Despite many inaccurate and demeaning portrayals of Jews and Judaism on film, many movies present a more accurate and positive image. In the following article, the author examines one film he believes exemplifies a dignified portrayal of Judaism. Reprinted with permission from Over the Top Judaism: Precedents and Trends in the Depiction of Jewish Beliefs and Observances in Film and Television (University Press of America).
Crossing Delancey (1988) is a pleasant, intelligent romantic comedy, cleverly and tightly written and winningly acted, which presents some very old Jewish–and by now, universal–values in a most refreshing, contemporary way, blending humor and pathos, wit and romance. It affirms the traditional values of marriage and companionship without being preachy, moralistic, or corny.
A Lovely Bubbie
The drama centers on Isabelle (“Izzie”) Grossman–a lovely performance by Amy Irving–who insists she is content with her job at a New York bookstore where she organizes literary soirees for outstanding writers and publishers who rely upon her. Izzie also enjoys visiting her “Bubbie” (an Anglicization of bubbeh, Yiddish for “Grandma”), a delightful performance and debut on the big screen for veteran Yiddish theater actress Raizl Bozyk, who refuses to believe that her 33-year-old granddaughter is happy as a “single.”
At one point Bubbie tells Izzie that she lives “alone in a room like a dog.” To no avail does Izzie explain that that “room” is an enviable rent-controlled apartment and that she is perfectly content with her friends and fulfilled in her work.
Bubbie summons a shadhan (matchmaker) in her Lower East Side neighborhood. Needless to say, Izzie is not pleased with Bubbie’s Fiddler On The Roof tactics, and is downright hostile when she meets Sam Posner, a pickle salesman, who turns out to be uncomfortably charming and sensitive and attractive to Izzie. The seeming contradictions in his personality–and the fact that he is so poised and is such a stable character despite those “contradictions”–rankle Izzie all the more: He always has his hands in pickle barrels, yet is well-read and well-educated; he plays handball but attends the morning minyan (prayer quorum).
Peter Riegert is, by the way, the best possible choice for the part. He and Amy Irving get across the point well that there are such creatures as nice Jewish boys and nice Jewish girls, and that there is a lot of common experience and background and values to commend such beings to one another. One can even–and should–assume from this film, despite negative images of young Jewish men and women in films since the late 1960s, that Jewish young people in general fit this bill.
An Ethnic Flavor
With such an “ethnic flavor”–all the way down to the pickles–and with such a clear contrast between Izzie’s Manhattan and her grandmother’s Lower East Side, the film could easily have fallen into stereotypes, but it doesn’t. Likewise, it could have been so self-conscious that its characters might have lacked any flavor or authenticity at all. Fortunately, it isn’t.
This is not to say that the characters aren’t, shall we say, “exaggerated” a little. But herein lies the fun of the film and its effectiveness at getting its points across. Bubbie’s histrionics enable her to walk the line between wise concern and devious plotting and make her even more lovable. Matchmaker Hannah (Sylvia Miles) belches and eats like a glutton, yet somehow earns the respect of her clients, if for no other reason than because of her noble calling. Izzie is rendered delightfully human (in a vulnerable sort of way), and still more sympathetic, when, out of vanity and naiveté, she develops an awkward crush on an irresponsible novelist.
Not only does Crossing Delancey get the most out of the main characters by approaching them with a certain sympathetic playfulness, but it also uses secondary or supporting characters in a way unsurpassed by any film. Co-workers, old high school friends, strangers at park benches or hot-dog stands, even a singing street lady, enhance the main characterizations immensely.
The only time that a main character could have made a better showing is a scene in which Sam walks into one of Izzie’s literary gatherings and exits before he has an opportunity to hold his own. His leaving, although understandably motivated by a desire to be alone with Izzie, appears too much like running away. One hopes that he would have stayed five or 10 minutes more and made his mark. Yet in the same segment he does take hold of events by finding a way to divert Izzie’s bearded, unhappily married occasional houseguest
Crossing Delancey is rich in ethnic–or better, Jewish–traditions and terms. Yet somehow these “Jewish” aspects seem to lack effectiveness or spiritual impact. This is especially true of one scene where Izzie attends the brit (circumcision) of the baby of an old high school friend. Somehow the spiritual significance is lost in standard brit jokes which even the baby could have written. (The baby ad libs, anyway.) The writer seems hell-bent on making the point that Izzie’s friend has had a baby to raise “on her own” only because her “biological clock” was winding down, and that the friend’s main concern is that the baby be profitable and pay his own way by becoming some kind of Gerber or other ad model.
It is heartbreaking that some of the truly beautiful and authentic allusions to Jewish traditions will be lost to the general audience due to lack of explanation or at least translation, such as Sam’s reference to attending the daily minyan. The most moving and romantic line in the entire film is Sam’s line that he was so happy to see Izzie that he made a berakhah (blessing) for the occasion, reciting the first blessing that came to his mind, one having to do with trees. We can forgive him for not thinking of the sheheheyanu prayer recited on special occasions, and we are most grateful to the writer and producers for leaving the line in the film. Authentic Jewish characters must use authentic Jewish terms in films; but the writers must find ways to explain those terms creatively.
The film does miss opportunities. Its sentimentality is so solid that a little schmaltz–an extra dose of sentimentality–with a slight nod toward corniness, would not have hurt. A good old-fashioned wedding scene, with huppah (wedding canopy) and all, would not have been out of place here. It’s obvious that the writer and producer wanted the film to end in the contemporary key of “maybe,” or even in the higher key of “probably.” I suspect that many viewers would have preferred it to have ended with a definitive “mazel tov.”
Director Joan Micklin Silver has observed in an interview that star Amy Irving pushed this project even though film companies had serious doubts that anything so “Jewish” could win the hearts of so many viewers. Despite some of the criticisms expressed in this review, Crossing Delancey aims for a Jewish authenticity that most films on “Jewish” themes just do not have, with the exception of Silver’s previous film, Hester Street.
This, even more than the fine acting and witty writing, makes Crossing Delancey unique and precious. Written by Susan Sandier and based on her original play, this film broke new ground and posed worthwhile challenges for film-makers who seek to explore Jewishness.