Jarrod Tanny discusses An American Pickle.
*Contains some spoilers*
At the risk of deploying an overused pun, we need to begin by alluding to the now well-known pickle Seth Rogen got himself into in July. While discussing his new film, An American Pickle, on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, where he spent an hour schmoozing with the host about all things ‘Jewy’ and their shared inability to escape their yichus. Rogen was praised, slammed, praised again, and then slammed again for some of his remarks, most notably a brief rant about his personal disconnection from Zionism and apathy toward Israel.
There is no need to rehash the fallout here, but the upshot was Rogen getting call outs and shout outs from the four corners of Jewdom (Jwitter, Jewbook, Haaretz, and The Times of Israel), as well as an intervention from the Jewish Agency and – by Rogen’s own admission – a scolding phone call from his own (Jewish) mother.
Why is this important? For starters, it gave Rogen some much desired press, peppered with a touch of controversy, for his rather uncontroversial and largely forgettable film. But more importantly, the entire episode – from podcast to fallout – speaks volumes about the Jewishness of An American Pickle.
Adapted from Simon Rich’s 2013 short story for the New Yorker, ‘Sell Out’, the film’s plot is fairly straightforward: an impoverished shtetl Jew named Herschel Greenbaum (played by Rogen) from the invented country of Schlupsk, ostensibly located in the Russian-Polish borderlands, migrates to America in 1920 to escape penury and violence. But his American dream is cut short when he falls into a vat of brine in his employer’s condemned pickle factory. Literally pickled in time, Herschel is miraculously brought back to life a century later in 2020 when the vat is opened. To help him navigate this brave new world of scooters, hipsters, cancel culture and Twitter is his sole surviving descendent, Ben Greenbaum (also played by Rogen), a Brooklyn-based thirtysomething ineffectual app developer detached from his Judaism and his familial heritage.
An American Pickle is Rogen’s most ‘Jewish’ film to date, and, on the surface, it marks a significant turn for him. His earlier films, like those of his frequent collaborators in the so-called Jew Tang Clan, such as Judd Apatow, Evan Goldberg, and Jonah Hill, include subtle references to his Jewishness: the occasional trope or Yiddishism sparingly deployed at critical moments. A viewer versed in Jewish comedic discourse will have no problem picking up on the nods to Jewishness in Knocked Up, This is the End, or Superbad, be it Rogen’s obsession with his effeminate ‘man titties’ or a celebration of Munich’s ‘Jews kicking ass and taking names’ – a diaspora Jew living vicariously through Israeli violence. But these are subtexts to the films, often clever subtexts, but little more. Such movies are, if you will, goyish cucumbers with Jewish pickledom sporadically creeping in. An American Pickle inverts the cinematic vegetable because Jewishness is now the meta-narrative, or rather the framing device through which Rogen tries to position his film as the inheritor of twentieth-century Jewish shtick for a hipster millennial audience.
The Jewish shtick of An American Pickle was obvious as soon as the trailer dropped. Herschel is the spitting image of Topol’s Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, in his looks and his rhetoric, though perhaps with a touch of Borat’s accent, dark humour and aphorisms thrown in for good measure. He is a schlimazel, working as a miserable ditch digger in an east European backwater, whose tedious life is punctuated by the occasional pogrom. Although he falls in love with a wonderful woman with ‘all her teeth, top and bottom’ who ‘loved to chase wolves, club them with stick, hit them with rock, kill them’, their wedding ends in catastrophe when marauding Cossacks — ‘blood thirsty Jew hungry Russian maniacs drunk from vodka’ — decimate their village. So, the Greenbaums head to America, to pursue the dream of wealth in Der Goldene Medine, only to have their hopes shattered by Herschel’s accidental pickling.
Herschel’s twenty-first century awakening finds him, and his sole descendent Ben engaged in a rather predictable awkward relationship where old world ‘Jewish’ sensibilities inexorably clash with millennial American manners. Jokes about violent Cossacks, stupid Poles, and Christian heresy abound. Despite being a clueless relic from a bygone era, Herschel manages to achieve financial success and social media stardom through his start-up pickle business, much to the irritation of his cautious and unsuccessful great-grandson Ben. Conversely, Herschel can’t stand Ben’s commercial timidity and seeming indifference to his Jewishness, in particular his reluctance to honour his familial heritage through proper mourning rituals. And, like so many twentieth-century Jewish texts, their bond is ultimately restored through the recitation of kaddish for the generations of Greenbaums who have perished.
This is the extent of Jewishness in An American Pickle. It is an empty vessel devoid of richness and colour, much like the two Greenbaums are devoid of family. The entire twentieth century is a gaping hole in Herschel’s consciousness and in Ben’s memory. There is no reference to the Holocaust nor to the establishment of the State of Israel, undoubtedly the two most important events in post-Enlightenment Jewish history. Perhaps this was Rogen’s intent. Perhaps this is his way of saying that his Jewishness is an ascribed identity; he is a Jew by descent rather than consent, to borrow Werner Sollors’s terminology. This approach may be a brutally honest confession on Rogen’s part in his depiction of Ben, but unfortunately it turns Herschel into a Borscht Belt caricature.
Rogen and his gang are at their best when they intersperse comedic Jewish tropes and stereotypes in their films at critical moments. They enrich American culture with the right amount of Yiddish inflections to suggest that their demographic is comfortable with their Jewishness yet is not consumed by it. Fiddler on the Roof, Annie Hall and even Seinfeld do not speak to their generation, even though vestiges of this cultural legacy intermittently surface in their work.
An American Pickle has its moments, but like the resuscitated Herschel Greenbaum, it is out of step and out of time.