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Sometimes a Cossack Isn’t Just a Cossack

Rokhl’s Golden City: What ‘An American Pickle’ leaves out of Jewish history

Rokhl Kafrissen
August 27, 2020
Photo: Hopper Stone
Photo: Hopper Stone
Photo: Hopper Stone
Photo: Hopper Stone

We’re now less than a year away from the 100th anniversary of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921. Along with the Nuremberg Laws and the Balfour Declaration, it might be one of the most consequential pieces of legislation ever to touch global Jewry.

Over the preceding four decades, around 2.5 million Jews had arrived in the United States, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. But in the midst of a postwar recession and at the tail end of the 1918 flu pandemic, American isolationism was ascendant. The 1921 Quota Act was the first to impose strict numerical limits on immigration. And it deliberately made no distinction between immigrants and refugees, a decision whose later cruel ramifications during WWII hardly need restating.

History rarely falls into such neatly divisible eras, but with the passage of the Quota Act, and later the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924 (which further tightened quotas and made them permanent), mass immigration was over. One of the great chapters of American Jewish history quickly and definitively came to a close.

Three decades later, the era of immigration was already receding into the mythical past. In 1951, Oscar Handlin published The Uprooted, his landmark work on immigration, blending history, sociology, and narrative sweep. At the heart of Handlin’s analysis was what he saw as the vast silences now dividing immigrant father and native-born son:

When a boy had come, the friends had said, “Now you have a son and a successor.”
But the son was no successor.

The American son could never understand the shock and alienation of displacement. And the immigrant father, fearful of his son’s uncomprehending look, dared not even try to explain.

Handlin, the precocious son of immigrant grocers, was no doubt projecting at least a little of himself onto this grim assessment. He had graduated from Brooklyn College at 18 and took a position at Harvard immediately upon finishing his dissertation there, at the ripe old age of 25. If Handlin perhaps felt it difficult to connect with his immigrant parents, we can understand The Uprooted as his effort at closing that vast generational gap.

It might surprise Handlin that some 70 years later, it is now the American grandson who fears the gaze of the grandfather. On his recent (now infamous) WTF podcast interview, actor Seth Rogen described the genesis of his new Yiddish-flavored movie, An American Pickle. Simon Rich, author of the novella Sell Out, upon which Pickle is based, was looking at a picture of his grandfather at his own age, imagining how, if they were to meet as peers, his grandfather would surely “hate his guts.” Rogen described his own grandfather as a tough guy, the kind who could tear an apple in two with his bare hands. “He liked me as a grandson, but he had to.”

In American Pickle, a magical plot device lets us see what might happen if the generations did meet as peers. New immigrant Herschel Greenbaum falls in a vat of pickle brine only to be rehydrated a hundred years later. Rogen plays great-grandfather Herschel and his identical great-grandson, Ben. Sure enough, hot-headed Herschel is disgusted at Ben’s quiet, safe lifestyle. He berates Ben for his lack of connection to family and religion and his failure to properly mourn his parents. Before they can get to Smorgesburg for jackfruit tacos (this was the real nostalgia gut punch for me), Herschel is “doing violence” all over hipster Brooklyn, setting off the main conflict of the movie.

An American Pickle is hardly the first movie inspired by such a premise. Perhaps the most beloved time travel movie ever, Back to the Future, was inspired by co-writer Bob Gale stumbling across his own father’s high school yearbook and wondering if they would have been friends if they had been classmates.

Pickle isn’t even the first movie in recent years to use a magical plot device, and Yiddish, to bring generations of Jewish men together. In 2014’s critically excoriated The Cobbler, Max Simkin (Adam Sandler) discovers a magical stitching machine in his family’s shop that allows him to inhabit the body of a shoe’s owner. (In The Cobbler, pickles also play an important role in the working of the magical plot device.)

The Cobbler opens with a Yiddish prologue set in 1903, in which neighborhood merchants implore the Sandler character’s great-grandfather to help them fight local extortionists. Later in the movie, the magical shoe machine allows Sandler to uncover, or unleash, the (super)hero inside him.

The Cobbler was (rightly) dinged for indulging in lazy racist and transphobic comedy. For me, though, the crime fighting subplot (and cringey yuks) were secondary to what I saw as the real themes of the movie, the understated Max Simkin grieving for his parents and connecting to an ever-changing past. And in that, The Cobbler shares what I found so appealing about An American Pickle.

Before watching American Pickle, I was tempted to write it off as just another chapter in the book of toxic masculinity: Brooklyn Soy Boy Learns the Value of Violence From Time Traveling Tough Jew. As a humorless Yiddishist, I was particularly on edge, knowing that Rogen and his associates had decided to have Herschel, the time traveling pickle mogul, speak Yiddish, something very few Hollywood projects manage to get right. I imagined Herschel as a hairier Brendan Fraser in Encino Man, a grunting cypher whose arrival teaches the protagonist the value of fighting back (and chilling out).

From the trailer alone, I was prepared to hate it. For one thing, Rogen’s Russian accent is a clumsy mismatch for his supposedly Yiddish-speaking character. And despite hiring not one but two Yiddish consultants (both of whom I consider respected colleagues), the Yiddish still comes off as stilted. But they earnestly tried, and that was many steps above the movie’s source material, which, for example, refers to the Angel of Death as the malach ha-mavet, putting a modern Israeli locution in the Yiddish-speaking Herschel’s mouth. For a story about authenticity and longing, Sell Out felt just as phony as the lifestyle it was satirizing.

In spite of my reservations, I was drawn in by Pickle’s sweet comic fantasy. Which is not to say that my reservations were completely swept away, so much as gently nudged aside with each roguish arch of Herschel’s brow. As an actor, Rogen is far more than his goofy, stoner persona. He’s winning as Herschel and Ben, bringing out the layers of gruff tenderness in both.

The movie opens in 1919 Shlupsk and for Rogen, it’s a year with deep personal meaning. His grandmother was born in a caravan fleeing a pogrom in 1919, eventually reaching Canada. In the WTF podcast, he explicitly says that the reason he’s here in North America is because “they” were trying to kill the Jews. Just as filming started in Pittsburgh in 2018, a man with a gun and a head full of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories walked into the Tree of Life synagogue and murdered 11 people, wounding six. In a recent Haaretz interview, Rogen said of the timing, “there was a sense that [making the movie] suddenly became much more important ... And any fear I had about how Jewish a movie it was, I honestly thought that if there was ever a time to double down on this, now was that time.”

As in many other American stories (An American Tail probably being one of the most famous), American Pickle’s anti-Jewish violence is shrunk down to a single word: Cossacks. Herschel and his beloved Sarah bond over the fact that each saw their parents murdered by Cossacks. Their wedding is cut short by what is presumably a Cossack attack on Shlupsk.

As Herschel narrates in the prologue, “The Cossacks destroyed our whole world.” Vodka-drunk and hungry for Jewish blood, Cossacks were simply doing what they always do. Everything else is glossed over in an instant, as we cut to newlyweds Herschel and Sarah on a boat approaching the Statue of Liberty. “We are Greenbaums. We are strong.”

If anything truly disturbed me about An American Pickle, it was the way history is made to collapse on itself. A Cossack is a Cossack is a Cossack. Like the biblical Amalek, he is an eternal enemy of the Jews and exists outside mere political motivations. Does he even need a reason to hate Jews? But the man who walked into the Tree of Life synagogue didn’t just “hate” Jews. He was drunk on specific right-wing, anti-Semitic theories blaming Jews for bringing migrant caravans into the United States. It’s absolutely crucial we acknowledge why he did what he did if we want to stop it from happening again.

And in fact, Rogen’s grandmother wasn’t simply fleeing “Cossacks.” The 1917 Bolshevik Revolution quickly gave way to five years of complex, multiparty warfare called the Russian Civil War. The war was a nightmarish period of pogroms and 1919 was its apex.

As a man in his 30s, Herschel Greenbaum would have already lived through more earth-shaking violence than most of us can even imagine, including, but not limited to, WWI, the Bolshevik Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. Shlupsk may be a fictional shtetl, but we can get an idea of what it might have actually felt like to be there by looking at a real shtetl, one like Dubovo.

Thirteen miles southeast of Uman and surrounded by forests, the central Ukraine shtetl of Dubovo was an unexceptional exemplar of pre-revolutionary Jewish life in the Pale of Settlement. As with many shtetlekh of the Pale, secular learning opportunities had started to creep in and modern politics, in this case, the Zionist cause, had gained Jewish support in Dubovo. The harmony that had long reigned between Jew and non-Jew, however, was lost after the Revolution and the grueling Russian Civil War which ensued.

Between May and August 1919, three pogroms swept over the real shtetl of Dubovo. Historian Elisa Bemporad writes in her new book, Legacy of Blood: Jews, Pogroms, and Ritual Murder in the Lands of the Soviets, that one account likened the atmosphere of increasing violence to a circus, luring in bystanders. “On June 17, 1919, a number of Jews were killed in assembly-line fashion: forced toward the basement of the home of a local Jew, they were decapitated as they approached the staircase.” One of the survivors recounted how he begged the executioners to just shoot him. He was told that “bullets are expensive.” There’s a reason scholars now argue that the violence of the Civil War period was in fact a trial run for the Holocaust. In 1918 there were 1,200 Jews in Dubovo. By September 1919, there were 26.

Given the gently comic tone of American Pickle, it would be absurd to insist on showing decapitations and other period specific mayhem. But historical accuracy doesn’t have to be a screen full of gratuitous gore. It could be as simple as adding a title card saying “1919, the middle of the Russian Civil War, a time of catastrophic pogroms.”

It’s not that it’s wrong to talk about Cossacks. As Bemporad notes, the Dubovo pogrom “took place with the arrival in town of Cossack detachments …” But rather than being the status quo, anti-Jewish violence was a new development in Dubovo, a product of the wars and Revolution. The Cossacks had arrived in Dubovo to support the forces of the anti-Bolshevik Whites. “Whites” itself refers to an incredibly complex amalgam of powers and loyalties, including monarchists and social democrats.

Needless to say, none of that detail exists in the universe of American Pickle. Nor do the struggles among Bundists, Zionists, Mensheviks, and more. Nor do the swelling networks of immigrant mutual-aid societies in New York (which would have surely provided the Greenbaums with affordable burial plots). Nor does the triumphant rise of the labor movement in New York. Even as Herschel bumbles his way into populist hero, his controversial takes avoid any mention of his own experience with revolutionary politics, pro or con.

Eastern European life, as always, is boiled down to a series of self-explanatory single words: Cossack, shtetl, pogrom. In the whole movie, Herschel has not a word to say about any of the life-shattering events of his day. Is his lusty embrace of capitalism a reaction to seeing his world ripped apart in the name of communism? Who can even say?

Whatever flavor the “real” Herschel’s Yiddishkayt would have had, its defining feature would have been a sense of belonging: to a party, a movement, a fraternal organization, a union, or even just a shtibl (small house of prayer). Looking through some genealogical material related to my own family, just a few weeks ago, I was struck by how the life of my great-grandmother was defined by her membership in the Esther Lodge, a ladies’ charitable society. Membership also defined the life of her daughter (my great-aunt), who was an officer in the Rumanian Hebrew Beneficial Association, a position she held for 65 (!) years. As such, her most important role was as administrator of the cemetery plot program.

Many of these groups and societies no longer, or just barely, exist today. It’s hard for us to understand just how important they were, and to what degree membership shaped the lives of our families. In American Pickle, Herschel’s Jewishness is gently refracted through the contemporary ideology of North American Jewry, the mushy middle of family and “religion,” shorn of culture, severed from larger obligations and historical contingencies. It’s a Jewishness that’s parochial, private, and, in the view of American Pickle, depressingly reactionary. At least in The Cobbler, there is a hint of this kind of densely networked Jewishness. Max Simkin is a fourth-generation shuster (cobbler). He’s portrayed as deeply connected to his neighbors and fellow merchants, just like his great-grandfather and grandfather (also a Herschel).

Nonetheless, I hesitate to judge the “truthiness” of The Cobbler against An American Pickle (against An American Tail, and so on). All of these, even Handlin’s immigration history The Uprooted, are texts from which we can glean truths about the past, but also about ourselves in the present. As the great cultural critic Stuart Hall has written, identities “arise from the narrativization of the self, but the necessarily fictional nature of this process in no way undermines” its power, “even if the ‘suturing into the story’ through which identities arise is … always partly constructed in fantasy.”

Before the release of An American Pickle, a considerable portion of Jewish social media was waiting on Herschel Greenbaum like the second coming (lehavdil) of Tevye. But An American Pickle isn’t “representation” (whatever that is), it’s a fantasy about being a Jewish man today, in a cultural moment where superhero tropes are far more relevant than the bloody details of a century ago.

Identities may “invoke an origin in a historical past with which they continue to correspond,” writes Stuart Hall, but in reality, they are “about questions of using the resources of history, language and culture in the process of becoming, rather than being.” Both Sandler and Rogen invoke their Ashkenazi forefathers, speaking the language of their Herschels, as a way of imagining themselves as both superhero and mentsh. I don’t necessarily have a problem with that, I enjoyed both movies very much.

But the past is far more than a prop, indeed, it can be a downright dangerous place. The United States of 1919 was a deeply xenophobic place: 1919 was the year Henry Ford bought the Dearborn Independent, a newspaper so anti-Semitic it inspired Hitler himself. And the Quota Act of 1921 was a product of that time. We now live in a world where borders and quotas are again a matter of life and death, and where disinformation about both have led ordinary citizens to target Jews with catastrophic violence. Seth Rogen certainly understands that, and I think, earnestly wants to engage with it. But like many North American Jews, he cannot face history’s (often bloody) contingencies. Those of us hoping for a great, historically informed Yiddish-American movie for the 21st century, will have to wait a few more years.

ALSO: There will be an artistic tribute to the modernist Yiddish poet Moyshe-Leyb Halpern on his yortsayt, Aug. 30 … In September, the Tenement Museum will once again offer in-person walking tours of the Lower East Side. … On Sept. 15 there will be a virtual book launch for clarinetist-scholar Joel Rubin’s important new book, New York Klezmer in the Early Twentieth Century: The Music of Naftule Brandwein and Dave Tarras … If you can’t get enough pandemic content, at the Polin Museum blog Marek Tuszewicki has a new podcast episode about Yiddish cholera folk magic practices … If you think Instagram is only good for late night skincare and jewelry scrolling, you’re mostly right. But Instagram can also do history surprisingly well. My favorite new IG follow is @ontariojewisharchives, the account of the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre, “the largest repository of Jewish life in Canada.” You don’t have to be Canadian to enjoy their pics, of course, and they’ve featured a ton of Yiddish related content … YIVO is offering two different beginner level Yiddish classes, one for morning and one for evening students. Beginner classes start Sept. 14-15, in addition to Intermediate and Advanced classes … The same week Noyekh Barrera begins his 12-week beginner’s Yiddish class in the afternoons … YIVO recently unveiled the new Bruce and Francesca Cernia Slovin Online Museum. The museum’s first exhibition uses interactive storytelling to explore the life of Beba Epstein in The Extraordinary Life of an Ordinary Girl. Epstein left an autobiography and kids can learn about life in interwar Poland from the point of view of a young person, using the many rare holdings of YIVO. The exhibition also has teacher resources for classroom use, but I think this would be a fun website to explore for parents who want to do Jewish learning with their own kids at home … It’s Elul, the traditional time for visiting the graves of our ancestors. My friend Annie Cohen just posted a translation to her blog of an article about women’s folk magic practices during Elul: the tradition of feldmestn or measuring of graves.

Rokhl Kafrissen is a New York-based cultural critic and playwright.