Earlier this month, members of the Toronto Jewish community were given a rare opportunity to be visually transported back in time. The film, filmed in 1922, is called Hungry Hearts, and is based on the short stories of writer Anzia Yezierska, a Jewish woman born in Poland in the 1880s whose family immigrated to New York. Many of her writings are centered on her experiences and those of other immigrants living in the Lower East Side. Like all movies made at that time, it is silent, with dialogue conveyed by cue cards.
The film was shot on location in the Lower East Side, and offered a unique, albeit brief glimpse, into the life of East European Jewish immigrants who had left “die alte heim” – and everything that was familiar to them – to journey to Amerikeh, spurred by the dream of improving their lives and those of their families in the fabled “goldene medina.”
The film, presented by the Toronto Jewish Film Society was screened at the Miles Nadal JCC, located in a part of Toronto that many decades ago, like the Lower East Side, teemed with the colors, smells and hustle and bustle of Jewish immigrants, many of them, like my parent, survivors of the Holocaust.
I had never seen a silent movie in an actual theater (and it had been years since I glimpsed one on TV), and I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing a movie the way people did 100 years ago – with written dialogue and musical accompaniment being utilized to heighten the audience’s awareness of the drama or comedy of the scene. (In this 80-minute film it was provided with great skill and endurance by Jordan Klapman, an accomplished jazz pianist, music director and arranger.)
What made the movie even more appealing to me was that it was atypical, in terms of it being about a Jewish family – with a bearded father and wig-wearing mother (as opposed to the ones I remember where a common theme involves a villain abducting and then tying a hapless female to the railroad tracks, while her hero/love interest desperately tries to reach her before the approaching locomotive does). The household is headed by a rav, who was threatened by the local police for running a cheder (teaching religion was forbidden in Communist Russia). Believing the boastful letter sent by a landsman (local boy) who had significantly embellished the success he has attained in the land of opportunity, the scholarly father uproots his family at the urging of his stoic, practical-minded wife and their shidduch-aged daughter who is imbued with youthful optimism.
Of course, life in America is not the piece of cake they thought it would be – the father preferred sitting with his face in a sefer rather than walking around with a pushcart, but after many trials and tribulations, the family does indeed achieve the American dream – especially when the daughter, Sara, catches the eye of a newly minted lawyer who saves the day when he defends his future mother-in-law in court against the evil landlord, who happens to be his greedy, bully of an uncle. Anticipating an engagement, she takes on back-breaking menial work to afford white paint that will brighten the dreary walls of their tenement, only to have the landlord, who is appalled that his nephew would deign to marry a poor “greena,” double the rent – already barely affordable as it is. In a fit of despair-fuelled rage, she trashes the place.
While the story itself was entertaining, especially when the actors’ facial expressions were somewhat exaggerated, as were their gestures and body language (obviously to compensate for the lack of dialogue) what captivated my attention was the history I was glimpsing; and the sobering awareness that while for me the events had taken place almost a century ago, for the individuals in that film, they were in their “now.”
It was as if a curtain separating today and a far away yesterday, had been momentarily pulled away, inviting us to view a slice of life that once had been someone’s today.
As the story unfolds you see hordes of people going about their daily business on the streets of lower Manhattan in 1922. You are drawn into their reality as you see pushcart peddlers hawking their wares, women picking up various fruits and vegetables with one hand, evaluating their freshness with a practiced eye as their other hand balances a baby on their hip.