Select Page

In Yekl, Abraham Cahan uses the representation of dialect to enhance the realistic feeling conveyed by his text, but here it functions the way that code-switching works in bilingual texts. We are supposed to understand that most of the dialogue takes place in Yiddish, the lingua franca of Jews on the Lower East Side at the end of the nineteenth century, and Yiddish speech is denoted by proper English. In Yiddish, the characters speak eloquently, but their English is anything but. The characters sprinkle their Yiddish with a fractured English (indicated by italics) that one critic has described as “comic when it is not grotesque.”

In Hester Street, her 1975 film adaptation of Yekl, Joan Micklin Silver can’t make use of this technique without creating a Yiddish film with English subtitles. Instead, her characters all speak accented English, but there’s a payoff, the dramatic irony that’s created when characters like Jake and his flame Mamie talk about how “American” they are. We the audience know that in the era in which the film is set, their spoken English will still mark them as “immigrants” rather than “Americans.”

See how the irony works in this clip, the first scene after the credits, when Jake, Mamie, and their friend Joe Peltner meet a “greenhorn”: