A Pickle-Shaped Void

The Jewish Currents editorial staff falls into a vat of brine.

The Editors
August 11, 2020
an american pickle
Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum in An American Pickle. Photo courtesy of HBO Max Releases.

An American Pickle—the new comedy starring a bearded Seth Rogen as a Jewish immigrant who falls into a vat of pickle brine in turn-of-the-century Brooklyn and awakens a century later, and a clean-shaven Seth Rogen as his millennial great-grandson—has prompted another emergency Jewish Currents staff conversation about art after Auschwitz, movies after Zionism, the death drive, and whether there is any point to carrying on. This conversation has been condensed and edited.

Ari M. Brostoff: So, why does this movie exist? And who is it for?

David Klion: It’s a movie for Jews who have some consciousness of their Jewish identity, but don’t know what to do with it. Jews who are looking to reflect on where they imagine they came from, if not where they actually did.

Joshua Leifer: It’s for people who are asking: Why are we still Jewish? Does any of this matter? It feels like it’s in dialogue with Fiddler on the Roof—especially the scenes set in Schlupsk, which should really be the name of a shtetl, and instead is, implausibly, the name of the fictional Eastern European country Herschel is from. But Fiddler was already an attempt to explain why people were still Jewish: “tradition.” So we’re looking at several generations of attenuated communal knowledge. 

Arielle Angel: A facsimile of a facsimile. It’s a shame because the movie asks some rich questions: What would an encounter with our pre-assimilation ancestors look like? What would they think about us and our lives? What would we think of them, confronted not just with what we romanticize about them but also the things we find politically inconvenient? But there isn’t enough curiosity in the film about who those people really were to attempt to answer these questions. Not to mention a lack of curiosity about who we are. Maybe I’m expecting too much from a 90-minute comedy. 

AMB: But this movie does feel particularly confused. What you expect to get from a time travel movie where somebody meets their ancestors or descendants is a magic mirror, but instead you just get a regular mirror, and the only thing that’s magical is that there’s a beard on one side of it.

What does it mean that there is no world outside this doubled Seth Rogen? It feels like a cul-de-sac of this very familiar Ashkenazi male aesthetic solipsism—Philip Roth, Woody Allen—that was such a trope of Jewish cultural production of the past 60 years. But in the classic version of that trope it’s that figure in and against the world, and in this version, it’s just that figure with nothing around him. I feel like I should be saying this in a Žižek voice, but this is a movie that is all about pickles and has no dick jokes and no sex. Not farcical sex, not actual desire, nothing.

DK: It’s very un-Seth Rogen.

AMB: Right, exactly. There’s a giant pickle-shaped hole where the phallus isn’t. The sexlessness of the movie must be part of why it feels so dead, why the vision of Jewishness that it offers is basically a death cult—the movie concludes that the reason to remain Jewish is our obligation to mourn the dead, although the Holocaust goes completely unmentioned. I would guess that there’s some skittishness about trying to be in this lineage of Ashkenazi schlemiel protagonist, and also not wanting the fucked-up misogynistic version, but not knowing what to do instead. And so you get 90 minutes of a pickle movie with no pickles. 

AA: The movie’s politics are the weirdest thing about it, because it hinges on ostensibly political subjects—deportation, “cancel culture”—that are completely depoliticized. It has the same approach to politics that it has to Jewish history. “Here are some things that are sort of important, and maybe happened to us. Let’s see what happens when we throw them in a blender!” 

Mari Cohen: An immigrant like Herschel might have actually had leftist views. But both the Simon Rich novella the movie is based on and the movie itself exclude the idea that this working-class Jewish immigrant from the early 20th century could have had political ideas; politics is framed as a luxury for those who don’t have to work.

AMB: It winds up being actually quite offensive in that regard, because it takes place in a contemporary Brooklyn with no immigrants, no poor people, no street vendors. Herschel seems to be the only street vendor in Brooklyn; everybody else is an artisanal hipster with venture capital behind them. He is the one guy with the idea to just sell pickles on the street. The movie can’t conceive of immigrants or poor people in the present tense in the same way that it can’t conceive of Herschel himself as a person. 

AA: It’s like New York without Chinatown or Jackson Heights.

AMB: Brooklyn without Brooklyn.

AA: It was literally filmed in Pittsburgh. And it looks like Pittsburgh. There was zero attempt at verisimilitude. 

AMB: I think there’s actually a way that the canonical American Jewish story that runs through New York is as much a phantasmatic, prosthetic memory as the old country of Eastern Europe. It’s maybe not surprising that Rogen doesn’t seem to have any particular sense of what Brooklyn or New York is—as far as I know, he moved right from Canada to Los Angeles, like my ancestors!—but he still felt compelled to set the movie there.

MC: Cultural appropriation!

AMB: But the weirdest thing is that the movie doesn’t know that there are Hasidim in Williamsburg today. That actually seems like malfeasance. You can’t make a movie about a dude who has magically shown up in 19th-century garb on the streets of Williamsburg selling pickles with a Yiddish accent, who doesn’t really speak English, doesn’t know his way around the modern world, and never have him run into a group of Satmar Hasids who are like, “What’s this guy’s deal?” 

DK: Or if he ran into some Chabadniks: “Excuse me, are you Jewish?”

Nathan Goldman: So, what do we make of the omission of the Holocaust in this movie? 

AA: It would certainly kill the vibe.

DK: Right, Ben would have to be like, “Here’s my David Bowie poster, here’s my SodaStream, and by the way, six million of us were murdered while you were brining. What do you think of that?” It’s hard to imagine that scene. 

JL: Perhaps by accident, it ends up speaking to an American Jewish experience that has a more distanced relationship to the Holocaust. There’s this notion that all American Jews should have a visceral, immediate attachment to the Holocaust, when that is just ahistorical. The generation of predominantly Ashkenazi immigrants from the Pale of Settlement arrived before the Holocaust and had already been here for one or two generations by 1945. So there’s an interesting problem that the Holocaust presents to American Jews of that lineage, because it’s not their history. The way that the American Jewish community reincorporated the Holocaust into its history was, in some respects, always artificial. For many American Jews, it was a trauma experienced secondhand.

NG: Cultural appropriation!

AA: There is a budding phenomenon of art made by people in this generation that tries to eschew or minimize the Holocaust. Helen Betya Rubinstein wrote a review of Sheila Heti’s Motherhood in this magazine about Heti not wanting to have children because of the trauma experienced by her mother and grandmother, and the Holocaust is that primary trauma, but it’s barely mentioned in the book. Rubinstein suggests that we’re just fed up with the Holocaust; we have to omit it because it’s too overpowering. Similarly, there’s this German time travel show, Dark, where they can only time travel in these 33-year cycles, which means it skips from the ’20s to the ’50s, so they actually wouldn’t be able to get back to any time period that would have touched the Third Reich years. Nonetheless, of course, in those two works of art—and I think in this one, too—the Holocaust is still transparently there; it’s heavy in its omission. 

It’s one of the choices in the film that I think is actually interesting, especially in how it points to the difficulty a lot of people are having in dealing with the Holocaust in art at this point. It’s going to be interesting to see how people start to solve that problem.

JL: “To write poetry after Auschwitz, we must pretend it didn’t happen.”

NG: In the most charitable reading, the movie’s omission of the Holocaust could be a way of describing the urge to forge a positive, creative diasporic Jewish identity, one that isn’t simply surviving in the wake of Holocaust trauma. But throughout the film, Ben is haunted by the loss of his parents, who died young and inexplicably; their random car crash winds up standing in for the Shoah. And the character’s emotional resolution comes when he admits he needs to say the Mourner’s Kaddish to process his trauma. By reincorporating the Holocaust into the self, the film perhaps admits there’s actually no escaping it, and we’re still left with a Judaism that’s entirely about coping with loss.

MC: The fact that there would still be such a prominent synagogue left in Schlupsk and nine Jews left to form a minyan was inconceivable. But at the same time, I thought that was the part that had the most Holocaust resonance. Ben is just sitting in the corner and then this man comes up to him and asks him to join a minyan. It’s all old men; there are no young people in this congregation. They don’t have what they need to make this Jewish community work until Ben shows up and joins them, which also gives him what he needs. Even though the film never mentions the Holocaust, what it’s offering here is the post-Holocaust American Jewish idea that we need to preserve our heritage in the face of loss, that we need each other, that there’s this family waiting for us if we choose to be Jewish. 

JL: Rogen is a product of a very particular time in American Jewish history, where the primary pillars of Jewish identity are the Holocaust and Zionism. That’s why he has no other substantive sense of Jewish identity. So the movie intentionally omits both of them, because in his own way, without the necessary tools, he’s asking if there is a Jewish American identity beyond the Holocaust and Zionism. The answer that he comes to is that there are two choices. One is nothing. And the other is Chabad—“Can you join the minyan?” You say Kaddish for your parents. It’s a kind of Yiddishkeit that is firstly familial, not theological, which feels very much like the Chabad, kiruv-style return to religion. 

DK: Having spent time in that part of the world, the later Schlupsk scenes didn’t ring entirely false to me. In a town or city like this in post-communist Eastern Europe, if there’s an active synagogue—and this is what I found in Vilnius, once a heavily Jewish city before the Holocaust—Chabad is basically running the show. They’re there to find a Jew who might be traveling through and bring him into a minyan. That’s exactly what would happen. 

MC: That dichotomy of “Chabad or nothing” reminds me of the choice a lot of millennial Jews see before them—if they want something and don’t feel like they can find it in the more liberal institutions, they end up becoming more observant. I didn’t know anyone observant very well growing up. It became a much bigger part of my life once I was in these leftist Jewish communities. There was this sense that with secular culture, there’s no “there” there, because what is it besides Zionism? Or besides Ashkenormativity or assimilation or capitalism, or just pickles. So there’s this impulse to go toward religion as something that is unimpeachably a thing. 

JL: And it’s authentic and ancient.

AMB: Rogen is clearly interested in exploring his Jewish roots, but his Jewish roots actually don’t look like pickle guys in Brooklyn. I would be so much more curious to know what he would do with the kibbutz that his parents met on. Where’s that movie?

JL: There is no movie about what it’s like to grow up with parents who met on Kibbutz Beit Alfa, and then to be raised in a cult of state worship, where if you don’t go to that state, then you have nothing. There is very little American Jewish literature or film that deals with that.

AA: Transparent tried.

MC: Broad City tried.

AMB: I think that that movie seems unmakeable right now, because generationally we’re at a point where we’re approaching post-Zionism, and that kind of post-ness is what comes through in the pickle movie. Rogen got in trouble for asking in that Marc Maron interview whether we even need Zionism anymore. There’s a sense that Israel is obsolete, a fantasy that is no longer necessary. His consciousness is marooned between Zionism on the one hand, and an actual place of reckoning with being the product of an American and a Canadian who met on a kibbutz. Maybe in ten years, someone will make that movie.

DK: Israel is not even hinted at in the movie. It’s not anti-Zionism—it’s just not remotely there.

NG: Not even a wink about the fact that Ben’s app assesses the ethics of products and services right after we see him whip up some seltzer in his SodaStream.

DK: I actually found the omission of Israel a little bit refreshing, if not realistic. It suggests that you can tell a complete story of Jewish identity over time without going there at all, which is a rebuttal to the conflation of Jewish identity with Israel.

AA: It’s present in the sense that, without Israel, this might be a richer movie because Seth Rogen might know something about his actual history. His Jewish education might not have been replaced by propaganda. This movie is a negative impression of these single-minded institutional obsessions with Israel and the Holocaust, which are no less superficial themselves.

We’ve discussed how the movie’s understanding of Judaism is all about mourning. I think for a lot of people, even people who are disillusioned with Judaism, there’s this sense that Jews know how to do death. Maybe there’s something to that. But what is the vision for Jewish life beyond a connection to death and mourning? What is the vision for where we go from here, for who we are? All we have is the Mourner’s Kaddish. 

DK: And pickles. And seltzer. And a little bit of Yiddish at the beginning. 

JL: The movie reminded me of this n+1Intellectual Situation” from 2008, where they looked at the then-new crop of Jewish magazines and wrote that if secular Jews can’t rediscover both self-criticality and a genuine commitment to political justice, then they “deserve to become like people of Scottish descent,” who “wear yarmulkes twice a year like kilts, and toot shofars like bagpipes, calling no one back to righteousness.” That’s where we are, and what this film embodies. It’s just the kilt and the bagpipe, pickles and seltzer.

One thing I’m frustrated with is the way the film—and of course this is a pervasive narrative—presents Jewish assimilation as a passive loss, rather than as an intentional choice. The reason that Ben doesn’t have a Jewish identity isn’t because it was lost along the way, but because his ancestors came here and literally didn’t want to be Jewish anymore! Until there’s some kind of accounting for assimilation as something chosen, we’ll never be able to live in the gulf of what we don’t have anymore.

AMB: It seems very mysterious in the movie why anybody would have wanted to hold onto that to begin with, because we don’t see anything—in Schlupsk, or in Herschel’s life in Brooklyn, or just in Herschel, period—that would be worth saving. There’s very little there other than a pure poverty and a desire for its opposite. There’s not a lot of traction to the idea of memory, outside a specific religious or familial obligation to remember. That makes it very different than the old country of Fiddler, or even the old country that you see in the mid-century American high point of Ashkenazi male Jewish shtick.

AA: Okay. But are we basically saying, “It’s too late, there’s no undoing this great historical process of assimilation, and therefore, there is no art that is going to deal with this in an authentic way”? Or are we saying that we believe there’s a way that this community could change that would produce a kind of art that is more embodied and where the connections between signifier and signified are more rooted and meaningful? I don’t feel like I know the answer. If this is the inevitable end point, then what the fuck are we doing here? What is Jewish Currents?

MC: Contemporary American Jews often have negative identities, in opposition to antisemitism or to diasporism. Or even in opposition to Zionism: A lot of engagement with leftist Jewish history in art is like, “Here’s the story of my Bundist Jewish great-grandfather, as a refutation to your Zionist Jewish great-grandfather.” It’s hard to imagine what the positive version of this is.

NG: I feel the stakes and urgency of the question, but I also think it’s simply not answerable by us in this form, because neither the historical conditions nor the formal innovations that are involved in the creation of serious art can be planned by committee. We can think about approaches and conditions, but it’s hard to game out a cultural revival.

There’s also a possible optimistic reading of this movie’s existence: The fact that someone is attempting to wrestle with these questions and producing bad art—and that there’s a desire to engage with that art—could be portents that we’ll get more good art in this vein somewhere down the road.

DK: Speaking of contemporary Jewish art, there’s a question we asked in our discussion of Uncut Gems that I’ve been wondering about in the context of this film. What if this movie were about Vito, who immigrates to Brooklyn from Sicily and falls into a vat of marinara sauce and emerges a hundred years later and meets his great-grandson? What would be different about it? In other words, is this actually a movie about Jews at all? Or is it just a movie about being a millennial hipster who is the great-grandchild of working-class immigrants?

AMB: An American Breadstick.

AA: The only thing that makes it Jewish is this animating preoccupation, the agita around these questions of whiteness and assimilation, in no small part because of the Holocaust and Israel. That is, sure, an Italian American could’ve made this movie. They probably just wouldn’t have.