Hester Street and the Cinema of the Pilpul

The new management regime at Fandor, in their wisdom (read: stupidity), zapped their online film magazine and blog Keyframe, and with that, their entire archive of articles. No record of any of the authors' work -- all gone. So I've republished here.

Last year, while producing and editing “kosher media” for a video production company in Brooklyn, I became friendly with an elder Yiddish theater actor who often worked with us on assorted commercials and music videos — a stout, pint-sized man with a stubbly but no less angelic “Yiddishe punim” (Jewish face) who could effortlessly affect a stereotypical East-Side-by-way-of-Flatbush “alter kocker” patois that put anyone in the vicinity in stitches. The right Jewish word to describe him is "heimishe" (exceedingly friendly, unassuming, welcoming, unpretentious). One night, he ventured into my editing room from the adjacent studio to visit me while I was hard at work, as the crew set up for his next shot.  After he recounted starring in a Yiddish-language production of Waiting for Godot, we proceeded to talk on the subject of “mama loshen” (mother tongue), and about the specific richness of Yiddish as it related to Hebrew.

A quick history lesson: The early Zionist movement in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century hotly debated what the official language would be, should the Jews eventually achieve statehood.  Religious Jews contested the Hebrew option because of its nature and background as “loshon kodesh” (holy tongue), a language only to be spoken in religious context rather than in everyday speech.  However, to progressive, secular Jews, the Yiddish language, a flavorful combination of Hebrew, German, Russian, and Slavic languages, signified the chains of a difficult past in “old world” Jewish Europe, with its perceived antiquated values, its stifling strictures, and its persecution.  In short, to secular progressives, it reaked of what they deemed backwards provincialism.

Ultimately, newspaper editor and lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda revived “loshon kodesh” by becoming the author of the first “modern Hebrew” dictionary.  Today, the Hebrew/Yiddish schism is no longer the issue it once was; Hebrew as a conversational language is accepted as a fact of life in Israel, even among the observant (though Yiddish still thrives in this significant segment of the demographic).  Although most of today’s American Chassidim are Yiddish monoglots, the language of Yiddish is rapidly dying off outside these Chassidic enclaves.  And it continues to die every day the Jewish elderly pass into eternity.

So, now back to the Yiddish theater actor, who then saw fit to extol the virtues of the Yiddish language, although I think he knew he was preaching to the choir.  My own heart pines and prances at the utterance of Yiddish, a language to which I listen fluently but speak haltingly (though my everyday speech is sprinkled with Yiddish-isms, some overt and foreign, and others commonly adopted into the English lexicon).  He then said something that I deemed rather profound: “Yiddish is a thing of beauty because it’s the language of the pilpul…it’s the language of compromise.”  According to him, modern Hebrew originally bred and continues to breed a fierce brand of Jewish nationalism and exceptionalism that worries him (I personally do not subscribe in any way to this view, but I can, in my own way, understand his basic logic – and this could indeed easily be the subject of another article, but I will of course stick to the topic at hand).

Let us rewind for a moment.  What is this strange word “pilpul”?  No, it’s not like kugel, and is not in any way edible, although it does originate from the Hebrew word for “pepper.”  However, it is one of the very few Talmudic vocabulary words to have been appropriated into the standard English dictionary, though the word still remains obscure relative to other Jewish-rooted crossover classics like “schlep,” “schtick” and “kvetch”.  Defined by Merrian-Webster, “pilpul” is “hairsplitting critical analysis.”  You could also call it “heavy-duty exegesis.”

As the old adage goes, “Two Jews: three opinions.”  In the course of rabbinic dialectic and Jewish learning, one is to accept the inherent complexity as it exists in everything under the sun.  And in order for our all-too-human hearts and minds to reconcile that which seems irreconcilable, a careful manner of compromise must be applied and weighed in accordance with all the conceivable factors. Thus, Yiddish as a conflagration of many languages, is a language of compromise, just as pilpul is based on putting compromise into action in an effort to make it meaningful.

So, all this extraneous info just to introduce a film?  I know, this stuff’s getting dense, but bear with me.  I guarantee that it all has a point, and I think a valuable one important to cinema as a whole.

Since November 2014, I’ve been working with Oxford University Press on the first biography on director Joan Micklin Silver, known for Crossing Delancey (1988), Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979), Between the Lines (1977), and her breakthrough feature Hester Street (1975), starring Carol Kane in one of the earliest independent film performances to be nominated for the Academy Award.  Most of Silver’s films find comic discomfort in juxtaposing the “old world” with the modern world.  Her skill as a director lies in orchestrating pathos and often unexpected humor that occur when these worlds collide.  That many of her films are Jewish-themed is certainly apropos to this, her most burgeoning theme, but even the ones that do not broker in outwardly Jewish subjects are steeped in this narrative conflict – of characters with a death-grip on their memories of a halcyon past, or a way of life, who find themselves at odds with moving forward in the status quo.  Their death-grip makes them pragmatically and emotionally vulnerable.

The prospect of this particular book project excited me at my deepest core.  As an observant Jew myself, one who once attended a Chabad-Lubavitch yeshiva with the intention of entering the rabbinate, I felt especially equipped and ready to tackle the Jewish subject matter in her films in a way that no other author would or could.

Usually, in examining films about observant Jews, I find myself yelling at the screen as a result of a filmmaker’s outright negligence, dumbfounding errors, and exotification.  Sidney Lumet’s A Stranger Among Us (1992) is a major bĂȘte noire for me.  Counter to pictures like Lumet’s disposable, embarrassing depiction of New York Jewish subculture, Hester Street and Crossing Delancey don’t soft-peddle their Yiddishkeit.  On the contrary, they get so much right, and render the subject matter with palpable respect and great love.

Beyond my great admiration for Joan’s corpus, the book is an opportunity for me to braid the threads of my unusual double life. And as it so happens, my dream film project is an epic adaptation of Abraham Cahan’s novel The Rise of David Levinsky, which you might say is a Jewish Horatio Alger tale, by way of Dostoevsky.

That much of the film Hester Street is performed in the Yiddish language is auspicious, but it engenders another kind of perfection, especially when one considers what the Yiddish theater actor expressed to me, about what the beauty of Yiddish really means to him.  The film is, in many ways, about compromise amid complexity, staged in a language with this heritage of compromise and complexity, and one that extends beyond just cultural or religious baggage.

Now consider this: Silver made her debut feature in direct defiance of the standard system of motion picture production -- a system that saw her simply as a wannabe filmmaker handicapped by shear virtue of her gender.  As I state in the opening line of the book, “A female first-time director wanted to make a black-and-white film about immigrant Jews coming to America in the early twentieth century.  This single statement, though seemingly harmless, was at that time fraught with at least five potential hazards.”

In choosing to adapt Yiddish Daily Forward founder Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl, she automatically committed a form of commercial suicide.  The very first Hollywood studios, which had been famously founded and owned by Jews eager to chuck this aspect of their identity, were rooted in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy regarding questions of Jewishness in their product.

These studio heads, who “went from Poland to polo in less than one generation,” lived in a world where it paid to be covert – and where it was kosher, for instance, to bribe the lone non-Jewish studio head, Darryl Zanuck of Fox, to permanently shelve his drama Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), an exposĂ© of anti-Semitism.  The bribing party, Louis B. Mayer, Jack Warner, Carl Laemmle and Harry Cohn, set the stage for a persisting Jewish denial in Hollywood, which in turn cultivated the belief that outwardly Jewish content ran counter to commercialism.  The studio founders’ successors inherited this sentiment, so one can then understand how the Cahan property was not accepted as a pedigree for success.

Hester Street and its source Yekl, both set circa 1900, tell the story of an Americanized Jew who has “shpilkes” (anxiousness) to assimilate. He has shed the appellation “Yankel” for the more socially acceptable American name “Jake”.  He also manages to dress like a dandy on his meager earnings as a sewing machine operator in the garment district.  When he imports his wife Gitl and his five-year-old son Yossele, no sooner are they off the boat before he goes on a campaign to Americanize them.  Gitl, however, refuses to hear of it, as she stays steadfast to the old ways.  She keeps her sheitl (wig), sprinkles salt in her little boy’s pockets for luck, and tries to proposition a visiting peddler about obtaining a liebe trop’n (a love potion) so that her husband will love her anew. "I won’t look like a goy, even for Yankel,” she exclaims to Mrs. Kavarsky, their busy-body landlady.   All the while, however, she slowly finds herself going sweet on Jake’s Talmud scholar roommate Mr. Bernstein.

Near the end of Hester Street, Carol Kane’s Gitl has stayed true to herself, but has learned, and quite fast, these new American ways.  The moment when she admonishes the character of Mrs. Kavarsky for referring to her son “Yossele” rather than the now-accepted “Joey” defines the cinema of the pilpul.  There is a gentle awareness that this moment of Americanization is something for which a delicate balance must be struck. She must now tend to the tall order of conforming the present reality with her earlier expectation – one now shrivelled into a simple but no less impassioned dream – of being able to keep the identity-defining traditions of her rooted past alive.

Hester Street is cinema that is both of and about compromise – the pilpul, as it can exist on celluloid at its most lively.

When one also considers the lengths to which Silver had to go, to finance, shoot and then distribute Hester Street, it only enriches the point.  With only $500,000 raised, Silver had to evoke the early twentieth century on the precious, dangerously limited funds allotted to undertake such an endeavor.  When no distributor evinced an interest in picking up the film, and in the face of the suggestion that it could “play the synagogue circuit,” she and her husband Raphael “Ray” Silver self-distributed (with the help and advice of John Cassavetes and Jeff Lipsky).  It was a pure go-for-broke endeavor – what indendent cinema is really about, or at least should be about.  At least it is what I, and my filmmaking friends, think it is about.

Independent cinema of this variety is so often about finding the art and beauty in compromise, while at the same time being uncompromising.  It is an appropriation of the pilpul.  Am I saying making a film is Talmudic?  Yes, in a way, I am.  As Orson Welles once said, “The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.”  All of this makes Hester Street an absolute must-see picture in my book, for Jews, Gentiles, and especially filmmakers (which I deem as much a religious group as any of them).

At this point in my own personal spiritual journey, I’m comfortable with attending my local shul (synogogue) regularly here in San Francisco’s Noe Valley, and then, as a filmmaker, attempting to make emotionally honest pictures that wouldn’t really qualify as kosher in any traditional sense of the term. But the act of storytelling is ingrained in Jewish culture, and stories told leave an indelible mark that Judaism acknowledges. I search for my own beautiful compromise.

Fandor now premieres Hester Street, one of my favorite films, brought to you by the great Joan Micklin Silver, a director sorely in need of further consideration and discussion.

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