Hester Street is the film adaptation of Yekl, A Tale of the Ghetto, a story Abraham Cahan wrote in 1896 about Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe. While remaining generally faithful to Cahan's original story, the film director, Joan Macklin Silver, adds dimension to it. She brings the period (the 1890's, when Jewish immigration was at its height) alive in colorful, richly detailed settings, and establishes a complex social context for the story, taking up where Cahan left off. (p. 142)
In general, Silver's casting seems to be something of a capitulation to American tastes. In the original story, the immigrants really do look different from the rest of the population. But Silver's Mrs. Kavarsky is far more attractive than the slovenly, "scraggy little woman" with warts on her face and her hair in disarray, whom Cahan describes, and her Mamie is also less Semitic-looking than Cahan's character. Thus the film imagery tends to undercut the anguish and self-hatred Jewish women felt (and which they frequently expressed in immigrant literature) when they realized they would never be considered beautiful by Anglo-Saxon standards.
For the most part, however, Silver's script differs in only a few minor details from the original story line. Her main modifications have been in terms of emphasis, most of them revealing strong feminist underpinnings. She shows clearly that a strong network of both emotional and practical support existed among the women of the ghetto. While there is evidence for this in Cahan's story, Silver's directing, through the work of the actresses in the film, tends to bring it into sharper focus….
Silver eliminates [the] less-than-positive aspects of the female network by toning down Mrs. Kavarsky's impatience, and by omitting Fanny's betrayal altogether. At the same time, her directing underscores a sense of female solidarity. In the divorce scene, for instance, Silver has the rabbi's wife treat Jake coldly, even rudely, while she is kindly and...