In HBO Max’s new film An American Pickle, the science of human fermentation joins forces with the gods of screwball comedy to unite Herschel Greenbaum, an early 20th century Ashkenazi Jew, with his Millennial great-grandson Ben in 2019 Brooklyn. Their all-but-impossible meeting paves the way for shenanigans in many a tradition of shtick; odd couple comedy, fish out of water humor, and the inevitable two-identical-people-switching-clothes-to-throw-off-the-feds bit. But amid the zaniness, An American Pickle also rears sincere, recognizable pieces of Jewish identity.
In the elder Greenbaum, played with (and never before has so pure a distillation of the term availed itself to my usage) chutzpah by Seth Rogen, we’re meant to see an exemplar of the life experience of American Jews of a bygone era. At the breach of the 1920s, Herschel and his wife Sarah bid zei gezunt to their shtetl in the fictional Schlupsk in search of economic mobility and safety from Cossack assailants, inevitably settling in Brooklyn, New York. Once employed as a grunt worker in a pickle factory, Herschel devotes himself to cultivating not just a family, but a lineage, as the preservation of Judaism itself—ever precariously situated—is his generation’s learned calling. Not as typical of the diaspora narrative is Herschel’s plummet into a vat of pickle brine and century-long physical preservation therein. But hey, we’re not a monolith.
In the younger Greenbaum, likewise portrayed by Rogen (this one in keeping with the actor’s usual vibe) the film also displays something familiar. Like many Jews of his age and era, Ben has all but absolved himself of his Judaism. An American Pickle does not delve into why the character dispossessed his inborn religion, though the set dressing fills in a few blanks. Ben lives in Brooklyn, works in tech, and upholds the values of left-adjacent polite society, which breeds tension between he and the “pre-enlightened” Herschel. Young and proudly liberal, Ben has perhaps come to shoulder antipathy to organized religion common of his cohort.
Though the film might have benefited from a more explicit narrative to back the character’s insistent areligiousness, absence thereof does allow for viewers to reflect on their own stories. My leave from Judaism was staggered. At the dawn of my adolescence, a few years into my weekly Hebrew schooling, I battled a hearty case of obsessive-compulsive disorder. One in a banquet of my anxieties manifested as an excruciating fear of God—or, for that matter, anybody who could presumably hear my chaotic and unwanted thoughts. So with profound dread seasoning my ideas of a higher power, and religion by proxy, I seized the first opportunity to righteously set the whole mess behind me. As teenhood ascended, I defaulted to the pillars of white liberalism, one of which presenting itself as a stance against organized religion en masse. At my most defiant, I’d claim to no longer be Jewish.
My trek back to the embrace of my Jewish identity is not as romantic a story as Ben Greenbaum’s. The introduction of Herschel into Ben’s life is what resurfaces his long latent relationship with Judaism, and likewise what brings him to the point of destitution whereat his heritage provides a lone source of comfort and literal sanctuary. Upon finding himself stranded in Schlupsk, Ben retreats to the familiar sight of a Star of David adorning a synagogue doorway, and is welcomed to join an active minyan.
Significant here is that Ben’s lapsed knowledge of the ritual prayers does not preclude his inclusion—a feature of Judaism’s complicated manifestation as spirituality and ethos as well as culture and even ethnicity. (A subject of endless debate, but then again, what isn’t?) Though we can’t assume that Ben has come around to dogmatic reverence for Hashem, we see his submission to the rite as a means to access what Judaism has predominantly meant to him: family, which he lost when his parents died in a car crash five years prior to the events of the movie. On the other side of the same coin, it is family that has served as his access to Judaism, something that even the more traditionally pious Herschel can appreciate as a model of good Jewishness.
As the subjects of tyranny, oppression, and bigotry have become increasingly present in my daily conscious thought and consequent lifestyle, so too have I inched closer to identifying with relevant lessons of my people’s history, drilled into us with gusto in Hebrew school and Hollywood. In embracing political activism and my own queerness, I’ve found avenues to don the ingrained lessons of Jewish history.
In lieu of any newly disinterred ancestors of my own, my principal in-road to all facets of Jewish identity—from the familial to the political to the survivalist inclination toward the comedic—are movies like An American Pickle. As Ben welcomed Herschel Greenbaum into his Brooklyn apartment, so have I spent my adult life welcoming Judaism into my heart via the big screen—the past decade’s offerings A Serious Man, Ida, Phoenix, Uncut Gems—and small—revisiting or engaging for the first time with classics like Yentl, Crossing Delancey, Fiddler on the Roof, Angels in America, Rhoda, The Nanny, Your Show of Shows, and literally anything with Carol Kane.
Judaism’s reentry into Ben Greenbaum’s life takes form in a solemn recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish with Herschel over the gravestones of Ben’s parents and Herschel’s late wife Sarah. For a good while, mine had relegated to a slowly increasing presence of Yiddish in my day-to-day lexicon and renewed interest in investigating—and, of course, debating—the tenets of the identity. But the most Jewish I’ve been in years came on April 8, 2020, smack dab in the heat of the coronavirus pandemic’s grip on New York City, when I was suddenly overcome with the compulsion to prepare a personal Passover seder.
Thanks to the constraints of COVID on my household, I managed only the barest form of a seder plate: I boiled an egg, cinnamon-ed some applesauce, ripped off a piece of parsley and one of celery, and generously decided to count my dog’s favorite husk of marrow as the shankbone. (Nowhere in my otherwise entirely goyische house did we have horseradish.) I topped off the ritual with a Zoom chat with fellow film journalist/very Semitic person Jordan Hoffman; and though our conversation veered away a formal recitation of the Four Questions and toward a debate on the differences between pluots and apriums, the whole service nevertheless felt decidedly, enrichingly, pridefully Jewish. I think Herschel would have approved.
Featured Image: Warner Bros.