When cultures collide

When cultures collide

'Crossing Delancey' poses universal questions

From left, Ellen Pearl of Teaneck, Marisa Gore of Pomona, N.Y., and Susan Binder of Franklin Lakes in “Crossing Delancey.”

Theater director Carol Fisher was pleasantly surprised when the Players Guild of Leonia enthusiastically accepted her suggestion that it mount a production of “Crossing Delancey.”

“It’s one of the few shows I’ve pitched,” she said. Another, “A Shayna Maidel,” was launched last year by the Bergen Players in Oradell.

“I’ve always loved it,” she said of her newest venture, noting that she also “adored” the movie version starring Amy Irving.

A nurse at Mt. Sinai Hospital by day, Ms. Fisher – with four sons ranging in age from 15 to 24 – has spent the past six weeks rehearsing the play and familiarizing cast members with the cultural milieu underlying the plot.

“It’s a really interesting play,” she said, crediting playwright Susan Sandler. She mused that “Sam the pickle man is so obviously Orthodox. Yet there’s no reference in the play to his being Orthodox and [the notes] never mention a yarmulke. But he goes to shul every day and talks about brachot. The play was first done by the Jewish Repertory Theatre. Why not put a yarmulke on him?”

As a side note, Ms. Fisher said that the play first was staged – by the Jewish Repertory Theater – in 1985 making this the production’s 30th anniversary.

As another side note, although Ms. Sandler wrote the play, the movie was adapted by Joan Micklin Silver, whose late husband, Raphael D. Silver, was the son of the influential Rabbi Abba Hillel Silver. Mr. Silver’s first (and most likely only) novel, “Congregation,” is about to be published posthumously.

Set in New York City, “Crossing Delancey” tells the story of an independent young woman, Isabelle, seeking to balance her secular life with the old-world-ways of the Lower East Side, where she spends time with her grandmother. Problems arise when her grandmother hires a matchmaker to find Isabelle a husband. At that point, “her worlds collide.”

While the play makes certain references to the 1980s, Ms. Fisher said, “it’s not a chestnut,” a piece so dated that differences between then and now are glaring. The director joked that two exceptions include “a reference to how little Isabelle pays for rent, and the fact that she works in a lovely bookstore. They’re not around anymore.”

The main character is portrayed differently in the movie and in the play, she said.

“In the movie, Amy Irving is shown as quite sophisticated. In the play, she is really naïve. She has a lot of monologues to tell us what’s going on in her mind – naïve types of monologues, not the kind a sophisticated woman in New York would be saying.” Indeed, Ms. Fisher questions whether the Isabelle portrayed in the play ever had a date.

“She’s trying hard to be sophisticated, out there in New York, but I don’t think she is.” In addition, “she’s much more drawn to the Lower East Side.”

Ms. Fisher thinks that Isabelle’s relationship with her grandmother is a major theme of the play.

“The grandmother wants to get a matchmaker involved to find a spouse for her granddaughter because she feels this is how she can help her,” she said. “And the old country wasn’t always so wrong. But the granddaughter, who feels she’s moved away from that kind of lifestyle, now feels “the two cultures collide.”

The generational interchange feels familiar, Ms. Fisher said.

“When I sit there directing and hear the grandmother, I feel like I’m watching myself and my own grandmother argue. I had such a strong relationship with my grandmother.

“It helps to be Jewish, but even if you’re not, you have these relationships with your grandparents. We listened to stories about their lives and we learned.”

Also, she said, the relationships portrayed in the show – the differences between the old and new ways embodied in each generation – are universal.

“I read years ago about a production of ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ in Japan. The Japanese producer related to it so intensely. He said it was about his community.”

The audience will enjoy the show because “it’s a feel good, lovely, fun, romantic comedy,” she said. While not all the actors are Jewish, “we joke that the guy who plays Sam would make the perfect Jew.”

As for Yiddish pronunciation, “there are so many different pronunciations,” she said. “We do the best we can.”

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