The movie Hester Street is seen through the married couple Yekl and Gitl. Yekl left his wife behind to move to America and live the American dream. Yekl was a jew migrating from Russia but once he was exposed to American culture, he was a changed man. Yekl’s lifestyle changed in ways relating to his appearance, religion and lifestyle. His change throughout the story is the key theme in this movie.
Yekl gave up his religion and overall mortality while living in America. It was like being exposed to a candy shop and told not to touch anything. Yekl changed his name to Jake to seem more American. He didn’t stop there, he changed his look. He cut off his beard, no longer wore his yamaka and dressed more “American.” He even started seeing a dancer in his neighborhood, cheating on his wife back home. He didn’t only want to live the American dream, he wanted to be the American dream. He was awoken from his dream when his wife had to come to America and live with him.
Gitl was not only experiencing a new land, but she also experiencing a new husband. Gitl says to him “I didn’t know you at first, I thought you were a nobleman.” Yekl was different and he tried to bring the same change on to Gitl and their son. The first day there Yekl tells her “Gitl, You are in America now, In America they don’t wear wigs.” While he has left the jewish customs far behind, Gitl still followed them.
One of my favorite scenes is when Gitl finally gives in to Yekl’s desire of American culture and decides to change her appearance to get his love and attention back. In this scene her neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky helps her with the look. In the beginning they show Gitl sitting at the table stressed while Mrs. Kavarsky stands, showing her authority making her character more powerful in the scene. She then take Gitl and starts the mini makeover. First putting a corset on. The shot is from the back of Gitl as Mrs. Kavarsky pulls the ribbons tight on the corset. Although Mrs. Kavarsky is doing the most talking and actions, the focus is still on Gitl and her growing smile as she gets made into an “American girl.” As Mrs. Kavarsky slides Gitl’s new dress on, Gitl makes a comment on the pain and Mrs. Kavarsky replies, “You wanna be an American? You gatta hurt.” Although said jokingly, this line is powerful. The changes that Yekl and Gitl have to go through just to assimilate into the society is painful. For Gitl the pain lies in giving up old ways and the for Yekl the pain relates to deep down knowing that he will always be a russian immigrant. The scene ends with her waiting for Yekl to return but he never does and because of the pain from the corset, she can’t wait any longer. She rips off the outfit and sits, in a medium shot, looking at herself in the mirror. The camera is facing the mirror to emphasize the that fact that she is looking at herself, not only her appearance but her actions. She laughs. Her laugh explains her true feeling about assimilation. Although it might be fun, it’s silly to think you have to conform to a society’s culture to fit in.