Hester Street is a wonderful look at Jewish immigrant life in the 1896's in New York's Lower East Side. There may be a small spoiler or two so tread carefully. Carol Kane is excellent as Gitl, who comes over with her young son from a Russian shtetl to join her husband, Yeki (Steven Keats). Yeki had immigrated five years earlier. He's become "Americanized" and his name is now Jake. Jake has a job, has cut his hair and shaves, likes to dance and play around with the girls. When he came over to America, Gitl and the baby stayed with his father. Now his father has died and Jake has done the right thing. He's borrowed money for a small furnished flat and sent for them.
Gitl, however, is "religious." She speaks only Yiddish. Because married women do not show their hair, she always wears wigs or scarves. Going to parties and dancing is something she feels so uncomfortable with she cannot take part. Gitl clings to the old ways. Jake, of course, has had girl friends and wants the freedom of the life he discovered when he came over. He begins seeing again one of them, Mamie (Dorrie Kavanaugh), who teaches dancing. And to help make ends meet, he takes in a boarder, a shy scholar named Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard). You can see where this is going, and it does so gently.
Hester Street is a humane, warm movie. There are no dramatic climaxes or screaming arguments. Carol Kane plays Gitl as a shy, gentle young woman who wants to please her husband but feels deeply about the religious customs she grew up with. Kane is marvelous with her pale, delicate face and those big, dark eyes. And Jake is no one-dimensional philanderer. He truly is puzzled over his wife's inability to embrace the freedoms and excitement of their new life. While Jake is well on the way to assimilation, Gitl cannot, even as she slowly becomes stronger and more confident.
The movie closes with Jake paying Gitl for a divorce so that he can marry Mamie and they'll start a dance studio. Gitl and Mr. Bernstein will marry and they'll open a small shop. Selling what? They're not sure, but Gitl will sell so that her Mr. Bernstein can study.
The movie evokes with great warmth the life of Hester Street, where so much of people's lives were lived on the sidewalks and curbs. One long sequence, with only background music and street sounds, has Jake and his young son, Yossele, whom Jake has renamed Joey, leaving their apartment and walking hand in hand up Hester Street. The street is crowded with people and shops, horse carts and shopping stalls. Kids play, couples walk, men sit on steps and talk. Everything is for sale, chickens, shoes, potatoes, dresses, apples, lotions, sweets, you name it. Romanticized? Undoubtedly. Highly effective? It sure is.
The movie was shot in black and white, which suits the period and the story. A good deal of the dialogue is in Yiddish with subtitles.