Although sometimes it feels like Omaha is bereft of Yiddish, but for a few elderly Jews at the Jewish retirement home, this city did once contribute to the language in a significant way. This is the birthplace of a filmmaker named Joan Micklin Silver, and in 1975, Silver authored and directed a film called "Hester Street." The film adapted a novelette by Abraham Cahan, longtime editor of the Jewish Daily Forward, and much of the film's dialogue is in Yiddish.
The amount of Yiddish in the film was a bold decision on Silver's part, but there is little about the film that doesn't feel bold. American popular culture has tended to shy away from Jewish subjects when they seemed too Jewish, leading to puzzling phenomenon, like the fact that most of the Seinfeld cast was supposed to be Italian, despite the fact that they were based on Jews, played by Jews, and written as though they were Jews.
But Silver indulges the Jewishness of her story. For all the Yiddish in the film, it is still mostly an English language film, but the language is Jewish inflected. Jewish idioms are used and untranslated. Everybody has an accent, and so even if they aren't speaking Yiddish, they all continuously speak Jewish. Hester Street itself was an overwhelmingly Jewish thoroughfare during the Jewish migration from Europe at the turn of the 20th century -- so much so that one character wonders where all the non-Jews are.
While the film's male lead is proudly, if not entirely, assimilated, the bulk of the film's characters are almost stock types from Yiddish theater, including a greenhorn immigrant, a tormented Talmud student, a grotesque shop manager, and a nosy landlady. The conflicts of the film are Jewish, as assimilation presses up against tradition. Much of the film exists in the world of Jewish ritual, from the way letters are chanted when being learned to the complicated process of acquiring a divorce decree. If other Americans were afraid of being too Jewish, Silver seems afraid not to be Jewish enough. Her movie exists in a world without gentiles, a private world of Jewish experience, and, as a result, it sometimes feels like a peephole opened into the past.
It helps that the film is terrifically cast. This was an early role for Carol Kane, playing a recent immigrant, and she is so young that she seems to still be a teenager. Silver highlights her alieness, dressing her in Russian peasant wear and a strange, looped wig, but she often frames Kane like she was a religious icon; she positively luminous is some shots. Although Kane is required to perform much of her dialogue in Yiddish, she's extraordinarily natural in the role, as though somehow Silver had managed to locate an actual turn-of-the-century Yiddish speaking immigrant for the part. It was a huge surprise that Kane was nominated for an Oscar when the film debuted. It is no surprise watching it now.
She's married to a man who is, frankly, a cad. Played by Steven Keats, the husband is a swaggering showoff and more than a bit of a bully. Keats' performance is a bit more theatrical than Kane's, but he's playing a character who is himself playing a role: The husband is pretending to be an American. There is a scene in which he attempts to teach his son to play baseball, and both are terrible at it, with Keats performing a pantomime of the behavior of ball players. Silver reverses the character's dialogue in the original novelette, where he spoke Yiddish but peppered it with mispronounced English slang. Here, he speaks English, but throws in Yiddish insults and phrases when he needs to. The effect is the same: Keats is someone who knows there is something called an American, and wants to be it, but all he has to model himself after is a poorly understood pastiche of American behavior.
Keats' character can't stand that his wife is so old country when he so desperately wants to be new world, and he's awful to her as a result. He has been having an affair with another woman, he visits prostitutes, and he bullies Kane to drop the Russian Jewish mannerisms and start to act like an American. As she weeps and screams, he cuts off their son's sidelocks, he forces her to speak English, and he refuses to take her out of the house.
But he's made a mistake. This may be America, and he may be American, but it is Hester Street, and, in a Jewish neighborhood, a Jewish woman can find resources of her own. The film subtly reverses direction, as Keats' ambition leads him to make a series of ill-considered decisions, and his wife proves to be shrewder about taking advantage of them than might be expected.
I mentioned earlier that the film's characters seem drawn from Yiddish theater, but it's not just the characters -- the whole film evokes an older, vernacular style of storytelling, a lost language of Jewish drama, revived in this film alongside Yiddish, the language it was written in. It does not feel like a story for the modern era, but instead for an earlier one, people who not only understood Yiddish but also the literary and dramatic conventions of Yiddish storytelling. I still think Carole Kane should have won an Oscar, but I think she should have won it in 1896.