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Joan Micklin Silver, the pioneering independent female director behind Hester Street and Crossing Delancey, among many other titles, who fought to bring Jewish stories to the silver screen, has died. She was 85.
Silver died on Thursday at her home in Manhattan of vascular dementia, Silver’s daughter, Claudia, told The New York Times.
Born and raised in Omaha, Nebraska to Russian Jewish parents, Silver left home to attend Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Not long after her graduation in 1956, Silver married the son of a Cleveland-based Zionist rabbi, Raphael D. Silver, and the couple settled in Cleveland, where Silver taught music classes and wrote plays as she worked to raise three children.
Silver made her film debut after the family moved to New York in 1967, and Silver began writing scripts for educational films for children. With The Learning Corporation of America, Silver wrote, produced and directed films such as the 1972 short The Immigrant Experience: The Long Long Journey. Silver ventured into the studio system after an original screenplay called Limbo was picked up by Universal Pictures, but it wasn’t a positive experience: She refused to “soften” the script’s female main character and the studio commissioned a rewrite without her.
The experience informed her work on 1975’s Hester Street, adapted from Abraham Cahan’s novella Yekl, which Silver wrote and directed. “I came of age for film at a time when sexism was pretty strong and although I could get work as a writer I couldn’t get work as a director at all,” Silver described of the time when she was making Hester Street in a Directors Guild of America interview. “And I had the experience of watching young men who had made shorts, as I had, prize-winning shorts, as I had, moving on to directing films and I couldn’t do it.”
Her husband got angry at the lack of opportunities, Silver said, and agreed to raise money for the film. He ended up financing, producing and distributing the low-budget indie, which Hester has said was rejected by all of Hollywood’s major studios as an “ethnic oddity” but ended up earning a healthy $5 million at the box office and was nominated for a Writers Guild of America award. Silver again worked with her husband to produce and distribute her next feature film, Between the Lines (1977); she finally collaborated with a major distributor, United Artists, on her third feature, Chilly Scenes of Winter (1979).
1988’s Crossing Delancey again saw her butting heads with the Hollywood system over Jewish characters: Silver told the New York Times that studios called the film “too ethnic.” Steven Spielberg, who was married at the time to the film’s star, Amy Irving, recommended Silver send the script to a Warner Bros. executive he knew and the studio eventually distributed the movie.
Alongside directing seven feature films over the course of her career, Silver directed theater titles including 1992’s A … My Name Is Still Alice and 1982’s Maybe I’m Doing It Wrong and a radio series for NPR, Great Jewish Stories from Eastern Europe and Beyond. For television, she helmed the films How to Be a Perfect Person in Just Three Days (1983) and Hunger Point (2003), among others.
Silver is survived by daughters Claudia, Dina and Marisa; her sister Renee; and five grandchildren.
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