Hester Street is based on the classic independent film by Joan Micklin Silver and Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekyl.

Made on a shoestring budget of $400,000 in 1975, completely outside of the traditional studio system, the film Hester Street turned into an unexpected phenomenon.

Bolstered by rave reviews, it opened at New York’s Plaza Theater to lines around the block and went on to over $6 million dollars in ticket sales, the equivalent of over $33 million in today’s dollars.  Carol Kane was nominated for the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Gitl.

In 2011, the film was selected by Library of Congress to be part of the National Film Registry for its “cultural, historical and aesthetic significance.”

In making its selection, the Registry said that Hester Street was “a portrait of Eastern European Jewish life in America that historians have praised for its accuracy of detail and sensitivity to the challenges immigrants faced during their acculturation process”

Joan Micklin Silver’s screenplay was based on a novella by Abraham Cahan. Cahan was a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania who came with the more than two million Jews that emigrated to the U.S. between 1887 and WWI. He became a member of and advocate for the Socialist Labor Party of America. In 1897 he founded the Yiddish newspaper The Forward, which he used as a platform for the Socialist and Labor movements. In The Forward he referred to Jews who cast off the yoke of their religion and adopted socialist philosophy as “Free Thinkers”.

His original novella, Yekl; A Tale of the New York Ghetto focused the story on Jake, whereas Joan Micklin Silver’s screenplay for Hester Street shifted the narrative to Gitl. The play draws on both sources.