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Seth Rogen’s Jewish American Tale

“Our DNA test comes back Jewish. You could find a severed finger and tell that it was Jewish.” Here’s how Rogen came to make ‘An American Pickle,’ his most personal film to date.

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

“Seth, people hate Jewish people. Just be aware of that. Just understand that.” Like many Jews (including myself), Seth Rogen learned the burden of his cultural identity at a young age, thanks to his father.

That reality check, issued by a man who worked for a Jewish organization dedicated to fostering social justice, didn’t scare Rogen. But it prepared him to live in a world where anti-Semitism existed, and continues to exist. “If it wasn’t something that I always kind of understood and just saw throughout my life, then times like this, when white supremacy has gone pretty mainstream, would be a lot more shocking,” Rogen says. “Under the umbrella of, ‘Seth, people hate Jews,’ everything that’s happening now is terrifying but not completely mystifying.”

During his career, which began in 1999 with a role in Freaks and Geeks, the 38-year-old actor, writer, and filmmaker has proudly infused his comedy with Judaism. He’s almost as associated with Jewishness as he is with smoking weed. (I said almost.) Rogen has played several Jewish characters: immature expectant father Ben Stone in Knocked Up; wannabe stand-up Ira Weiner, who adopts the stage name Ira Wright, in Funny People; and windbreakered gonzo journalist Fred Flarsky in Long Shot. Sausage Party, the filthy animated film that he and his best friend and producing partner Evan Goldberg cowrote, features an anthropomorphic bagel voiced by Edward Norton. And in 2011, Rogen did his best impersonation of fellow Jewish icon Mike D in a Beastie Boys video.

Yet while his ethnicity has been a constant presence, it hasn’t been at the center of any of his movies until now. An American Pickle—which hit HBO Max on Thursday—tells the story of Jewish immigrant and Brooklynite Herschel Greenbaum, a pickle factory worker who in 1920 falls into a vat. Perfectly preserved by the brine, he wakes up a century later to find that his last remaining relative is his great-grandson Ben. Naturally, Rogen plays both.

The fractured fairy tale is a departure for Rogen, and not just because it’s mostly free of dick jokes. “Seth will be the first one to tell you that this is the most Jewish movie he’s ever made,” says first-time director Brandon Trost, who is also Rogen and Goldberg’s longtime cinematographer. It’s about loss, grief, and the tension that long-assimilated North American Jews feel between living secular lives and acknowledging the traditions that our ancestors kept alive, despite centuries of persecution.

Growing up in Vancouver, Rogen went to Hebrew school, had a bar mitzvah, and went to Jewish summer camp. But he drifted away from organized religion before he was embraced for being a culturally Jewish comedian. “Like anything you’re kind of inundated with as a kid, you kind of revolt against when you’re older,” he says. “And I definitely did that.”

As time passed, however, Rogen realized that his rejection of strict piety made him no less Jewish than an Orthodox rabbi. After all, oppressors don’t discriminate. With violence against Jews on the rise, and with celebrities, elected officials, and even the president reviving anti-Semitic conspiracy theories and stereotypes, Rogen’s been reminded that whether he likes it or not, he and his faith are inextricable.

“You don’t have to believe in Judaism at all to be a Jewish person,” Rogen says. “It’s not a job you can quit from. Our DNA test comes back Jewish. You could find a severed finger and tell that it was Jewish—which is not how Baptists work.”

Hopper Stone/SMPSP

The origin story of An American Pickle begins with a common affliction among Jews: guilt. A decade ago, the comedy writer and novelist Simon Rich started to have pangs of it. The son of columnist and television producer Frank Rich, he grew up in New York City, attended private schools, and went to Harvard. His upbringing didn’t exactly resemble that of his ancestors. “My life has been extremely coddled and easy from birth,” he says. “And my great-grandparents, they sacrificed so much so that I could have this better life, and yet for all that they’ve endured, I’ve lost touch with so many aspects of my heritage. I’m not particularly observant as a Jew. I only know a few Yiddish words, and they all mean penis.”

As a kid, Rich says, he faced zero anti-Semitism. “I always wondered what they would think of me if they were to meet me,” says Rich, who has Eastern European Ashkenazi Jewish roots. “If they were to see the fruits of all their arduous labors.”

The author decided to answer that question by writing about it. Sell Out, his serialized novella The New Yorker published in 2013, is narrated by Herschel, a time-traveling early-20th-century Eastern European man who scratches his head at his comedy-writing great-great-grandson Simon’s frivolous existence. When the visitor from the past finds out that his progeny doesn’t believe in God, he’s beside himself. Herschel never had the option of just being culturally Jewish. “It is too much for me to understand,” he says.

“People were trying to kill our grandparents and our great-grandparents in Eastern Europe,” Rogen says. “And that’s a constant reminder of our Judaism. Being Jewish, they didn’t have the luxury of it being like one of 10 things about you. It was a pretty defining characteristic.”

Five months after the first installment of the story ran, Sony Pictures acquired its film rights. Rich then pitched a movie adaptation to Rogen and Goldberg, who in 2011 had launched their own production company, Point Grey Pictures, named for their high school. The old friends liked the idea of tackling a story about a clash between two American Jews from the same lineage but different worlds.

Rogen says that Rich helped sell the concept by describing a photograph of his grandfather when he was in his 20s. “I was looking at this picture, and I was like, ‘If we met and we were the same age, my grandfather would hate me,’” he recalls Rich, who also wrote the movie’s script, telling him. That anecdote stuck with Rogen, who immediately thought of his own family.

“My grandfather, I wouldn’t say he hated me, but the generational divide was clear,” says Rogen, who coproduced An American Pickle with Goldberg and James Weaver. “You could tell he thought I was a soft kid. He was in the Navy. I have a picture of him, and he was in his 20s. If he met me in his 20s he’d be like, ‘Ha ha, funny man,’ and he’d punch me in the face.”

Rogen and Goldberg never made an explicitly Jewish movie before An American Pickle, but they’d been weaned on Jewish humor. At this point, it’s less a subgenre than it is a vast, centuries-spanning canon that has been studied like the Talmud. Three years ago, Columbia professor Jeremy Dauber published Jewish Comedy, a hefty book that runs 384 pages—383 more than Famous Jewish Sports Legends.

It’s impossible to concisely define Jewish comedy, but I asked Rogen and Goldberg to try. “Very analytical and introspective and there’s always a tinge of neurosy somewhere in there,” says Goldberg, whose description could apply to one of dozens of memorable Jewish characters in pop culture, from Alexander Portnoy (Portnoy’s Complaint), Alvy Singer (Annie Hall), and Larry Gopnik (A Serious Man), to Rebecca Bunch (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend), Shoshanna Shapiro (Girls), Abbi and Ilana (Broad City), and—minus the introspection—Howie Ratner (Uncut Gems).

Being Jewish in a society without many Jews can lead to a mix of anxiety, pride, and hyper self-awareness. “They are decidedly a target in a lot of places, for being Jewish,” Rogen says, “[but] can’t help but talk about being Jewish all the fucking time.”

Growing up in the ’90s in an affluent, lily-white, majority Catholic Boston suburb, I felt relatively safe but still heard dumb jokes about Jews being cheap and good with money. You know, the kind of thing that Neal Schweiber was lamenting in Freaks and Geeks when he said, “I was elected school treasurer last year. I didn’t even run!” My freshman year of high school, some putz in English class asked me why Jews were buried in cemeteries standing up. But I also told my own Jewish jokes, hoping that the self-deprecation would help me fit in. I was Ben in Knocked Up, responding to Katherine Heigl’s character asking him whether he used product in his curly hair by saying, “I use, uh, Jew.”

On its face, the habit of poking fun of one’s own Jewishness as a disarming method may seem strange and unnecessary. But for a historically persecuted group of people, the compulsion has long been a preferred defense mechanism. As Mel Brooks once put it: “If they’re laughing, how can they bludgeon you to death?”

Like a lot of elder millennials, Rogen and Goldberg’s Jewish comedic education began with Brooks’s movies. The combination of raunch, silliness, social commentary, and direct references to Judaism found in The Producers, Blazing Saddles, History of the World: Part I, and Spaceballs was formative. So was the New York City–set Seinfeld, whose cocreators and star didn’t attempt to play down their Jewishness. Whether it was Kramer learning to cook kreplach, brisket, and kugel, or a dentist who converts to Judaism for the jokes, the sitcom’s plots were full of references that likely meant nothing to most gentiles.

“It might as well have been called Jew,” Rogen says. “It speaks to the inextricability of it. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, they’re not religious Jewish people. But whether they like it or not, they are Jewish people.”

Then there was Saturday Night Live star Adam Sandler, a nice Jewish boy from New Hampshire who scored a hit with a tune about feeling left out around the holidays. “‘The Chanukah Song’ was one of the things as a kid where I was like, ‘This is a truly beloved cultural thing that is unabashedly Jewish,’” Rogen says. In reality, there are countless comedies, including Rogen and Goldberg’s beloved Simpsons—which parodied The Jazz Singer in Season 3—that aren’t explicitly Jewish but have Jewish elements. “You’ve got evidence of Jewish writers in a billion other things,” Goldberg says.

Eventually, Rogen and Goldberg became comedy writers and producers themselves. By their 20s, they’d worked with two of the most influential Jewish creative forces of the past 20 years: Judd Apatow and Sacha Baron Cohen. The partners have since become two of the most prolific members of the Apatow diaspora. While they still make traditional comedies, Rogen and Goldberg’s latest is more somber than most of their previous work. At the heart of An American Pickle are two Jewish men from two different centuries who must overcome their own forms of profound grief. “Not on its face the funniest theme in the world,” Rogen notes, adding that the movie’s title is a subtle nod to An American Tail, another movie about early-20th-century Jewish immigrants (who also happen to be animated mice). “But I think when we’re making movies, we are trying to look for something that we can look at ourselves and say, ‘We’ve never done this before.’”

It’s a new take on an old formula often attributed to original Tonight Show host Steve Allen, who actually was not Jewish: Comedy is tragedy plus time.

Hopper Stone/SMPSP

From the moment he set out to turn his novella into a movie, Rich envisioned Rogen as both Ben and Herschel. Initially, the actor wasn’t convinced that he should play two roles in the same film. First, he says, that kind of thing “has a rocky cinematic history.” Second, he had no interest in wearing prosthetic facial hair.

“I don’t think Hollywood has made one good fake beard in the history of the motion picture industry,” Rogen says. “You could watch Avengers: Endgame, which has like a billion-dollar budget, and the beards are like 85 percent good.”

When told he could grow out his beard as the elder Greenbaum—for proof of his hirsuteness, look at his weathered portrait on the An American Pickle poster—Rogen came around to the dual assignment. “It was a simple choice, but it dictated a lot process-wise,” he says. “I was just like, ‘I don’t want to wear a fake beard. I think they look bad.’ I think you’ll be able to tell. And I think that’s an important thing as far as making people not think about that it’s two different people.” But there was more to playing Herschel than just not shaving. For a handful of scenes with Succession’s Sarah Snook, who appears as his character’s wife, Rogen had to learn how to speak Yiddish. And not just the words that mean penis. “It was hard on both of us,” he says. “She learned them better than I did, for sure. She’s a better actor than I am.”

Rogen also worked with a dialect coach on the character’s heavily accented English. Herschel, who hails from a shtetl in the fictional Eastern European town of Schlupsk, may resemble Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof, but Rogen didn’t want to sound quite like him. “I had old tapes of my family and old tapes of Lithuanian Jews and Ukrainian Jews and it was an amalgamation of those things,” Rogen says. “My family’s from Ukraine originally. It’s more a Ukrainian-Russian accent.”

Getting Herschel’s look and voice right, it turns out, was the easy part. Shooting a movie starring one actor playing two roles proved to be much harder. “It was probably the most technically difficult thing we’ve ever done,” Rogen says, “but it’s all with the goal of not seeming technical at all.” The aim was to follow the example of something like Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation, which featured Nicolas Cage as twins. “At no point are you thinking, ‘Man, was it crazy how they did that?’” says Goldberg. “You don’t think about it.”

“If we’ve done it right, you just watch the two performing together and it feels effortless,” Trost says.

Filming began with Rogen as Herschel opposite a double, actor Ian Poake. To ensure that he correctly synced interactions with his other self, Rogen received his cues via a tiny microphone in his ear. “Sometimes throughout one scene I would have six cues,” he says. “Each cued by a series of three beeps, and I’m also hearing the other character’s dialogue.” Going off script, a signature move for Rogen, was harder than normal. “I would improvise on one side and as I was doing that, think about what I would have to improvise on the other side and leave room for myself to fill in the gaps,” he says. “Luckily, I’m annoyingly aware of my own rhythms.”

About halfway through production, Rogen transitioned to playing Ben. That meant that he needed a shave. “The ceremony was just, ‘Holy shit, we’ve got to cut his beard over lunch,’” Trost remembers. “‘Let’s do this as fast as we can.’” The beard had a beautiful life, but there was no time to sit shiva for it.

While making An American Pickle, Rogen often thought about his grandparents. “They lived to see me become the star of motion pictures,” he says. “And what was impressive to them was that I had a drawer full of napkins. That was the thing that really blew their minds. Like, ‘Look at all the napkins he’s got.’”

In the movie, Herschel dreams of being able to afford seltzer. When I recently video-chatted with Rogen, whose gray-speckled beard has once again reached Herschel levels, he was drinking Topo Chico. On the kitchen counter behind me sat a 12-pack of LaCroix.

In the middle of a deadly pandemic, when simply being able to hunker down at home is a rare privilege, Rogen knows how good he has it. That’s why he’s glad to finally pay tribute to his family members who weren’t as privileged. In a climate that’s far different for American Jews than it was when Sell Out was published, it’s the right time for him to cinematically address his Judaism. “Whether you’re Jewish or not, just how much can you extract yourself from your history, whether you want to or not?” Rogen says. “And how much should you?”

There were moments when Rogen wondered whether a movie about a Yiddish-speaking protagonist from 1920 was a bit too niche for a mainstream audience. They lingered even as the filming of An American Pickle began, in Brooklyn stand-in Pittsburgh. Then, on the morning of October 27, 2018, an anti-Semitic gunman entered Squirrel Hill’s Tree of Life synagogue and shot and killed 11 worshipers, injuring six others.

“It was not lost on us that we were about to start filming the most Jewish movie any of us had ever made in the city that had just had the worst act of anti-Jewish violence in American history,” Rogen says. The horrific act of violence shook Rogen—following the attack, the production hired armed security guards. But it also emboldened him. “Any questions we had about whether we were making too Jewish of a movie honestly went away when that happened,” he says. “I was like, ‘Yeah, this is the story we’re telling.’”

Even if Rogen wanted to, running away from the subject was not an option. He and his faith are inextricable. It’s both a gift and a burden that all Jews have carried with them, and will continue to carry with them, forever.

Whether he likes it or not, Rogen says, “I am Jewish.”

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