Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

From Hollywood to Hester Street: Ghetto Film, Melodrama, and the Image of the Assimilated Jew in Hungry Hearts

Academic journal article Journal of Film and Video

From Hollywood to Hester Street: Ghetto Film, Melodrama, and the Image of the Assimilated Jew in Hungry Hearts

Article excerpt

In her autobiography, Red Ribbon on a White Horse (1950), Jewish immigrant writer Anzia Yezierska melodramatically recounts the momentous event that led to her becoming a national celebrity in the 1920s. According to Yezierska, she was renting a room on the Lower East Side of New York (from which she was soon to be evicted) when a telegram arrived informing her that the Hollywood studio Goldwyn was interested in purchasing the film rights to Hungry Hearts (1920), her collection of short stories. Unable to afford the nickel to telephone her agent and the 15 cents for carfare, she sold her dead mother's antique shawl from Poland to a miserly Jewish pawnbroker for a quarter. Zaretzky, the pawnbroker, is depicted in stereotypic terms as "a baldheaded dwarf, grown gray with the years in the dark basement-tightskinned and crooked from squeezing pennies out of despairing people" (Red Ribbon 27). Using equally hackneyed language, Yezierska described the ghetto as cramped and dirty, reeking with "the smell of fish and overripe fruit"; her landlady as the "angel of death," waiting for the moment to evict her; and herself as an overworked, underfed writer, living in dire circumstances (Red Ribbon 25-26).

The sensational climax of Yezierska's autobiography reads like the prototypical American success story. She signs a generous contract with Goldwyn, which also offers her a position as a scriptwriter, and, with the aid of the studio's slick publicity campaign, is made into a star overnight. Newspaper headlines around the country proclaim the fabulous rags-toriches rise of the "Sweatshop Cinderella" who made it "From Hester Street to Hollywood." They describe how the poor immigrant Jew who once was a cleaning lady and sweatshop worker has been magically transformed into a successful American writer (Red Ribbon 40). Yezierska's second work, the novel Salome of the Tenements, is also made into a film, and William Fox offers her a $100,000 contract for further projects. Refusing this generous offer, she instead returns to New York to be near her literary muse, the Lower East Side ghetto, and soon becomes "the recognized mouthpiece of New York's Jewish East Side" (Phelps 21 ).

Anzia Yezierska and the Making of Americans

Yezierska's stories and novels, which are colorful but technically weak and written in crude immigrant idiom, are seen as popular representations of the immigrant's desire to become Americanized during a period when immigration was seen as the greatest threat to the country's economic, political, cultural, and national welfare. This view of Yezierska as a patriotic assimilationist continues to inform her literary reception to this day.1 It has been furthered by sociologists interested in her documentation of women's experience of immigration2 and her intimate relation with John Dewey, whose recently published book of rediscovered poems made their affair public and spurred speculation about ethnic crossfertilization in their relationship and work.3

Founded on an underlying narrative of assimilation in which economic success and upward social mobility are the natural results, these accounts foreground not so much Yezierska's work but her vivid ethnic biography. They blatantly ignore her keen criticism of the Progressive Era and her examples of how philanthropy, Anglo conformity, and linguistic assimilation (standard English) reduce immigrant cultures to illegitimate or un-American cultures that must be transformed through Americanization.

Like her fiction, Yezierska's autobiography uses the myths and icons of assimilation to explore beneath the surface of national homogeneity that is being suppressed, namely, those inassimilable and "foreign" elements that go into the making of Americans. The sentimental and cliche-ridden account of her rise to fame, retold almost 30 years later, deliberately exploits the rags-to-riches narrative with its requisite happy ending only to dismantle it. The myth of assimilation, recast in the melodramatic mode of ethnic kitsch, is questioned from within and attests to the pervasiveness, the persistence, and the potential of mass-produced cultural stereotypes. …

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