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AN AMERICAN PICKLE: The Compromise of Modern Judaism

Updated: Aug 27, 2020

Seth Rogen gave us all a treat this week with his latest film, An American Pickle. In the film, Rogen stars as both of our lead characters. The first is Herschel Greenbaum, a man who accidentally becomes trapped in a pickle factory in 1920 and is preserved for 100 years. Upon Herschel’s awakening, we are introduced to his only living relative, Ben Greenbaum. Ben is a middle-aged Jewish American, trying to navigate the modern world and make a name for himself. Through an interesting spin on the “fish out of water” trope, we see Ben teaching Herschel about the present. In between all of this, we see Ben and Herschel clash over family, religion, and…pickles. Before we get any further, MILD SPOILERS for the movie so if you haven’t seen it, go watch and then come back.

At the heart of this story, we see a man who perfectly embodies many of our Jewish ancestors. An Eastern European man who worked extremely hard to move his family to America in hopes of a better life. In the case of Herschel, he actually gets to see the fruits of his labor. Ben is a successful and wealthy man in Herschel’s eyes, but as they begin sharing more about themselves, Herschel becomes disappointed with Ben’s faith, religious observance, and respect for family. When I watched this movie, I couldn’t help but feel a strong resemblance to Ben in terms of my own faith. It begs the question, if my great grandparents could see me today, what would they say of me and my Judaism? Would they be disappointed in me and the life I’m making for myself?

These are difficult questions that will never fully be answered, but I’m forced nonetheless to consider my own relationship with Judaism. Luckily, that allows for a comparison to our leading man, Seth Rogen. Like Rogen, I attended a Jewish Day School. Both of us were involved in Jewish youth programs and were deeply ingrained with Jewish Culture, but the comparisons don’t stop there. In a recent interview on the “WTF” Podcast with Marc Maron, Rogen made, what some have deemed, “controversial” comments about Israel and the Jewish diaspora. He mentioned that he was “fed a ton of lies about Israel [his] entire life”. These comments should not be taken out of context as Jewish Day Schools do tend to feed students a very particular type of education about religion and Israel that doesn’t really mesh with many young people, and modern Judaism as a whole. Whether blatantly stated, or veiled in lessons, my Jewish Day School experience fed me what they believe to be the ideals of Judaism. Love and Care for the State of Israel, a deep appreciation for prayer and religious observance, as well as the importance of Judaism culturally. I’m not trying to tell you my schooling experience was terrible and full of propaganda, but certain things definitely felt forced. It wasn’t until Rogen made his comments that I was able to really sit down and realize that it’s acceptable to have these types of opinions on Judaism and to vocalize them on a platform like that. Beyond the Zionistic debate, there are many cultural aspects of Judaism we have let fall by the wayside, so much so that you’d wonder if I really gained anything from my Religious schooling experience. Oftentimes, people my age are made to feel as if we are turning our back on religion, but I would say that our relationship with religion as a whole has changed. To clear that up, let’s get into what it means to be Jewish. I’ll preface this by saying religion is different for everybody and I’m speaking only on my own experience.

Personally, I have abandoned a lot of the rituals and practices I was taught growing up. Do I still remember all of the prayers I learned for my Bar Mitzvah? Of course not. Do I observe Shabbat each week and attend synagogue regularly? Nope! But do I still identify deeply as Jewish? Absolutely. In this modern age where we question everything and organized religion seems like an extremely outdated idea, we are forced to figure out what religion means to us and how (or if) it can help in our modern lives. The way I have found this is through culture. Being Jewish is not only about practice and observance. It’s also about shared history, mutual experience, and interpersonal connection. I was very lucky to have the upbringing I did and to develop the network of Jewish friends I have. Be it through summer programs, day school, or just the group of kids that would hang out in the coat room during Saturday morning services. Having this shared culture allowed me to feel close to these people almost instantly. My first day of college, I met my suitemates and found out all four of them were Jewish. To say there wasn’t an instant connection there would be a lie. All of us came from different backgrounds and were raised with different levels of observance, but culturally, we were the same. Either through food, music, or even religious rituals, we were bonded. For me, and many other Jewish people my age, this is how we connect. This is what Judaism is for us. It’s about knowing that in some way, shape, or form, we are linked.

Bringing it back to Rogen and An American Pickle, the biggest struggle we see on screen is how different Ben and Herschel’s lives are, both in terms of philosophy and religion, and knowing what an iPad is. The real point of this movie is to show that despite all of their differences, Ben and Herschel share something very special in common. Their history. Their culture. There are surface level connections such as pickles being a superfood, but also more nuanced ones like the way in which they mourn for their families. By the end of this movie, Ben and Herschel see that they are far more alike than they ever could have known. Granted, it took both of them giving up a lot to realize this truth, but they learned it nonetheless.

Looping back to my original question of what my ancestors would say if they saw me now, I think the answer is clear. Like Herschel, it would take some time for them to understand, but they would see that I have made Judaism important to me as a way to unite with people and to feel a sense of belonging. They’d see that I still enjoy a good Shabbat Dinner and that I still surround myself with Judaism. They’d also see the embarrassing pictures of me playing Tevye in my Elementary school production of Fiddler and would definitely be Ferklempt. Like Herschel, they would be skeptical, but after a Reuben at Katz Deli with a half sour on the side, they’d realize modern Judaism is alive and well.

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