Seth Rogen, “American Pickle” and Jewish Education

An American Pickle (2020) HBO Max

By Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel

While promoting his latest film, American Pickle, Seth Rogen did an interview with Marc Maron in late July and said things which outraged many in the Jewish community. The Jewish press picked up on his comment that Israel “doesn’t make sense” – that is, moving most Jews to a place where people want to kill them. And his suggestion that the Jewish State fosters a lie, advanced by Jewish educators, that no one else had ever lived in the land. (Were the Arabs never discussed in the classroom, or was the young Seth distracted?)

In early August, Rogen again grabbed headlines in the Jewish press by declaring that he was just joking around and that “Israel should exist,” adding in defiance that “I’m not sorry for my critique of Jewish education.”

Actually, in the Maron interview Rogen offered no “critique” of Jewish education except the line about being “lied to” about the Palestinian Arabs, which was not that original. I have heard it many times from Jewish speakers critical of the State of Israel and of its very existence, even though Jewish educational curricula have long addressed both sides of the conflict while of course advocating for Jewish rights to the land.

Rogen began that interview by slamming the Israeli counselors at a Jewish sleepaway camp he attended for seven years, calling them “psychotic.” He suggested that such camps were organized so that Jewish kids could learn early how to copulate in order to propagate. And he said that Judaism and Zionism were part of an “antiquated thought process,” that religion is “silly.”

Obviously, Maron relished the opportunity for such unrestrained stream-of-consciousness conversation with another Jew, and egged Rogen on at every turn. They found much common ground though Maron grew up in New Jersey and Rogen in Vancouver. They both voiced their fear of backlash from other Jews. Marc offered more of a critique of Jewish education. He said that he “learned to read Hebrew,” but was “never really taught to pray in any real way. I have no practical relationship with God.” (This is, by the way, a frequent complaint by Jews for Jesus, and Maron did say that his Christian friends find it easy to pray to Jesus.) Rogen chimed in that he learned many things in Jewish school which, family and community hinted, “were never meant to be brought to fruition.” He said that he is still friends with others who attended his camp, but that “none is religious or do anything Jewish.”

While these statements ought to be of concern to Jewish educators, how much should Rogen’s (and Maron’s) very public comments affect American Jewish teachings and self-image?

I would say that both the interview and the film are a challenge not so much to what is taught by Jewish educators, but to how that content is received, perceived, used and even manipulated. I therefore offer an outline of some of the problematic aspects of the film that speak to how Rogen received certain themes that Jewish educators might consider addressing in their tone and manner of imparting traditions, ethics, the founding of the Jewish State, divisions in the Jewish community and interfaith relations.

American Pickle is based on a short story, “Sell Out,” written by Simon Rich and, I assume, modified by Seth Rogan who plays two roles in this film – three, if you count the production aspects. In this film a Jewish immigrant, Herschel Greenbaum, falls into a pickle barrel in 1920 and is perfectly preserved at age 37, emerging a century later to interact with his great-grandson, Ben, who happens to be the same age.

Though Rogen studied the New Testament Book of Revelation for his 2013 film, This Is The End, he obviously did not do research here beyond what he “caught” at camp and day school. In the shtetl, bride and groom would not have traveled to the lake for a date. Herschel, sipping his dream drink, seltzer water, for the first time, would not gulp it down with a l’chayim, but would have known what blessing to recite and would have considered adding a Shehechiyanu. But I do give Rogen authenticity points for keeping Herschel’s head covered and for making the point that he only eats kosher food.

Now to the problematic aspects of this movie:

1. The film associates Jews and Judaism with morbidity. Describing what he has in common with his fiancée from the shtetl, Herschel rhapsodizes: “Her parents murdered by Cossacks, my parents murdered by Cossacks. Her favorite color black, my favorite color black.”  He admires that she “dreams of being so rich she’ll have her own grave stone.” Indeed, for the sake of this film, Rich changed the focus of his short story from Herschel laboring to purchase a townhouse to his desperate desire to procure a neglected Jewish cemetery in order to turn it into a shrine.

Herschel is not motivated to go to a synagogue to pray, or even to see what Judaism looks like after one hundred years. He doesn’t even ask when Ben blurts out that he had a “Jumanzi-themed bar mitzvah.” He wants to take Ben to the synagogue to say Kaddish, even though it has been years since Ben’s parents passed away and more than a half century since Herschel’s wife died. Indeed, Herschel’s first request is to go to the cemetery to say Kaddish, where Kaddish cannot really be said without a minyan that could be easily found in a synagogue.

Herschel has a morbid interest in death. As soon as he finds out that Ben’s parents died in a car crash, he urges: “You will tell me everything of their death so I may bear witness to your grief. How their bodies died, their faces as the life left. Be very specific. Spare no detail. We will bond over our pain. No detail too small.”  Since when were such details central to Jewish life and observance?

One can, I suppose, argue that Herschel is still very much caught up in the pogrom trauma. When he hears that Ben’s parents are dead, his first question is: “Murdered or regular?” A car crash qualifies as “regular.” But in this screenplay, “regular” Judaism and Jewish life are only death-centered. Early on, Herschel asks Ben: “How do you grieve for parents if you don’t say prayer for dead?” Yet the Kaddish Prayer is not about death. It is a prayer for the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, reminding us that if we can affirm God as our strength and comfort even – or, better, especially – when we have lost someone near and dear to us, then we do lay the foundations of God’s Kingdom in our hearts and in the world.

Rogen is so insistent that Herschel, the proud Jew, remain concerned about family loss and fascinated by morbidity, that Herschel has no time even to inquire about current Jewish life. Herschel never asks about how the Jewish People is doing, about what they are doing. And Ben never offers any information, let alone any personal “witness” (to use Herschel’s word) about the Holocaust and the State of Israel. Clearly, Rogen regards the topic of the Holocaust as forestalled by the Cossacks, but where is the Jewish State?

At the end, the film brings Herschel and Ben together in the shtetl. Their paths converge at the shul where they both find comfort in the minyan. But has no one told them, has no one told Rogen, that a minyan has not been found in a typical tiny European village since the Jews were deported, that even in the bigger cities where some synagogues thrive, it is hard to put together a minyan? Not only is the Holocaust not mentioned here, but tellingly, even horrifyingly, the movie makes it seem that the European shtetl still has the struggles of an American synagogue!

The current wisdom in Jewish education is that Jewish Millennials and younger Jews are put off by discussion of the Holocaust and by anti-Semitism. But in the wake of Charlottesville and Pittsburgh and too many other incidents, young people are learning that anti-Semitism is real and will always remain a challenge. Rogen revealed in the interview that it is very much on his mind, and that he appreciates being “instilled” by his father that people hate Jews (more than he appreciates his day school education?).

As for the morbidity theme, it seems to derive both from Rogen’s concern about anti-Semitism and from the comfort he recently received from Jewish death rituals while sitting shiva for his mother-in-law. Rogen tells Maron that he came to admire Jewish mourning practices to the point that he believes there is some “religious stuff I can reconcile with now.”

2. This film is unsure about what Jewish manhood should mean. Herschel, the old-world Jew, is boorish. When a kind (Gentile?) doctor tells him that his wife Sarah is long dead, Herschel’s first impulse is to punch the doctor in the face. Yet the doctor remains kind. He returns (with shiner) to relate to the now strapped down Herschel the comforting news that he has a living relative, a great grandson who is his own age. Herschel’s reflex response continues to be throwing a punch – whether at working men whom he regards as desecrating his wife’s grave or, later, at Ben himself.

Herschel can only use punching metaphors when he tries to motivate Ben. “You have a polio arm. Throw your punch.” Here, “throwing a punch” means going out to sell a product. But the filmmakers lend the metaphor a very short reach in that it quickly transitions into ethnic pride. Ben quickly feels the need to tell Herschel that a guy named Jonas Salk cured polio, and Herschel responds: “Jewish? Knew it.”

Rogen tells Maron that his grandfathers had to be tough and fight because of anti-Semitism, and speculates that the elders regarded him as soft and would have beaten him up had they all been kids together. Yet he does describe them as having had a certain sweetness and culture. The movie just doesn’t know how to depict the qualities that defined the men of the immigrant generation – like Torah, Jewish Peoplehood and family, the spiritual nuances of the Yiddish language.

True, the traditional values were affected by trauma and by displacement and by pressures to make a living, and some immigrants were more changed than others, or less traditional to begin with. And yes, this movie does make a point of having Herschel say that he wants his family to be successful and respected in America and observant or at least literate with respect to their Judaism. Yet Herschel will come to respect Ben in the end not because of the latter’s Jewish commitments or loyalties, or because his values reflect the Torah and its teachings, but because he names a gimmick after his parents.

3. If American Pickle is clueless about depicting Jewish manhood, it is even more clueless about dealing with ethics, Jewish ethics, all ethics. Herschel is disappointed to find that Ben is not a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant, but is a software-developer whose latest project is an app to tell would-be clients the extent of “ethics” or political correctness of any given company, in matters such as environment, treatment of labor, etc. But “ethics” seem to interest Ben only to the extent that they are marketable. Not that he is a bad person. He just doesn’t stand for anything. I can’t help wondering whether Rogen’s reticence about Israel in the film results from a concern about the “cancel culture” which he mocks herein, but in very cautious, general terms.

In the interview Rogen said that he can’t understand the emotional and spiritual and existential attachment to Israel by Jews who “view themselves as progressive and…as analytical and…as people who ask a lot of questions and really challenge the status quo.” Is Rogen unaware that a hundred years ago – the year his character Herschel was “pickled” – the Jewish world, not to mention the world in general, was overwhelmingly anti-Zionist except for East European Jewish immigrants like Herschel and other stalwarts, including some Christians?

 As for Ben, he certainly has not sought out any moral or spiritual compass for his own life. He is also capable, as it turns out, of very angry, vindictive, even cruel behavior, all directed toward Herschel (but also of a self-aware confession).

4. Ben’s angry and the vindictive side brings me to the next problem with this film: its attitude toward old-world Jews, both the immigrant generation and, by implication, toward the Haredim of today. Back in the shtetl, when Herschel is wooing Sarah, he works hard so he can buy her a fish, and she eats it raw. The point is that these old-world Jews were backward, and the movie’s use of Yiddish dialogue, obviously meant to provide authenticity (and to show off!) only reinforces that impression of backwardness.

Ben treats Herschel as a throwback. “I guess I understand why you’re a religious person,” Ben says. “That makes sense for someone from your era … Also, like, organized religion is very aggressive.”

When Herschel’s small pickle-making business becomes a social media sensation, Ben finds out that the still-impoverished Herschel is finding ingredients in an upscale supermarket’s trash bins (giving new meaning to “natural foods”), and  reports him to the health department. Later, he traps Herschel into sharing his old world ideas on Twitter. But the fickle social media public doesn’t know what to make of such views, one day protesting and the next day acclaiming Herschel as a “clever provocateur.”

Rogen just can’t accept that there are many traditional Jews who will always question certain politically correct notions for religious reasons, and that they can be perfectly ethical people who care about their fellow human beings. The truth is that many Jews have chosen the traditional way of life against all social tides and odds, and that they are not only here to stay, but represent a significant resource of Jewish learning and commitment.

In the interview Rogen declares that the Hasidim (read: the Haredim and baale teshuvah) “have mutated beyond Jew. Not doing us any favors. Wizards are based on Hasidic people.” At least Maron gives them credit as “the only ones that understand certain things” – not spiritual things, mind you, but a need to survive and “reproduce” as a community in “direct reaction to the Holocaust,” though they may be “stupid in every other way.” Are Rogen and Maron unaware that Hasidism preceded the Holocaust by centuries, and remains an authentic spiritual movement which is here to stay and is culturally significant and a critical part of any vital Jewish People?

5. My final problem with this film, for the purposes of listing issues for Jewish educators to consider, is that the movie is extremely distrustful of Christians, especially Evangelical Christians. This was already painfully apparent in Rogen’s film, This Is The End, about New Testament apocalypse themes. In American Pickle, the worst thing that Ben can do to Herschel is to get him to disparage Christianity, and then American Christians of all stripes become instant Cossacks, despite decades of the mainstream media and film industry mocking Evangelicals and Mormons and Catholics and religion in general!

Rogen tells Maron that his concern about Israel is that “Christian apocalyptic prophecy” requires Jews to go there “so we can die.” Otherwise, he implies, Christians would want to kill us everywhere else. “There’s some common vested interest in the meantime,” he concludes. “Our ridiculous visions are temporarily … aligned with one another.”

Yet as far as “ridiculous visions” are concerned, people are always going to worship something, as Will Herberg observed, some ideology, some fetish. Shouldn’t Jews find hope and encouragement in the Prophetic vision of a people and nation restored by their God Who blesses humanity with laws of justice and mercy, and with a people called to advance those sanctifying and ennobling teachings?

Shouldn’t Jews take pride in other faiths that respect our Scriptures and that echo our values and identify with us, especially since it has taken centuries for such identification to move from violent hostility to respect? Evangelical Christians express their love for others by trying to convert them, and they do have a genuine love for Israel and for Jews. Isn’t love of any kind welcome in a hostile world? Human nature, after all, is not a pretty thing, and it would be a lot worse without religion, without Jews and without Judaism. In other Rogen pictures, like This Is The End and Neighbors (2014), it is not unusual for people to be ethically and morally out of control. Consider how Ben treats Herschel for most of Seth Rogen’s movie, and vice versa – until the synagogue scene!

Elliot B. Gertel is Rabbi Emeritus of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago and has been TV/film critic for the “National Jewish Post and Opinion” since 1979. He is the author of What Jews Know About Salvation, which prompted the Library of Congress to catalogue “salvation” as a Jewish category, and of Over the Top Judaism.