In the year 1985, a group gathers in a New York synagogue for a funeral. Rabbi Isador Chemelwitz delivers a eulogy for Sarah Ironson, who was “devoted” to her husband Benjamin Ironson, also dead, and to her children and grandchildren, including Louis Ironson. The Rabbi admits that he didn’t know Sarah at all, though he knows her final years in the Bronx Home for Aged Hebrews were sad and lonely.
We open the play on a note of tragedy—a sense that life is at its end. Funerals will be an important symbol in the play, starting with this first scene. Here the characters must face the inevitability of death, but at the same time they seem alienated from one another—Louis clearly hasn’t visited his grandmother in many years, and even the Rabbi admits that he barely knew Sarah.
The Rabbi continues to describe Sarah Ironson, based on what he’s learned about her. He talks about how Sarah traveled across the ocean from Eastern Europe to immigrate to America—struggling for her own happiness and for her “Jewish home.” The Rabbi insists that Sarah’s children don’t really live in America—in fact, no such place exists. Instead, they are the heirs and heiresses of an “old world,” which Sarah carried to the U.S. There are simply no more voyages left like the one Sarah made.
The most important theme introduced in the Rabbi’s eulogy is the idea of movement or migration—Sarah’s journey across the ocean—as a quintessential part of the human experience. At the same time, however, the Rabbi also suggests that such journeys simply don’t exist anymore.