‘Brooklyn’ mines pathos, humor of 1st-gen journey

The original title of Jake Ehrenreich’s show-in-the-making was a rather bland “Growing Up in America,” but, fortunately, it will open Feb. 16 at American Jewish University under the more pointed title, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn.”

How the title change came about is described by his director, Jon Huberth, in the companion book to the show.

Huberth was phoning his partner to describe the new project, with Jake sitting in.

“It’s that one-person show,” Huberth started, “but it’s really more, because there’s this four-person band on stage, and there will be projections and singing and Yiddish lullabies and rock ’n’ roll and drum solos, and it’s about the Holocaust and the Catskills and Brooklyn and the search for identity.”

After a stunned silence, the partner asked, “Well, who are you doing this with?”

“Some Jew,” Huberth answered.

“A Jew from Brooklyn?” the partner asked.

Huberth: “Yeah, exactly, a Jew from Brooklyn.”

Jake, coming in: “Or in my case, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn.”

Huberth: “That’s it, that’s it.”

Jake: “What is?”

Huberth: “That’s the name of the show.”

That was about six years ago, and since then the show has been joyously reviewed in New York, Philadelphia, Miami, Chicago, Toronto and points in between.

As of now, Ehrenreich has performed the show more than 2,000 times, but calling from his home in upstate New York, he sounded as upbeat and fervent as if pitching “Brooklyn” for the first time to a potential Broadway mogul.

The larger message Ehrenreich hopes to convey is that “every one of us can deal with tragedy and still have an optimistic life,” and that “we are much more than our circumstances.”

Easier said than done; but Ehrenreich, at a youthful-looking 54, has apparently managed to live up to his motto.

He is, indeed, a Brooklyn native, the first American-born child of World War II survivors.

He was named Jacob (Yankel) Isaac (Yitzchak), though his parents, to the boy’s intense embarrassment, invariably called him Yankele, later refined to Yonkee, as in “I’m a Yonkee Doodle Dandy…”

His Polish-born parents had fled eastwards when the Nazis invaded their country; they spent the war in a Siberian work camp, followed by a displaced persons camp in Germany and emigration to America in 1949.

While Yonkee, like all kids born to immigrant parents, strove hard to become an all-American boy, the family was shadowed by tragedy.

His mother and two older sisters were diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while in their 40s and 50s, and succumbed to the disease. His father, whom Ehrenreich described as a brilliant writer and scholar, contracted Parkinson’s disease, but carried on as an upholsterer, dying at 87.

Yonkee became the family caretaker. “It was extremely stressful,” he recounted in a phone interview. “I knew I had to focus on something else, do something else with my life.”

In his show, Ehrenreich talks about the hard times, interspersing video excerpts from his father’s Holocaust testimony for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation — but there is also much more.

Yonkee, now transformed into Jake, found he had a talent for singing, dancing and telling funny stories polished enough to get him to Broadway in such productions as “Dancin’,” “Barnum” and “They’re Playing Our Song.”

He toured internationally as Ringo in “Beatlemania,” appeared in a host of off-Broadway and rock ’n’ roll shows, as emcee and vocalist in fashionable night clubs, and toured and performed with the likes of Whitney Houston, Jay Leno and Richie Havens.

He draws on all these experiences in “Brooklyn,” he said, belting out Yiddish tunes and rock, reliving his Americanization, his bar mitzvah, the Borscht Belt, a musician’s life on the road, drugs, women, his marriage to Lisa and the recent bar mitzvah of their son, Dovy.

“Brooklyn” ran for 18 months at New York’s Lamb’s Theatre, buoyed by word of mouth and such praise as the New York Times’ “dazzling … funny … touching.”

Later, in cities less attuned to the Brooklyn patois, the initial audiences were almost entirely Jewish, but again, mainly through word of mouth, non-Jews showed up, and now generally represent 30 percent of the audiences.

Ehrenreich likes to talk to his audiences during and after the show, and he is impressed by how many people, of all ages and ethnicities, identify with his background and stories.

“People talk about their own immigrant parents,” he observed. “About their holiday remembrances, their lives and their losses.”

“A Jew in Brooklyn” opens Feb. 16 and continues through March 6 at American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. Nightly performances, except Mondays and Fridays, with matinee and early evening shows on Sundays.

For tickets, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ajewgrowsinbrooklyn.com.

Ehrenreich and his show will subsequently move on to Palm Springs for an April 1-10 run.