The script tells us that the action of the play unfolds in “three basic areas. . . : Bubbie’s kitchen, the bookstore, and the bench.” The latter also does duty as a restaurant where the main character meets a famous author for a romantic rendezvous. The playwright wants these areas to be “seen as islands that are easily traversed. Isabelle [the main character] travels from one to the other while talking to us.” This implies that each area will be evoked by a few suggestive scenic elements rather than presented on stage with photographic detail and accuracy.
The fact that Isabelle directly addresses the audience while moving between these areas suggests that we are witnessing what is known as a “memory play,” a drama that shows us scenes from the past as remembered by a single character. We all know that our memories of past moments tend to emphasize a few important details: an article of clothing, a piece of furniture, a song playing in the background—hence the scenery as a kind of sketch rather than a fully realistic landscape.
The play’s title--Crossing Delancey—also tells us something important about the relationship of the setting to the drama’s main action. This is a play named after a particular street in New York. Delancey St. is a major thoroughfare running through a Manhattan neighborhood known as The Lower East Side, an area where hundreds of thousands of Jewish immigrants to settled in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
For decades, life in the Lower East Side preserved the religious and cultural traditions of Jews from Poland and the Russian Empire: the liturgical life of the synagogues, the ethnic food, the Yiddish language, and the traditional mores surrounding courtship and marriage. By 1985, when this play was first produced, this world had largely disappeared, surviving as a distant tribal memory for the vast majority of New York’s Jews. Thus, to cross Delancey street heading south—into the old neighborhood—was to enter into an immigrant world belonging to the past.
On the other hand, to cross Delancey northbound in the 1930s, 40s, and 50s was to move into a different cultural zone: uptown Manhattan. This was the heart of the “American” here-and-now, a secular universe shaped by the “liberated” values of the universities and the media, values eagerly embraced by young Jews escaping the parochial and culturally claustrophobic environment of the Lower East Side. People like Izzy’s parents.
The stage setting of the play reproduces and spans this cultural divide. Bubbie’s apartment is down in the old neighborhood, where she cooks the old foods, tells the old stories, and urges her granddaughter, Izzy, to embrace the old-fashioned fulfillments of home and husband. In contrast, Izzy’s bookstore, “New Day Books”—note the name—is on the other side of Delancey, miles away in upper Manhattan. Here Izzy dreams of romance with a famous Gentile writer, while returning each evening to her empty apartment, determined to make a modern life for herself.
The play oscillates between these two locations as we watch Izzy struggling to maintain her uptown lifestyle while being lured back to the other side of Delancey by her wily Bubbie. Will Izzy remain autonomous and unattached, or will she be charmed by the Lower East Side suitor her Bubbie has picked out for her? And if she returns, will it seem like a surrender to the obsolete claims of the past, or will it represent a return to an authentic life still drawing strength from its old roots?
As the play begins, Bubbie, Izzy/Isabella’s grandmother, a “feisty, sharp-witted woman in her eighties,” is having her chin-hairs plucked by her granddaughter, who is paying her weekly visit to the Lower East Side. “I visit her every Sunday,” Izzy tells the audience. “She rubs my back. She holds me. I listen to her breathe.”
On this particular Sunday, Izzy is telling her grandmother about a dream she has recently had in which the ocean turns blood red. Despite the ominous implications, Bubbie insists on interpreting this scenario in the best possible light: “Water is good luck. . . . Red is a very lucky color.” So Bubbie’s first important action is to turn her granddaughter’s nightmare into a promise of happiness—a preview of what she will be doing for the rest of the play.
The darkest aspect of Izzy’s life in Bubbie’s eyes is her loneliness. “Ah—it’s a terrible, terrible thing. Terrible. . . . That you should be all alone.” This will become the theme of most of her subsequent scenes with Isabella. “Books,” she tells her book-loving grandchild, “don’t make blintzes . . . books is just paper. Books can’t be your Bubbie. Books can’t be your husband.”
On that note, Izzie, who has heard all this before, steps out of Bubbie’s world and into her bookstore. She arrives just in time to answer a ringing phone. On the other end, she tells the audience, is the famous author—and New Day customer—Tyler Moss. We learn immediately that Izzy is deeply smitten by this man, who, judging by his WASPY-sounding name, has spent very little time crossing Delancey southbound. “We’ve never had much conversation. . . . but there is this . . . undercurrent. I can feel it. He gives it away with his eyes. They’re grey blue and very very smokey and mysterious. When I hand him back his change . . . I give each of his eyelids a secret kiss.”
This moment of erotic fantasy immediately gives way to the reality lying on the other side of Delancey, where where Izzy meets her Bubbie on a park bench. Again the topic of the single life and its loneliness comes up: “A dog should live alone. Not people. A dog. Loneliness is a sickness.”
How to cure that ailment? Marriage, obviously. And how to make that happen? A matchmaker, of course. Shades of Fiddler on the Roof! Bubbie has arranged for Izzy to meet Hannah who’s “got some nice boys. Some fine, respectable boys.” Izzy, as befits a modern woman, is appalled by the idea: “This isn’t the way I live. This is a hundred years ago. This isn’t me.”
But Bubbie won’t be resisted; the meeting with Hannah happens at the park bench and Izzy is speechless. As Bubbie passes around a jar of tagelah—ethnic pastry—the scene swiftly changes to the bookstore—safe territory. Safe, at least, from the toils of the old neighborhood.
Back uptown, Tyler, the author, shows up at New Day, looking for a copy of the Paris Review, a heavyweight literary magazine. The most recent issue of the publication has not arrived yet, but the bookstore provides other satisfactions for the visiting novelist. Izzy is reading one of his books, and not just for the first time. In fact, she tells Tyler, this is her third journey through the work. Tyler is bowled over by her admiration for his book: “This is called adrenalin to the ego. . . .I’m all mush-mouth. . . . My god, I can’t think straight—I’m still swooning from your compliment.”
Under the spell of her admiration, he inscribes the book for her, writing, “To Izzy. A reader’s devotion is a writer’s nourishment. Thanks for the meal. Always, Tyler Moss.” After reading this, Izzy closes the book, “and kisses the jacket.”
This moment of bliss morphs into downtown reality as Izzy returns to Bubbie’s apartment. There she tries to talk her way out of a meeting with a prospective husband supplied by Hannah. The man in question sells pickles in the neighborhood, “some nice business” in Bubbie’s view.
But Izzy can’t imagine following through on this blind date: “What can I say to a pickleman?” she asks, clearly implying an unbridgeable cultural gulf between her and him. As usual, Bubbie plays her trump card: the dread of loneliness. But Izzy counters by explaining that,
“it’s very different for women of my generation. . . . Everything’s different. We have options. . . . I can do anything I want to do. Go anywhere I want to go. . . . Maybe I don’t want a husband. . . And if I did, he wouldn’t be a pickleman.”
When asked by Bubbie if she actually has any boyfriends, Izzy says, “I have—plenty. . . . I haven’t brought them to meet you yet—they’re friends. . . . Nothing serious yet.”
So instead of considering an actually-existing pickleman, Izzy opts for an array of unspecified possibilities and a gaggle of unnamed boyfriends, rejecting the real for the imaginary, as we see in the next scene.
The lighting changes to “dreamy hot pinks and reds as TYLER enters the store.” He observes that Izzy’s hair is “shimmering . . . almost looks like a halo. . . . And . . . your mouth—it’s . . . painfully sweet. . . . (scooping her up in his arms). . . . I want you in my life.”
Then the lights brighten, telling us the romantic scene was just a fantasy. The real Tyler enters, seeking his Paris Review, telling Izzy she looks out of sorts, and, awkwardly, failing to remember her name. But even though the previous scene of seduction was purely imaginary, Tyler still excites her more than the pickleman.
Back again to Bubbie’s kitchen where she, Hannah, Izzy, and Sam—the candidate for husband—are looking at old photos as Bubbie reminisces about the past. Hannah pulls the focus back to the present when she asks Sam to tell them about himself. “I’m a pretty happy fella,” he says, describing how he likes to hear the birds sing in the morning, how he enjoys putting on a clean shirt, going to morning prayers at the shule (another term for synagogue), having coffee with his friend Schlomo, and then opening his pickle store.
Having concluded his self-description, he presents Bubbie—whose given name is Ida—with an array of his wares, “the best pickles in New York,” as he boasts. All the while, Izzy has sat silently. At Hannah’s suggestion, the older ladies leave the room, giving Sam and Izzy an opportunity to talk. Sam makes a number of observations and asks a number of questions, to each of which Izzy replies with a monosyllabic, “Yeah.”
Finally she decides to lay her cards on the table. “I didn’t have anything to do with this. . . . This isn’t the way I live. . . . I live uptown. . . . [A]nd emotionally—sociologically, I’m a million miles from here.”
So, Sam observes, “This isn’t your style.” But he also observes that “you can change your style.” And then he tells the story of another friend, Harry Shipman, an importer of fancy foods, whose life was altered when he acquired a new hat. “One day, he’s crossing Delancey, a big wind comes—poof—it’s gone.” So Sam gave him five dollars to buy a new hat from another friend, Finkel, which Harry does. And lo, he comes back from the hat store “a new man,” wearing a “grey felt Stetson” instead of the insignificant little cap that blew away. “The next day he makes an engagement.” And why? Because the new hat allowed the girl to see Harry’s eyes. At this point, Sam “bends down close and stares into [Izzy’s] eyes. IZZY tries to look away, but feels herself drawn into the warm, bright, steady gaze.” These may not be the smoky blue eyes of Tyler Moss, but they are actually looking at her.
So this little parable, which gives the play its title, also establishes the fact that “crossing Delancey” can transform your life, as can, perhaps, a warm and steady gaze.
Unfortunately for Sam, his eyes aren’t quite bright enough to change Izzy’s attitude toward him, and when he invites her to dinner, she turns him down. Disappointed, he suggests that she “should try a new hat sometime. It might look good on you.” Maybe what transformed Harry will change her as well.
But Izzy remains infatuated with Tyler, telling us she has acted on this fascination by telephoning him at home as a way of finding out what’s really “on his mind—in his heart.” As she dials the phone she acknowledges that she is conducting an amorous “ambush.”
Their conversation is awkward at first. Tyler is wrapped in a towel, having left the shower to answer the phone. Once again he has trouble remembering her name, and once he realizes she is the girl from the bookstore, he assumes she is calling to dun him for his unpaid bill. Eventually, he jumps to the conclusion that Izzy must be a student, intent on interviewing him for an academic project, or maybe a literary journalist. He agrees to meet for coffee, but insists that he have the final edit of anything she writes about him. So the phone call is not the romantic breakthrough she was hoping for, but it does, seemingly, represent a step in the right direction.
We again travel downtown, again to the park bench, where she meets Hannah. Izzy persists in her resistance to matchmaking, and an exasperated Hannah warns her that she is courting disaster: “You listen to me—I know about life. From the inside out.”
From the park bench we move back to Bubbie’s apartment. She praises Sam, but Izzy laments the absence of “heat” in her feelings for him. And besides, she tells her grandmother, “I’m going out with someone who looks like he might be very interested in me. . . . a writer. A very famous, wonderful writer. . . . He can’t stay away from me. He comes into the bookstore a couple times a week. Hangs around.” Now, under the spell of the fantasy, she even misleads—lies to?—beloved Bubbie.
But the doorbell interrupts this self-delusion, announcing the arrival of a deliveryman who bears a package containing a magnificent cake and a grey, felt Stetson. Izzy puts the hat on “at a rakish angle. It looks sensational.” The pickleman strikes: rakishly be-hatted, Izzy admires herself in the mirror and declares, “Bubbie . . . I’m being wooed.” With this discovery, Act I comes to an end.
The second act begins at Bubbie’s, where we find Sam washing the windows—a winning follow-up to his earlier gifts of cake and hat. (A good deed of this kind is known in Yiddish as a “mitzvah.”) As he works, Sam tells Bubbie that he goes to shule every morning because, “I like to speak the poetry. I like to sing the songs. It puts something sweet in my mouth.” So the pickleman has a literary and spiritual side as well as a solid head for business.
Advice—and kugel (noodle pudding)—begin to rain down on him. First Bubbie offers him some metaphorical counsel: “You want to catch the wild monkey, you got to climb up the tree.” Sam’s confused expression leads her to elucidate: “This is Isabelle I’m talkin’ here, Sam. This one you gotta be smart to catch. She’s got too many fellas chasing after her.” Clearly, she’s hoping that a pinch of jealousy will further stoke his interest in her granddaughter. Then Hannah arrives and warns Sam against the pangs of loneliness. Overwhelmed by all this female wisdom, he retreats to his pickle shop.
In the next scene, the location remains the same, but we have moved from day time to evening, and Izzy has joined her grandmother. Bubbie tells Izzy about Sam’s visit, pointing out the excellent job he did washing her window. Izzy, wearing the Stetson, decides that she needs to do the polite thing, and thank Sam personally for his gift. She’ll give him her phone number, and she can express her gratitude when he calls.
Izzy then addresses the audience, describing how she envisions Sam’s purchase of the grey hat. He sees it in the store window, she imagines, and then exhorts Finkel, the hat-man, to provide him with the very best piece of merchandise he has in stock. “I don’t care what it costs. This is the hat for the girl I see whenever I close my eyes. This is the hat for the girl who sings to me in all my waking dreams.”
With that, she dons the hat, and marches off to her bookstore, where Sam appears. He tells her how Hannah showed him a photo of Izzy, inveigling him into an initial meeting, and how he had been “aware” of her “for quite a while.” “Once, I thought about following you into the building and getting in the elevator with you, just to have a reason to say, hello, excuse me, would you please push number ten. . . .”
So Sam actually entertains the kind of romantic fantasies about Izzie that she imagines taking place inside Tyler’s head. At this point Tyler enters and suggests that he and Izzy follow through on her late night phone call by having coffee or a drink. Izzy turns him down because, as we learn in the next scene, she has a date with Sam. Tyler recognizes Sam as a former student in a writing course—Sam spent two years in college—and compliments him on the work he turned in, “monologues. Tales from the lower east side. . . You should [publish them]. They’re charming.” Revelation to Izzy: Sam is a writer!
We next return to the park bench, where Hannah talks Sam into buying special clothes for his date with Izzy. She has a friend in the clothing business. Sam lets himself be made over, with ludicrous consequences, as we discover shortly.
Uptown, in the bookstore, Izzy is dressing for her date with Sam, when Tyler enters and talks her into having that drink with him now. As to her social “obligation,” he declares, “Keep them waiting, Izzy. They like to be kept waiting.”
And wait they do, back in Bubbie’s place. Sam arrives, wearing his new outfit, which looks ridiculous: “an oversized jacket and baggy pants with a cummerbund. . . . The ensemble looks like it stepped off the cover of GQ [a men’s fashion magazine].” Bubbie is appalled by his outfit, but Hannah insists it is the last word in good taste. Sam has brought flowers for Izzy and a bottle of Schnapps for Bubbie. She pours for all, and they drink as they wait for Izzy to arrive. But she, having accepted Tyler’s invitation, phones to say she will be late.
The scene switches to the restaurant where Izzy and Tyler are drinking wine. Izzy is regaling the famous author with colorful stories about the old neighborhood. He finds her “Jewish heritage” “charming . . . . the way you’re experiencing it—up close.” He presses her to define her relationship with Sam, and when he learns that she has no real intention to marry him, he asks, “Then why see him at all?” Izzy explains that she’s humoring her grandmother, who wants to dance at her wedding. “[W]hat’s your ambition,” Tyler wants to know, and Izzy admits that she doesn’t “have any.”
At this, Tyler declares that what he believes in is “searching for, identifying and putting your hands on—what you really want.” He praises her for “zeroing in on me—saturating yourself with information—collecting all the right materials to script the fantasies that have carried you here.” He invites her to become his assistant, “to do research, organize my calendar, meet my friends, type historic literary correspondence. . . .” And he closes his pitch by calling her a “complete woman-child. . . . so open and needy and caring,” which leads to his ultimate proposition: “And now I think it’s time to take me home.”
So the smoky-eyed literary icon turns out to be a routine sexual opportunist. To whom Izzy responds with “an old Yiddish expression my Bubbie taught me. . . . Kush mir in tuchas”—“Kush” meaning “kiss,” and “tuchas” meaning one’s rear-end.
The action then moves to Bubbie’s apartment, where Sam and Ida have been waiting for Izzy. Under the influence of Sam’s schnapps, Bubbie has fallen asleep, leaving Izzy and Sam alone to pick up the thread of their relationship. Sam talks about his deep feelings for Izzy, taking the risk of rejection that self-revelation always entails. “This is all my heart on the table in front of you,” he declares, and then kisses her. “It is a short, gentle kiss, but it leaves IZZY spinning.” “It’s all right for me to kiss you like this?” he asks. And she responds, “It’s all right,” and “falls into his arms and a long kiss.”
Bubbie wakes up and pretends not to recognize Sam. But when Izzy leaves the room, she congratulates him on his romantic success. And—inevitably—tells him a story from the old days, about how she met her future husband. He simply installed himself in her aunt’s kitchen and declared, “I won’t move. I won’t crawl an inch until you say yes. I’m stuck here like a piece of furniture.” So she married the man. Persistence paid off for him, as it has for Sam. Izzy returns and leads her Bubbie to bed, as the lights dim and the play ends.
Characters in a play define themselves by what they want and what they’re willing to do to get it. Obstacles to a character’s objectives can take various forms: natural forces, other people, or the character’s own emotional or psychological stumbling blocks. The confrontations between a character and his or her obstacles produce conflict, the main source of dramatic interest.
In IZZY we meet a character who shuttles constantly back and forth across Delancey Street. Her soul has two windows, facing in opposite directions: one looks into Bubbie’s kitchen and its homely but deep comforts; the other opens onto the sophisticated cultural milieu of uptown Manhattan, a world of intellectual excitement and emotional peril. The conflict between these two sides of herself is what animates the play.
We first see Izzy in Bubbie’s kitchen: “I visit her every Sunday,” she tells the audience. “She sits in her special place, on her stool by the window. Her window. . . . I stand beside her. . . . She rubs my back. She holds me. I listen to her breathe. I love the smell of coffee on her breath.” She experiences a kind of primal connectedness with Bubbie, like a young animal being groomed by its elders.
In addition to the physical satisfactions of touch and smell, she experiences emotional fulfillment in hearing the stories of Bubbie’s past:
IZZY. Tell me the story.
Bubbie’s tales of former jobs, romantic adventures, and family joys and griefs are the spiritual ligaments that connect Izzy with what Irving Howe called “the world of our fathers.” Or, more appropriately in this case, the world of her grandparents. The philosopher, George Santayana, defined piety as “loyalty to the roots of our being.” Izzy’s visits to Bubbie are her form of piety, an expression of loyalty to her Jewish roots.
But Izzy’s is a divided soul, a situation that puts her in conflict most sharply with herself. Yes, she loves Bubbie and the whole aroma of the Yiddish past that surrounds her. But, as she tells Sam, “emotionally—sociologically, I’m a million miles from here.”
That “million miles” is really just a subway ride away, but it’s in her uptown bookstore that Izzy believes she belongs—the place that she wants to call home. But what does she do there? She talks on the phone and has awkward conversations with a man who can’t remember her name.
In one scene, the old neighborhood follows her into the bookstore in the person of Sam, who pays a surprise visit. Izzy is wearing her new hat, Sam’s gift—a physical emblem of the downtown side of Delancey, an emblem of her enduring connections with the old neighborhood. He has charmed her with his gift, and in this scene we see him charm her with words as well, As opposed to her stilted verbal exchanges with Tyler, her conversation with Sam is marked by warmth and humor, with Sam joking about being sold to her “like a used car.”
At the end of Act I, as she admires her new hat, she has a moment of recognition, declaring, “I’m being woooooed.” Her main action throughout the play is to resist this wooing—by Sam in particular, but also by the allure of the old neighborhood. But in the end, the ancient spell of courtship prevails over Tyler’s cold-blooded sexual proposition. As she walks out on the author, she favors him with an insult in Yiddish, and heads, not to her uptown apartment, but downtown, to Bubbie and Sam, returning to the roots of her being.
SAM shows us the essence of his character late in the play when Izzy, having stood him up, returns to Bubbie’s kitchen to find him waiting there.
IZZY. I didn’t think you’d still be here.
A man who waits; “a man you can trust.” We see these qualities throughout the play. He tells Izzy that he has been aware of her for a long time, that he has been observing her from a distance, that he has not considered other girls because he was patiently holding off until she was within reach. Sam is constant.
We can see this constancy in his community rootedness. Unlike Izzy who claims many friends and admirers, but names no names, Sam seems to be on familiar terms with every businessman on the Lower East Side. There’s Schlomo, with whom he drinks coffee; there’s Harry Shipman, who loses his hat; there’s Finkel, who sells hats; there’s Zalman, who baked the cake he gave to Bubbie; and Larry Kaplan, the nightclub owner. And there’s the congregation at the shule, where every morning Sam joins his fellow Jews for prayer and song.
Sam is also a giver: of hats, cakes, flowers, schnapps, mitzvahs, and, most importantly, of honest admiration, of genuine feeling, and of kisses that leave Izzy “spinning.”
His occupation as a pickleman is another crucial element of his character. Is there any such thing as a glamorous pickle? The question answers itself. And yet, we love pickles. Just ask Mr. Vlasic or Mr. Heinz. Pickles may not be haute cuisine, but they’re good, honest food. There’s even a touch of magic about them: the metamorphosis of the cucumber.
And so with Sam. Like a pickle, he’s not charismatic, but he’s good. And the more we get to know him, the better we like him; we see more clearly the excellence of his character. His years of college, his skill as a writer, his attraction to the poetry of Jewish worship, his eloquent wooing of Izzy—all these transform Sam in our, and Izzy’s, eyes from a pickleman into what Jews call a “mensch”—a man with a warm heart and a good soul. A man you could marry.
In their final scene, Sam tells Izzy that he soaks his hands daily in vanilla and milk to take away the pickle smell. “Does it bother you?” he asks. And her answer is, “No, no no . . . not at all. It’s nice.” The smell of pickles and the fragrance of vanilla and milk—Sam’s objective is to make Izzy understand and appreciate these contrasting elements of his character, both pungent and sweet.
BUBBIE is the voice of the ethnic past, the spirit of the old neighborhood wrapped up in the body of a woman in her eighties. “[F]eisty and sharp-witted,” she “immigrated to the United States as a young girl and has lived ever since in the shrinking community of New York City known as the lower east side.”
Her objective is to rescue Izzy from a life of loneliness by finding her a husband. In pursuit of this goal she exhorts, she tells stories, and she brings in a matchmaker, the heavy artillery of courtship.
Her exhortations are mostly about the desolation of the single life: “Ah—it’s a terrible, terrible thing. Terrible. . . . That you should be all alone.—A professor once said. A college professor. No matter how much money you got, if you’re alone, you’re sick.” So her mission is to be the physician who will heal Izzy’s sick soul. This is the archetypal role of a grandmother: to remedy whatever ails her grandchild. Sometimes the medicine is chicken soup, sometimes it’s a little money, sometimes it’s advice, and sometimes it’s a yenta, like Hannah.
Bubbie tells Izzy lots of stories, many of them about her own romantic life as a young woman, the point being how beautiful she was and how attractive to scads of men. The implication is that Izzy—an attractive woman herself—should also be surrounded by an adoring flock of suitors instead of being holed up alone in her bookstore and lonely apartment.
When Sam comes along, she does whatever she can to keep him close. She feeds him, she drinks schnapps with him, and she advises him to climb the tree to catch the wild monkey. And, of course, she pitches his merits to her granddaughter.
As the play ends, she has virtually married Izzy to Sam. “Come, come, children . . . . . let’s put the Bubbbie to bed.” Sam has become her “child,” as in effect Izzy’s husband would be: her grandson-in-law. And to confirm the link that will bind them in the future, she declares herself his Bubbie too.
HANNAH, like Bubbie, is as much a living institution as an individual character. As a matchmaker, she embodies a cultural feature of the old neighborhood that seems especially alien to the modern sensibilities. We consider love and marriage to be relationships pursued by individuals operating autonomously in the social swirl of atomized urban life.
The matchmaker, on the other hand, brings people together on the basis of complex cultural protocols which determine whether they are right for one another. The matchmaker has generally operated in a world that was socially static, where unconnected people had little opportunity to find and woo one another. Sometimes this arose from geographical isolation, sometimes from social taboos about strangers approaching one another in search of intimacy. The matchmaker sets up the personal connections that otherwise wouldn’t exist.
Izzy describes Hanna as, “a walking Who’s Who of the entire Jewish population of the lower east side,” someone who can tell you, “Anything you want to know about anybody. She’s got all the stats.”
Which is to say she knows her world and is deeply entwined in it. But is she a fountain of social wisdom or just a yenta? The Yiddish word “yenta” means a gossip, a meddler, a busybody—usually female. In general, it carries negative connotations. A wise woman on the other hand is someone we admire for her depth of understanding.
The play presents Hannah as a bit of both. In sage mode, she calls Izzy’s attention to the eternal verities:
A little advice from someone who knows what’s good – Love comes and goes very quickly. A good business with a nice home, a man who knows his job, who’s good and kind—this is what lasts. Everything else is cotton candy, my dear girl. . . . You listen to me—I know about life. From the inside out.
This certainly not the perspective of Wuthering Heights, but many happily married people would agree with much of what Hannah says.
But her inner yenta prompts her to take a meddlesome hand in preparing Sam for his date with Izzy.
I got something for you. (She pulls a card out of her bag.) My brother-in-law Max, a fantastic wholesaler—you heard of Calvin Klein?—Max dresses him. All the machers in the fashion business go to him. The new wave hits Max before it hits the beach. . . . Go to Max, he’ll give you the extra something. Believe me.
Predictably, Max dresses Sam in a totally unsuitable outfit, making him look ridiculous. If, as Hannah insists, clothes make the man, then she will have contributed to Sam’s romantic unmaking.
So Hannah acts in two different modes. Wearing one hat, she offers solid advice and hard-won wisdom. This is Hannah as Jewish guardian angel. But wearing her yenta hat, she seeks not to guide, but to control.
TYLER is the odd man out in this cast of five—the only non-Jew, and the only character with no connections to the Lower East Side. In contrast with Izzy, he’s a social cipher. We learn nothing about his ethnic identity, his family, his religious affiliations. He’s a tabula rasa, a blank slate on which Izzy inscribes her fantasies. In fact, until late in the play, most of what we “know” about this character is filtered through the lens of Izzy’s romantic infatuation. What we learn about Tyler directly comes across during two scenes in Act II.
In the first of these scenes, Izzy is preparing to leave the bookstore and head downtown for her date with Sam. She has put on her fanciest dress, and otherwise dolled-up for the occasion. Tyler shows up, and falls to complimenting her on her appearance, saying that she has “been transformed into the image of Grace Kelley at her dewiest,” and that she looks “gorgeous.”
He immediately asks her to join him for a drink, obviously stirred by her newly-revealed beauty. When she demurs, saying she has an “obligation,” he presses her harder to join him for a drink. Izzy protests that she has no choice, to which he responds, “You always have choices, Izzy. When you stop seeing them, you’re in real trouble. . . . There are no tomorrows. There is only the moment. And it wants to be seized.”
“Carpe diem” urged the Roman poet, Horace: “Seize the day,” a nugget of classical advice that Tyler produces as he entices Izzy away from her “obligations.” And it’s a classical nugget that is pretty much the opposite of Hannah’s hard-headed counsel, which boils down to, “always consider tomorrow.” So which should prevail: immediate or delayed gratification? Tyler urges the former.
In his next scene with Izzy, Tyler is plying her with wine and, eventually, promises. But before he gets to the latter, he wants her to know that he finds it “charming—your Jewish heritage—the way you’re experiencing it—up close.” The roots of Izzy’s being are for Tyler merely “charming,” a quaint collection of cultural oddities, something that can amuse a sophisticated literary man.
Which, it seems, is rather the way he views Izzy. He leads up to his attempted seduction by informing her that he believes in
searching for, identifying and putting your hands on—what you really want. . . . If you’ve read my books. . . . [t]hen you’ve seen a pattern of growth—towards this one kernel of insight—to see clearly is to perceive the riches of one’s own true desires—stripped clean of the burdens of shame, humility, self-doubt. . . . Now. To this moment. We aren’t here to discuss my work, are we? . . . We’re here because we need each other. And we have the guts—yes, the guts to say so. (He kisses her firmly on the lips.) I want you in my life, Isabelle Grossman.
When Izzy protests that he doesn’t even know her, his response is telling: “But I need you. My assistant ran out on me today. She got a Fulbright—right under my nose. . . .”
He doesn’t want to know Izzy, he just needs her. His sudden interest arises less from personal attraction than from the requirements of his professional life. That uppity assistant—under his nose she applied for a grant!—must now be replaced. And to get what he wants, without shame, humility or self-doubt, he promises Izzy a world of literary adventure: doing research, meeting important people, networking. Which he follows up with an invitation to join him in bed.
So what shapes Tyler’s character—what does he want, and what will he do to get it? What he wants is to satisfy the riches of his desires, which is not so unusual. And what will he do to achieve that goal? Turn other people into instruments for satisfying his appetites. Also not so unusual, but hardly the lofty purposes we might expect from a serious artist. Then again, not a few artists have been among history’s most unpleasant people.
In his most recent encyclical, Pope Francis, sounding a lot like Bubbie, laments the “loneliness arising from the . . . fragility of relationships” in the modern world. He might have been thinking about Izzy Grossman.
Living uptown and working in a bookstore, a young woman like Izzy would expect to find herself in a rich and vital social environment, crowded with potential friends and romantic partners. But no such friends and no such partners appear in the play. Instead, when she crosses Delancey headed uptown, Izzy joins what the sociologist David Riesman called “the lonely crowd.”
In Individualism Reconsidered and Other Essays, Riesman wrote, ''What is feared as failure in American society is, above all, aloneness. And aloneness is terrifying because it means there is no one, no group, no approved cause, to submit to.'' He also “urged Americans to find ‘the nerve to be oneself when that self is not approved of by the dominant ethic of a society’” (Obituary, The New York Times, May 11, 2002).
That last sentence sums up the challenge facing Izzy: does she have the nerve to step back into the Lower East Side, a cultural world whose norms and ethics meet with virtually no approval from contemporary society? Can she accept the self that has grown from those neighborhood roots—her authentic self?
In the course of struggling with that challenge, she meets the man that she imagines is destined to be her soulmate, Tyler Moss, who turns out to be a glib sexual opportunist. It’s likely that life as his “assistant”—surely, a fragile relationship— would have been even lonelier than her slow days at the bookstore and her solitary nights at home.
So, paradoxically, the uptown side of Delancey Street turns out to be far more socially stifling and alienating than the parochial old neighborhood, which is thronged with people whose names Sam knows. Presumably Izzy will get to know them too.
“Carpe diem” Tyler says to Izzy; while Hannah and Bubbie urge her to consider tomorrow. Tyler’s exhortation turns out to be a cynical bid for easy sex. But what about the sober recommendation of the elders? What sort of tomorow can Izzy expect on The Lower East Side?
Crossing Delancey is a comedy, and comedy traditionally presents a sequence of actions that lead from bad to better, culminating in a happy ending. Often that happy ending is marriage, as in a Midsummer Night’s Dream. Sometimes, as in The Philadelphia Story and The Awful Truth, the happy ending brings together an estranged couple for a re-marriage.
What about Crossing Delancey? By the play’s end, as usual with comedy, the main character’s life has taken a turn for the better, so why shouldn’t the glad momentum continue into the future? The logic of comedy dictates that Izzy and Sam should live happily ever after. But what does the logic of the contemporary world—its mores, its “values”—lead us to expect? Do we really think that a modern woman like Izzy will find fulfillment as the wife of a pickle vendor, spending her days on the streets of the Lower East Side schmoozing with Schlomo, and Shipman, and Finkel, and their wives? We have our doubts, don’t we?
On the one hand the machinery of the comic genre pushes us in the direction of rosy expectations for Izzy and Sam; on the other, our understanding of modern social reality makes us skeptical about their future. The tension between these two is never quite resolved, which is why, when Bubbie imagines the fun she will have at her grand-daughter’s wedding, Sam’s response is far from confident: “We’ll see . . . we’ll see.”
QUESTIONS FOR DISCUSSION.
1. What draws Izzy to her grandmother’s apartment week after week?
2. Can you imagine calling on a matchmaker to help you find a husband or wife?
3. Are there contemporary equivalents of matchmakers?
4. Why is Izzy attracted to Tyler?
5. Why is the play called Crossing Delancey?
6. What are the implications of Sam’s story of the hat lost in the wind? How does it relate to the rest of the play?
7. What are the positive aspects of Hannah’s character? What are the negative aspects?
8. Izzy’s parents have moved to Florida. Why didn’t Bubbie go with them?
9. Do you have family relatives who are immigrants? If so, are they like Bubbie in any ways?
10. Do you think Izzy and Sam will marry? And live happily on the Lower East Side?