realistic stories concerning Judaism, New York City and independent women—at times even simultaneously. Silver directed only seven feature films before her death last December at the age of 85, yet her films are unparalleled in their ability to survey imperfect relationships, perhaps none more astutely than her 1975 debut Hester Street.

Recently restored in 4K by Cohen Film Collection and released by Cohen Media Group, Silver’s first feature screened during the 59th New York Film Festival’s revival slate. The film follows Gitl (a demure 21-year-old Carol Kane) upon arriving as a Russian Jewish immigrant to New York City’s Lower East Side in the late 19th century and reuniting with her husband Yankle (Steven Keats), who has already established a home and income stream to support his family. Attempting to solidify his status as a bonafide “Yankee” in the time before his wife’s arrival, Yankle has adopted the Anglicized name “Jake” and subsequently demanded that their son Yossele go by “Joey” and that Gitl ceases covering her hair with wigs and kerchiefs. It soon dawns on Gitl that her husband has also been carrying on an affair with a dancer during this time, a painful revelation that in turn allows a fondness to emerge for fellow tenement dweller Bernstein (Mel Howard).

Filmed in black and white and predominantly employing Yiddish dialogue with English subtitles, Hester Street is a timeless testament to the hurdles of cultural assimilation while capturing a very specific Jewish community in a very specific time and place in American history. Scenes of bustling street markets and mentions of the Third Avenue L train cement the story in NYC, while small details like a mezuzah in the apartment’s threshold and the minutiae of a rabbi-led divorce ceremony offer a uniquely Jewish perspective to domesticity and heartbreak.

Kane was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for the role—an enormous achievement for a low-budget independent film helmed by a first-time writer/director. Though Hester Street’s critical and commercial success (earning more than 14 times its meager $370,000 budget) should have given Silver free reign to pursue future projects, the pervasiveness of sexism and anti-Semitism in the industry regularly dissolved her projects before they’d even started. In an interview with the American Film Institute in 1979, she noted that there were “blatantly sexist” remarks directed at her by studio executives early in her career, one being that “feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.” Understandably frustrated with the lack of opportunities being presented to his wife (who he remained married to for nearly 60 years until his death in 2013), Raphael D. Silver—a commercial real estate developer from Cleveland—co-founded the production company Midwest Films, which effectively funded and distributed Hester Street. Despite being in the good graces of critics, audiences and those surrounding her after the film’s release, Silver was frequently relegated to directing projects that were not her own. Whether realizing a straight-to-TV movie or a film she personally wrote and directed, Silver was perpetually stalked by the ugly presence of discriminatory attitudes. However, these bigoted barricades have in time proven to possess less power than the stories she was able to tell.

Though access to robust budgets and studio connections would have undoubtedly been a boon to Silver as a filmmaker, her ability to nevertheless ingrain certain thematic signatures and an indelible artistic touch into each of her films is wildly impressive. Her tact is particularly prominent when deconstructing cliched narrative outlines employed by many romance (and women-led) films of the era (looking respectfully at you, John Hughes). Arguably her most well-known venture in this realm is her 1998 opus Crossing Delancey, which, much like Hester Street, follows a young Jewish woman from New York’s Lower East Side as she navigates a bizarre love triangle between herself, tradition and modernity.

Working as a clerk in a bookstore that hosts readings from world-renowned authors, Isabelle (Amy Irving) is intent on distancing herself from the old-world customs of her Jewish family, particularly Bubbie (Reizl Bozyk), who incessantly butts into her love life via an overbearing matchmaker. The unabated concern over her lack of a boyfriend on the part of her grandmother and neighborhood acquaintances frustrates Isabelle, who feels fulfilled in far more important sectors of her life—she is perfectly content with her career, peer circle and life as a single woman in New York City. Of course, the prospect of love suddenly strikes anyway: Isabelle must choose to pursue a relationship with Sam (Peter Riegert), a local pickle vendor who plays right into the “nice Jewish boy” archetype she is precisely trying to avoid, or acclaimed European author Anton (Jeroen Krabbé), who represents her desire to be accepted among the New York intelligentsia.

The dynamic in Crossing Delancey is reminiscent of the one between Gitl, Yenkle and Bernstein in Hester Street: A relationship with Yenkle offers an approximation to American assimilation, while Bernstein is emblematic of the comforting familiarity of tradition in a seemingly hostile and unfamiliar place. Whereas Gitl finds solace in forging a relationship with a man who remains at least partially entrenched in Jewish customs and culture, Isabelle is horrified at the idea of entering a stereotypical union and occupying an old-fashioned role. In the nearly 100-year span that separates the two protagonists, Silver cheekily posits that what women want has changed drastically—but what constitutes a great love story has stayed almost exactly the same. Though both characters fall for men with inextricable ties to their Jewish roots, they grant far more respect to both women than either “assimilated” man ever does. Even so, the pull to remain tethered to old-world customs is in constant conflict with the pressure to take advantage of the unique liberties of an “educated” country. As opposed to having to choose one side of the divide to land on, Gitl and Isabelle find ultimate freedom in their ability to maneuver between both sides.

The process of negotiation is omnipresent in Silver’s work, largely within workplace environments and, of course, complex romances. Though she never drew from the Jewish perspective in her feature film work after Crossing Delancey, the director maintained an interest in the messy intricacies of transitional periods in life—work mergers, post-breakup blues, divorces—and how their metamorphic power generally reveals deep (if uncomfortable) personal truths. Caught between the crossroads of low-wage artistic integrity and “selling out,” the staff at the Boston alt-weekly paper The Back Bay Mainline depicted in Silver’s second feature Between the Lines find varying resolutions for themselves in their fledgling careers.

Silver’s following film, Chilly Scenes of Winter (adapted from Anne Beattie’s novel of the same name) is an unflattering portrait of an obsessive civil servant who can’t let go of the idealized version of a woman who broke up with him over a year ago, only confronting his own emotional baggage when the prospect of reuniting is dashed entirely (the film’s conclusion was deemed depressing to the extent that the studio insisted a happier ending to be tacked on last-minute; the debacle also kept the director from tackling another theatrical release until Crossing Delancey nearly a decade later). Over ten years would pass between Crossing Delancey and Silver’s next notable project, the 1999 romantic dramedy A Fish in the Bathtub, which stars real-life married couple Jerry Stiller and Anne Maera as a couple who hastily decide to terminate their 40-year union over the husband’s insistence on keeping a live carp as a pet in their clawfoot tub. Through these periods of intense disharmony, the characters in these films are presented with opportunistic new beginnings: A book deal, a chance to self-reflect, a reassurance of the benefits to marital commitment.

Silver’s interrogation of gender roles and assimilationist frustrations clearly stem from the limitations imposed on her within the filmmaking industry. Much like the characters in Between the Lines, the director found herself oscillating between passion projects and less involved assignments. Between Crossing Delancey and A Fish in the Bathtub, she directed two weakly written features which nonetheless manage to uphold her interests as a filmmaker: Loverboy stars a young Patrick Dempsey as a pizza delivery boy turned escort who becomes torn between staying faithful to his college girlfriend and satisfying sexually unfulfilled suburban housewives; Big Girls Don’t Cry…They Get Even concerns a big blended family that must work through their differences after the eldest daughter runs away from a seemingly unsympathetic household. Though these films are ostensibly flops, they too incorporate messy affairs and tumultuous familial transitions. Even when tasked with directing features that stray substantially from the careful quality of her established filmography, Silver was unwaveringly consistent.

Despite Hester Street being one of only two screenplays written by Silver which she would then direct, her voice as a filmmaker is instantly recognizable in all of her work. Particularly when considering that Crossing Delancey, her most famous, saw Susan Sandley adapt her own play for the screen, Silver’s elegant yet distinct directorial touch is irrefutable. Had the unique perspective of Jewish-American womanhood been allowed to permeate more of her work—or general stories of heartbreak and ennui allowed to exist in their unaltered sincerity—the cinematic scope of intimate relationships may have been pushed even further. Luckily for us, the late filmmaker left plenty of heartwrenching gems to revel in—despite the soulless studio system’s best efforts.

Natalia Keogan is a freelance film writer based in Queens, New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine, Blood Knife Magazine and Filmmaker Magazine, among others. Find her on Twitter @nataliakeogan