An American Pickle: A Bland Concoction

By SHLOMO SCHWARTZBERG

An American Pickle, the first feature film offered by HBO Max, (showing on Crave TV in Canada), doesn’t really move much beyond its basic idea.

Seth Rogen plays Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant to the U.S. who works in a pickle factory, circa 1919. When he accidentally falls into a pickle barrel, the brine preserves him, until he is discovered a century later. When he emerges into our world, he has to adjust to its myriad changes while also trying to bond with his great-grandson Ben (Rogen, in a dual role).

In many ways, the movie, written by Simon Rich, and adapted from his serialized 2013 New Yorker short story Sellout, never allows its viewers to suspend their disbelief as, for example, the fish out of water (literally) movie Splash did so well. Would the pickle factory, condemned right after Herschel’s accident, actually survive as untouched real estate for that long? Do they expect us to accept that that the scientists who get hold of the revived Herschel would not prepare him for his new world by showing him what has transpired since he was pickled? Yes, An American Pickle is a fantasy, but even that genre has to function logically.

Mind you, with its flat depiction of Herschel’s Eastern European birthplace (called Shlupsk – not as funny a name as Rich thinks it is), it’s apparent that the movie lacks imagination, resorting to lame Cossack jokes and quaint societal portraits. This isn’t Fiddler on the Roof, not by a long shot.

An American Pickle is pretty thin, as Herschel, after fighting with Ben, sets out on his own to make a success of himself. He undergoes a series of adverse events before finally connecting with his relative over their shared loss of family. That’s the whole basic, banal, plot.

What we’re left with are some jokes about Herschel’s perceived “authenticity” – his pickle business goes viral after a blogger raves about him – and how his backwards, prejudiced, early 20th century views are a perfect fit for our current age of ignorant Twitter utterances and internet trolls.

The movie does try to have it both ways, however, suggesting an innate genius for business on Herschel’s part, but also positing that he is not smart enough to keep his retrograde views to himself. Those include opinions on Christianity that no Jew, much less a put-upon one from the shtetl, would ever utter in mixed, non-Jewish, company. Yet, there’s also a commensurate and curious lack of antisemitism manifest in this world, where Herschel riles up so many Americans.

An American Pickle, directed indifferently by Brandon Frost, is also not that Jewish. Yes, Ben is very assimilated, which shocks Herschel. And Herschel is angered when he sees a billboard ad for vodka hovering over the neglected Jewish cemetery where the Greenbaums are buried, associating that drink with the dreaded Cossacks of old. But this is comparatively weak stuff. The movie never matches the scene in Knocked Up, in which Rogen’s Jewish character kvells with his Jewish pals over Steven Spielberg’s Munich. Finally, they can relate to a movie in which Jews kick butt and take names, instead of – as usual in films – having their butts kicked. And there’s nothing in the movie that’s as brilliant as the concept of Woody Allen’s Zelig, with that character symbolizing the Jewish affinity for melding into whatever milieu he finds himself in.

Rogen’s performances are also problematic. Herschel has some character shadings, though he barely seems to register that he’s in an entirely different world than the one from his past. But Ben’s persona is so pallid, that he fails utterly to register emotionally. And what were Rogen (who co-produced the movie) and company thinking in wasting the talents of Sarah Snook, who plays Herschel’s wife Sarah and was so great as the scheming Siobhan Roy in HBO’s superb TV series Succession? At least Simon Rich’s short story proffered a female love interest for Ben’s character, which would have made for a perfect opportunity for the filmmakers to utilize Snook in a deeper, present day dual role, rather than the blink-and-you-miss-her near walk-on part as Sarah Greenbaum.

And if you’re wondering if this film will offend you in light of Rogen’s recent intemperate comments about Judaism and Israel he made on Marc Maron’s podcast, don’t worry. It’s too tame and innocuous to raise anyone’s hackles, except for those who actually expect comedies to be funny.


Shlomo Schwartzberg
Shlomo Schwartzberg

Shlomo Schwartzberg is a film critic, teacher and arts journalist based in Toronto. He teaches film at the Miles Nadal Jewish Community Centre, the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre, Ryerson University’s LIFE Institute, the University of Toronto’s School of Continuing Studies and the London JCC, among other venues. He is also the co-founder of the noted Critics at Large cultural web site. (www.criticsatlarge.ca)

The Seth Rogen Drama: We Need Honest Talk About Israel

Aug. 3, 2020 – By ZACK BABINS

Last week, Canadian Jewish actor and filmmaker Seth Rogen, while promoting his new movie, An American Pickle, the saga of a poor Yiddish immigrant to New York City who is preserved in pickle brine for 100 years (based on a quirky story by Simon Rich, available here), discussed his Jewish identity and feelings about Israel.

You may have read about it: Rogen rejected an inherent link between Jewish identity and Zionism, called the idea of Jewish statehood the product of “an antiquated thought process,” and expressed dissatisfaction with the ways he – the son of two kibbutzniks and Jewish summer camp alumnus– was educated when it came to Israel. 

I may disagree with Seth on a few points – I happen to think that as long as everyone else has a state, we should probably have one too – but this much is true: The way that our community teaches young Jews about Israel, Palestine – and the conflict just doesn’t square with historical records – and there is an instinct to exile and dismiss the Jews who ask frank and difficult questions about Israel.

The realities of the Aliyah movements, the British Mandate, the War of Independence, the wars of 1967 and 1973, intifadas, settlements, and countless failed peace processes, are too messy for one op-ed and one day. But in our day schools and summer camps, and our primary educational programs, they are simplified to create a vision of Israel that is blameless, perfect and miraculous – a vision far more naïve and utopian than even Herzl’s. 

“We took a deserted land and made the desert bloom.” “We (out of the goodness of our own hearts) withdrew from Gaza and just look at what they did there.” “We accepted the Partition plan and they didn’t.”  

It wasn’t until my final year of university, and my decision to write a thesis on the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, that I – who had attended Hebrew school for nine years, was active in the local Jewish fraternity, president of Hillel, and had just participated in a Birthright Israel trip – learned, for instance, that the Israeli acceptance of the 1947 partition plan was far from unanimous, with Menachem Begin and the Revisionist Zionist camp calling it “illegitimate.” 

During that year of research and writing, I encountered many pieces of information that directly and forcefully disproved many of the ideas that I had been raised with. I confronted the reality of a real country making political decisions and strategic military calculations.

I felt lied to. On many occasions, I was mere sentences away from abandoning my emotional stake in Israel altogether. On some days, the only thing stopping me from washing my hands of the whole messy falafel was a mentor who encouraged me to embrace the nuances and test my values against them.

Any conversation about the Jewish future has to include a frank, reasonable discussion about the role of Israel and its ability to represent Jews around the world. It is unsustainable for us, as a people, to continue mythologizing a real, complex place and exiling those of us who express dissatisfaction with realities once we learn them. 

After all of that, after the threat of annexation, the continued attack of the rabbinate on progressive values, and much more, I remain a Zionist for this reason: 

I am a Jew, and a Jew in a world that is dangerous and hostile to Jews: Israel, for all its faults, remains a place where Jews can be safe as Jews, an increasing rarity in 2020. While I am relatively safe as a Canadian Jew, I know far too much Jewish history to think that this safety is forever guaranteed.

But a small part of me, in the back of my head, knows that there is a second reason. I remain a Zionist because anything else risks alienation and condemnation. From my friends, my family, the community I grew up and worked in. From the Jewish Twittersphere. 

I’ve been to Israel three times and I’d like to visit again in the future. In pre-coronavirus times, Israel has barred entry to, among others, Diaspora Jewish BDS activists. I’m not interested in taking a 12-hour flight only to get deported from a country that claims to be my homeland. 

My Zionism is nuanced. It is critical, it is measured, and I do my best to keep it in line with history and the values with which I judge every other political issue in my life. But it is not the only thing that makes me a Jew. Far from it. 

I’ve long been party to conversations – and handwringing – about the Jewish future. For a long time, assimilation and intermarriage were the boogeyman. Now, it’s insufficient (right-wing, reactionary, unquestioning) Zionism that gets one labeled as a traitor to the Jews. 

The truth is, when we lie to our kids, they resent the lie as much as they resent us. The truth is, to ensure a Jewish future, we have to tell the truth about the Jewish past. And that means a conversation about Israel that’s rooted in reality and history, not myths and utopias. These questions are not going away, and will only get louder. The truth is, we ignore them – and dismiss young Jews with serious concerns – at our own risk.


Zack Babins is a Professional Jew and Recovering Jewish Professional™, an occasional political communicator and a constant seeker of attention.