September 7, 2000

Cornell Cinema

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Women today never had it so good. College, careers, professional basketball, sexual promiscuity, divorces; the doors have all been flung wide open for us in the last century. This is all well and good, but we mustn’t forget that before women even had bras to burn, they were hoping that their corsets would somehow spontaneously combust just so that they could breathe.

Cornell Cinema is presenting a series of seven films dubbed “When New York Was a Woman: 1900-1950” to complement the Johnson Art Museum exhibit “Changing Roles – Changing Views: A Woman’s New York”. These films cooperate to illustrate how women made the city their own, before ‘feminism’ was even a buzz word and New York was the heart of America’s culture and economy.

Hester Street is a singular and touching story that reflects the stories of many immigrants who came to America during the early 1900s. The story of Gitl, a young Jewish mother moving to America to reunite with her husband, already a veteran of the American immigrant experience, is one lived by many of the ancestors of today’s Americans.

Most family histories in the United States seem to include a story of a young foreigner coming to the land of opportunity with nothing more than a twenty dollar gold piece and the clothes on their back. Although many Americans have gone through this difficult process of assimilation and the struggle of finding economic success, it is still an extraordinary accomplishment and a story worth telling.

The process of becoming an American is nothing less than a battle as evidenced by the individual inner turmoils of Hester Street’s characters. Each is confronted with a choice — either to leave one’s heritage and identity behind them or to hold on to their culture and nationality. Either way, there is a high price to pay.

After less than a luxurious journey from Russia, the meek and pious Gitl arrives in America to find her once doting and reliable husband, Yankl, is now a hot-tempered playboy named Jake. It seems Jake left his morals, marital responsibilities, and Judaism on the boat from Russia along with his given name.

As if that isn’t a bitter enough pill to swallow, Gitl soon learns that Jake, a regular Mr. Hyde to Yankl’s Dr. Jeckle, found much more than a good paying job in the big city, namely a pretty, Polish party girl.

A cheating, verbally abusive husband, raising a child in a strange land, not knowing how to speak English, and looking like a fish out of water in the fashion forward New York culture would be enough to make any woman jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. Luckily for Gitl, she finds refuge in the friendship of her husband’s boarder from the Old Country, Mr. Bernstein. The kind and religious Mr. Bernstein consoles, educates, and helps Gitl and her young son to deal with the trauma of Americanization.

Despite Mr. Bernstein’s kind words of encouragement and guidance, a large part of the film focuses on the difficult trade-off Gitl makes between her Jewish heritage and becoming an American. Surprisingly, the largest pressure to leave her old life behind comes from her fellow immigrants. Those immigrants who have already been Americanized detest the stigma that goes along with being a foreigner. Most have renounced their culture and heritage in favor of stereotypical American values and traditions such as baseball and fashion.

For Gitl, being a woman only compounds the problem it seems. She plays the part of the premiere housewife, keeping her family’s tiny apartment impeccably clean and even keeping herself looking attractive for her husband, while he jumps into the sack with his Polish girlfriend. However, the audience doesn’t have to wait long before Gitl is stung by the bug of American independence and demands a divorce from her husband. Gasp! After that, the bumpy road of Americanization gets increasingly easier for our heroine who discovers the beginnings of feminism.

Life really is quite the soap opera on Hester Street, the Melrose Place of turn of the century America. The women may be wearing bustles and hat pins, but the scandals, cat fights, and drama remain as thrilling and engrossing as ever. Perhaps the only difference is that Hester Street offers characters that inspire and eventually a happy ending.

Archived article by Laura Thomas