By Jesse Bernstein
In the promotion for “An American Pickle,” as well as in the movie itself, Seth Rogen can’t get out of his own way.
In his new film, Rogen does double duty as Herschel Greenbaum, an Eastern European Jew who comes to America from a fictional country called Schlupsk in search of a better life for him and his wife, Sarah (Sarah Snook). Rogen also plays Ben Greenbaum, Herschel’s great-grandson, a slightly outdated stereotype of a millennial in contemporary Brooklyn.
The two meet after Herschel, who fell into a vat of pickle brine back in 1919, is discovered to have been perfectly preserved and at the same age as Ben, too. Herschel moves in with Ben, his only living relative, and the pair struggle to find common ground, butting heads over religion, business and family.
On the press tour for a movie that traded on his Jewish identity as a selling point, Rogen made his now-infamous comments about Zionism and Orthodox Jews on “WTF with Marc Maron”; save for a minority who cheered his pronouncements on the former, most of the reaction was condemnation. As for the latter topic, what Rogen said went mostly ignored.
“An American Pickle,” available on HBO Max, directed by Brandon Trost and based on the 2013 novella “Sell Out” by Simon Rich, is mostly thoughtful, mostly funny and even daring at points. There is a provocative question at the center: Could a meaningful, distinctly American Judaism be formed without relying on Israel and the Holocaust as primary building blocks of identity? Is that even desirable?
It’s not all so heady, of course. Rogen is, after all, a comedian. Even in a PG-13 movie, devoid of the firmly R material that helped him make his name, Rogen is comfortably funny as both Herschel and Ben.
Herschel is, at first, impressed with his descendant. Looking upon Ben’s large apartment in Williamsburg, filled with an unthinkably luxurious amount of shoes and socks, Herschel believes that the promise he made to Sarah a century ago came true: The Greenbaum family has made it in America. But as Herschel learns more about Ben, he cannot hide his disappointment.
Ben is without a wife and a child, seemingly disengaged with Judaism and his job has mostly involved five years of work on a Yelp-like app that he hasn’t even attempted to sell. And though Ben’s parents are dead, he seems to have done little to honor their memory. The relationship nearly breaks when Herschel sees the state of the family burial plots — the once-beautiful cemetery, which holds Ben’s parents, grandparents and Sarah, is beneath a highway overpass, covered in vines and trash, and, indignity of indignities, overshadowed by a “Cossack” billboard, in Herschel’s estimation (it’s a vodka advertisement). Herschel and Ben are arrested after Herschel attacks the billboard installers, which costs Ben his chance to actually sell his business.
The two split, and Herschel vows to use Old World thrift and ingenuity to out-earn Ben and repair the Jewish cemetery, doing the only thing he knows how to do — brine and sell pickles (“I was, myself, a pickle,” he tells Ben). And it works. He buys the cemetery, tears down the billboard and hires unpaid interns to run the business.
It all comes crashing down for both men, in the manner of a typical Rogen movie (two guys are friends, then they’re not friends, then they’re friends again); a series of mistaken identity follies and ill-timed comments from a newly famous Herschel end up getting Ben deported to modern-day Schlupsk. The nine remaining Jews of the town give him shelter; he completes a minyan and, finally, tearfully says Kaddish for his parents. Herschel has since learned that the name of Ben’s company is a combination of his childhood nicknames for his parents; Ben, Herschel realizes, had honored his Jewish roots all along.
Perhaps, the movie seems to say, Judaism for the Ben Greenbaums of America, third-and fourth-generation Americans who are more financially comfortable and more assimilated than their ancestors could have ever imagined, will form their Judaism as a shared reverence for the dead, a warm embrace of other Jews and some aspects of religious tradition. Zionism and communal rituals around Holocaust remembrance are notably absent from this vision. Is that what we want? Will it be enough?
Depends what enough is, for you. And of course, something could happen that could change that trajectory completely; after all, it’s still in the brine.