American culture these days has so many fault lines that it’s hard to know which ones will cause a true seismic shift. But last month, two Jewish artists offered two divergent visions of the life worth living that anyone curious about the state of our union ought to examine.
The better known artist was Seth Rogen, the actor whose previous forays into metaphysics included playing a foul-mouthed alien named Paul fleeing the U.S. army, a foul-mouthed sausage named Frank fleeing ravenous humans, and a foul-mouthed actor named Seth Rogen fleeing the demons who had finally arrived to punish mankind for its sins. In his latest film, An American Pickle, he plays Herschel Greenbaum, a dusty ditch-digger from the fictional shtetl of Schlupsk who flees the pogroms and comes to America in search of a better future for himself and his pregnant wife. He finds a job at a pickle factory, but is chased here, too, driven by a pack of wild rats into an enormous vat of pickles. There he slumbers, like a briny Rip Van Winkle, only to awaken a hundred years later, perfectly preserved by dill and salt, and stumble into modern-day Brooklyn.
Soon, he meets his great-grandson Ben, the sort of fellow who keeps pea milk and kombucha in his fridge and spends his days slouching from co-working space to coffee shop, developing apps. Ben is also played by Rogen, and once the film dispenses with a few weightless jokes—behold as the pickle maker of yesteryear becomes a hit with hipsters obsessed with artisanal foods—it gets down to its real, and surprisingly serious, business.
In what feels less like an intergenerational dialogue and more like an internal monologue, the two Rogens dig in their heels, the one defending traditional life and the other the spoils of modernity. The bearded pickler advocates for family and faith; the youthful techie retorts by pointing out that he may be lonely and godless, but at least he owns a machine that can make seltzer at the push of a button.
Is it any wonder, then, that it takes Ben no more than two or three preposterous plot points to come full circle and embrace Herschel’s values? As the film unfurls, we learn that the young and cynical dude is little more than the embodiment of so many hurts and yearnings, chief among them his inability to find the proper language or emotional mindset to grieve for his dead parents. One short visit to a synagogue, however, opens Ben’s heart: By the time the story slogs to its end, he’s standing at the cemetery, shoulder to shoulder with his wiser ancestor, reciting the mourner’s Kaddish and feeling the might, the heat, and the warmth of that old-time religion.
Which, in theory, should delight anyone hankering for a movie that takes faith seriously. And yet, when it comes to stirring hearts and minds, American Pickle feels about as convincing as Rogen’s comically exaggerated Schlupskian accent. A movie that takes faith seriously, for example, might have at least acknowledged that a few blocks away in hipster Williamsburg dwell Satmar Hasidim, men and women who worship and dress in ways that haven’t changed much since Herschel’s days and who might have made for suitable companions. But tradition, to Rogen, is necessarily a thing of the past. Even as he seeks to critique contemporary society, the only force he can conjure is nostalgia. That there are religious Jews among us living according to the very same values as Herschel, and that they are thriving while liberal Judaism is decaying, doesn’t even occur to Rogen. Perhaps it’s because his movie, for all of its aspirations, was always meant to be a light-hearted comedy and nothing more. Or perhaps it’s because the realities of religious life require lived-in complexities and sacrifices, not only maudlin movie moments.
Either way, such suspension of belief makes not only for bad theology but also for bad art. Jokes, even the silliest ones, are far funnier when rooted in intimate particularities, in realities that are painfully and uproariously familiar. Talk about something you don’t really know, and the best you can hope for is a chuckle. Talk about your life and your values and your frustrations, and greatness awaits.
Enter Young Rechnitz. The rapper is an Orthodox Jew whose name is both a useful alias in a community that doesn’t always take kindly to secular pop music and a tongue-in-cheek tribute to one of that community’s most notable philanthropists, the businessman Shlomo Rechnitz. Young Rechnitz released his debut around the same time Rogen premiered his film. Unlike American Pickle, Rechnitz’s single, titled “Yeshivishe Mozart,” delivers a torrent of one-liners that are as thought-provoking as they are hilarious.
Pretending to be a delinquent student at a high-end Yeshiva, or Jewish religious school, he rails against “the fat Ballebatim”—yeshiva slang for wealthy members of the community—who bask in material comforts instead of buckling down and studying the Torah. With a pun a second (“Rebbe on vacation / I’m going out reckless,” he quips, a Rekel being the long black coat some Hasidic Jews wear during the week, which means that going out Rekel-less is, in fact, a rather reckless thing to do), Young Rechnitz achieves in three minutes what Rogen couldn’t in 90, mounting a fun-filled anthem to the joys and mysteries of religious life that also happens to be an excellent rap song.
At ease in his skin, cheered on by his community, and propelled forth by his faith, Young Rechnitz felt comfortable enough to reach out to pop culture at large, take a few sick beats, and stitch together a song that reminds us that the secular and the religious, the profound and the profane—all are parts of God’s magical creation. Rogen, meanwhile, reached into tradition for laughs and came up empty-handed, delivering neither a particularly convincing defense of faith nor a very funny film.
Which should come as little surprise. American culture has always been a tug of war between the squares, the sort of cats who called Elvis too flashy and the Beatles too loud, and the rock ’n’ rollers, those who weren’t afraid to follow their spirit, consequences be damned. This month, we received another installment in this saga, this time with the Hollywood bigwig as the boring dullard and the young religious Jew as the rebel with a very good cause.
Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and the cohost of its popular podcast, Unorthodox.
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