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VIDEO REWIND : Old World and New Meet on 'Hester Street'

August 25, 1994|MARK CHALON SMITH

The culture shock faced by Jewish immigrants in New York's Lower East Side near the turn of the century is at the anxious heart of "Hester Street."

Directed by Joan Micklin Silver with a revealing eye for detail, the 1975 movie stars Steven Keats as a tailor eager to leave his Old World Jewish traditions behind as he almost desperately strives for an Americanized make-over. His reinvention, which includes changing his Yiddish name Yekl to Jake, gets rough when Gitl (Carol Kane), his European wife, joins him but is less ready to scrap her traditions.

Every marriage has its troubles, but those faced by Jake and Gitl would test even the most savvy counselor. Jake epitomizes selfishness and vulgarity on the path to a brand new lifestyle, and director Silver, who wrote the screenplay based on the story "Yekl" by Abraham Cahan, uses him as a symbol for all that was brash, hedonistic and egocentric in our culture at the birth of the 20th Century.

It's not always a pretty picture, watching him fall for Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), a flashy dancer, while he ignores the nice-girl Gitl; Silver isn't interested in turning him into a hero. Gitl's the victim-protagonist, and we're suppose to admire her (and we do) as she becomes more estranged from Jake while tenderly holding onto her Orthodox ways.

Silver could have used more irony to describe the heartbreak and hope at "Hester Street's" core, but she is still able to tell the story in an intriguing and relatively unsentimental style. The film also looks authentic in its re-creation of a hectic city and era, from the grimy Lower East Side streets to the period costumes.

Besides, Kane is appealing in her complex role. It's not exceptional acting, but it is a better-than-average performance that relies on Kane's customary ability to trade on her innate vulnerability.

"Hester Street" (1975), directed by Joan Micklin Silver. 92 minutes. Rated PG.

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