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Tuesday, March 2, 2021

Seth Rogen’s ‘ An American Pickle’ Has Valuable Things to Say About Contemporary Jewish Life

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Seth Rogen found himself in hot water for comments he made about Israel during an interview promoting his HBO Max film, “An American Pickle.” Despite his subsequent apology, many Jews were left with sour tastes in their mouths. Unfortunately, all the discussion about Rogen’s opinions on Israel and Zionism took attention away from the movie.

This is a shame because “An American Pickle” is one of the most Jewish films I have ever seen. It is culturally familiar in a way Hollywood rarely portrays. Minority groups often speak of “representation in Hollywood” as a source of empowerment. But although movies and television are full of Jewish characters and stories, they often feel disconnected from  the religious Jewish experience.

“An American Pickle” also has valuable things to say about contemporary Jewish life in America. It gives viewers a glimpse (through typically Jewish humor) of some of the anti-Semitism our great-grandparents experienced in their new shtetl. We’re reminded it’s better to be called “dirty Jew” at Ellis Island than for Cossacks to crash your wedding and decimate the entire village.

The story unfolds a century ago, when traditional shtetl Jew Herschel Greenbaum (Rogen) somehow is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years. Herschel wakes up in 2020 and finds his only surviving relative is modern secular Jew Ben Greenbaum (also Rogen). What starts as a friendly family reunion slowly devolves into a squabble, then an escalating rivalry, then into an all-out battle.

The culture clash that ensues has a uniquely Jewish flavor. Tension between old ways and new; rebelliousness and respectful disagreement; religious observance and nonobservance are challenges we face every day.

The premise of “An American Pickle” and the conventional wisdom in Jewish culture today is that religious observance and modernity are irreconcilable and, therefore, religious and secular Jews are equally irreconcilable. For most of the film, it is easy to see why.

As Herschel and Ben grow further apart, their different worldviews fuel their feud. Herschel is alive but, tragically, his wife and son are dead. Yet, Herschel’s life is enriched by his sorrow and mourning through religious rites such as visiting and caring for their graves and saying the Mourner’s Kaddish. Ben is an orphan, but brushes aside his sadness — along with his Judaism.

“An American Pickle” has valuable things to say about contemporary Jewish life in America. 

“An American Pickle” will make you laugh. But the movie  got into my “kishkes” during the  final act. (Caution: spoilers ahead.) Ben finds himself alone in Shlupsk, Herschel’s hometown in Poland. He is desperate for help, and is directed to an Orthodox synagogue. Ben is welcomed with love and kindness. Later, when they need a 10th man for a minyan, after some initial reluctance, Ben agrees to join but he does not pray. With a little encouragement from an elderly Jew who has been helping Ben through the service, he recites the Mourner’s Kaddish for his parents, his eyes fill with tears.

The moment becomes even more powerful when we see Herschel in the back of the synagogue. He returned to Shlupsk to apologize to Ben, and they patch up things.

This is the real message of “An American Pickle.” We may never truly reconcile tradition with modernity but all Jewish people have the power and humanity to reconcile.

Too bad that message got lost during the promotion of the film.

 

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