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    One of the Best! This movie is on TWM's short list of the best movies to supplement classes in United States History, High School Level.

    SUBJECTS — U.S./1865 - 1913, Diversity & New York; Religions/Judaism;
    SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Marriage; Families in Crisis;
    MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Trustworthiness.
    Age:10+; MPAA Rating -- PG; Drama; 1975; 89 minutes; Color; Available from Amazon.com.

    Description:     The scene is New York City's Lower East Side. The year is 1896. A Russian Jewish immigrant has abandoned the traditions of Eastern European Orthodox Jewry. To look more like "an American", he has cut off his ear locks and shaved his beard. Then he is summoned to Ellis Island to pick up his wife and young son who have followed him from the old country. Will she be able to assimilate fast enough to satisfy her husband? Does she want to?

    "Hester Street" is based on a story by Abraham Cahan first published in 1896 in the Jewish Daily Forward (Forvarts), a Yiddish language newspaper published in New York City. It was later republished as a short novel under the name "Yekl."

    Benefits of the Movie:     This movie shows life in the Jewish sections of New York City's lower East Side during the years of massive immigration from Eastern Europe. It tells the story of a Jewish family during that period and shows some of the strains that emigration placed upon husbands and wives.

    Most of the dialogue is in English but some conversations occur in Yiddish with English subtitles.


Benefits of the Movie
Possible Problems
Parenting Points
Selected Awards & Cast
Helpful Background
Discussion Questions:
      Subjects (Curriculum Topics)
      Social-Emotional Learning
      Moral-Ethical Emphasis
            (Character Counts)
Bridges to Reading
Links to the Internet
Assignments, Projects & Activities

WORKSHEETS: TWM offers the following worksheets to keep students' minds on the movie and direct them to the lessons that can be learned from the film. Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM's Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project.

    Possible Problems:    MINOR. The viewer gets a short, blurred look at a prostitute's exposed breasts before Jake employs her.

    Parenting Points:     Ask and help your child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. If any of your ancestors came to the U.S. during the migration from Eastern Europe of the late 19th and early 20th century, tell this to your child. If your child is very interested in the film, go through some of the other discussion questions.
QUICK DISCUSSION QUESTION:   What was it that doomed the marriage of Gitl and Jake?

Suggested Response: They assimilated at different rates and in different ways. Jake was in the country earlier and went out into the business world. All of this allowed him to assimilate faster and more completely. Gitl came later and, like most immigrant women, was at home most of the time. Her assimilation proceeded more slowly.

    Selected Awards, Cast and Director:

      Selected Awards:  1975 Academy Award Nominations: Best Actress (Kane).

      Featured Actors:  Carol Kane, Doris Roberts, Steven Keats, Mel Howard.

      Director:  Joan Micklin Silver.

    Helpful Background:

    More than two million Eastern European and Russian Jews immigrated to the United States between 1880 and 1924. This immigration was caused not so much by increased opportunity in the United States as by conditions in Europe, including: violent pogroms, laws restricting Jewish employment, denial of education, restriction on areas of settlement and the threat of long military conscription. See, for example Fiddler on the Roof. In 1924 Congress passed severely restricted immigration from Eastern Europe.

    Dance halls proliferated in the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. They introduced their students to American ideas of style and class and offered unmarried working class people the chance to meet each other.

    Marriage was often a casualty of emigration. In the early part of the 20th century the Lower East Side, where millions of recently arrived Eastern European Jews first settled, had one of the highest divorce rates in New York City. The Jewish Daily Forward, a New York based Yiddish newspaper edited by Abraham Cahan, had a section called "Gallery of Missing Men" featuring photographs of men who had deserted their families together with pleas for their return. One mechanism by which immigrant families were broken apart is shown in the movie. Often the men came first and worked to save the money needed to pay the transportation costs for their families. During this period, the men would assimilate and adopt American culture rapidly. Even when the men came with their families, the men usually assimilated more rapidly than the women. The men went to the outside world to earn a living while the women stayed at home. When one spouse did not change as fast as the other, friction often developed in the family. When Jake, in an angry outburst calls his wife a "greenhorn," he is referring to her failure to adopt the customs of her new country.

    One of the major differences between emigrants who had assimilated into American society and those who maintained the old ways was in their appearance. In Russia and Eastern Europe, married women wore wigs (called "sheitels") to demonstrate their modesty and piety. Men wore beards and ear locks. Jake cuts the ear locks off of his son shortly after the boy arrives in America.

    A "get" is a Jewish Divorce. This movie shows the couple obtaining a get. One of the themes of the film is how the wife prevails over the husband who spurned her. She won't give him the divorce he wants until she is paid every penny that his girlfriend has saved. This is enough money to set her new husband up in business.

For English Language Arts classes, distribute TWM's Film Study Worksheet. Teachers can modify the worksheet to fit the needs of each class. Ask students to fill out the worksheet as they watch the film or at the film's end.

Are you concerned that time will be wasted if you are absent from class? Worry no more  .  .  .   Check out TeachWithMovies' Set-Up-the-Sub.

Click here for TWM's lesson plans to introduce cinematic and theatrical technique.

Reminder to Teachers: Obtain all required permissions from your school administration before showing any film.

Teachers who want parental permission to show this movie can use TWM's Movie Permission Slip.

  Select questions that are appropriate for your students.

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    Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions:


    1.  Describe what Gitl and Jake each brought to their marriage.

    2.  What led Jake to leave his family and marry his girlfriend? What did the girlfriend give to Jake that his wife did not?


    3.  Was Jake's wife right to strip the girlfriend of all her savings?

    4.  At the end of the movie, were both couples better off than they had been before the divorce?

OTHER LESSON PLANS: The American Jewish Experience through the Nineteenth Century: Immigration and Acculturation and The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation from the National Humanities Center.

    Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions (Character Counts)

    Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.


    (Be honest; Don't deceive, cheat or steal; Be reliable -- do what you say you'll do; Have the courage to do the right thing; Build a good reputation; Be loyal -- stand by your family, friends and country)

    1.  Divorce often involves a conflict between values. The values which stand against divorce include the ethical values of trustworthiness and responsibility, as well as the goals as maintenance of families. Some religions prohibit divorce. On the other hand, the ethical value of self-respect and the goals of self-realization and the pursuit of happiness, lead people to jettison bad marriages. Given the divorce rates in the United States, the decision of most people is that trustworthiness, responsibility and maintenance of the family unit, as important as they are, give way to self-respect and the need for people to be with those that they love and to be happy in their family relationships. There are, however, substantial segments of our society which still believe that divorce is immoral. What do you think about this?

    (Additional questions are set out in the "Marriage" section above.)


    (Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act -- consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)

    2.  When you evaluate Jake's conduct, whether or not you agree that the divorce was the right thing for him to do, there was something that he did that was worse than merely finding a new girlfriend who was more compatible with his lifestyle. What was it? Suggested Response: Jake's abandonment of his family when they were in a new and strange environment made the breach of trust and lack of responsibility worse than in a usual divorce.

Teachwithmovies.com is a Character Counts "Six Pillars Partner" and uses The Six Pillars of Character to organize ethical principles.

Character Counts and the Six Pillars of Character are marks of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition, a project of the Josephson Institute of Ethics.

Give us your feedback! Was the Guide helpful? If so, which sections were most helpful? Do you have any suggestions for improvement? Email us!

    Bridges to Reading: "Yekl" by Abraham Cahan is the novel on which the film was based. Mr. Cahan developed the themes of assimilation in his novel "The Rise of David Levinsky."
  MOVIES ON RELATED TOPICS: Fiddler on the Roof and, for younger children, An American Tail.

    Links to the Internet: None.


    Bibliography: Past Imperfect, Mark C. Carnes, Ed., Henry Holt and Company, New York, 1995.

    Last updated December 10, 2009.

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