JTA — Joan Micklin Silver, a pioneering female filmmaker who directed two of Hollywood’s most Jewish films, has died at 85. The cause was vascular dementia, according to The New York Times.
Silver was best known for directing “Crossing Delancey,” the Lower East Side rom-com involving a pickle maker, and “Hester Street,” an influential low-budget tale about Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants. But she was also recognized as one of the only female directors working in Hollywood through the 1970s and ’80s.
After moving to New York in 1967, Silver began making short educational films for children. One of them was titled “The Immigrant Experience,” about Polish immigrants to the United States. After working on Hollywood movie scripts and selling some, Silver conceived of her first feature, which picked up on the same Jewish immigrant theme.
“Hester Street,” released in 1975, was based on a story by Abraham Cahan, an influential socialist writer who helped found the Forward newspaper. The script’s dialogue was entirely in Yiddish, something that she said turned off Hollywood producers. Her husband Ray, a real estate developer, helped her finance the project, albeit on a low budget.
The film earned rave reviews and earned $5 million at the box office, a significant haul at the time. Jewish actress Carol Kane was nominated for an Academy Award for her portrayal of the protagonist Gitl.
In 1988, Silver directed “Crossing Delancey,” which was written by Susan Sandler. Amy Irving starred as a New Yorker descended from but detached from her Jewish immigrant heritage. Peter Riegert played her love interest, a pickle man named Sam who represents a more modern incarnation of the Jewish Lower East Side. It remains of Hollywood’s most quintessentially Jewish romances.
Silver also directed several TV movies and wrote multiple musicals that were staged Off Broadway.
“I had such blatantly sexist things said to me by studio executives when I started,” she said in a 1979 American Film Institute interview, adding that one man one told her: “Feature films are very expensive to mount and distribute, and women directors are one more problem we don’t need.”
Ray Silver died in 2013. He was the son of Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver, an American rabbi who was a key figure in the early Zionist movement.