Next year, Seth Rogen will play his most Jewish role yet in “American Pickle,” a movie based on a short story by Simon Rich. Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant to the United States who emerges from a pickle barrel, fully preserved, after 100 years to meet his great-grandson in 2018 Brooklyn.
It’s a fitting role for an actor and filmmaker who will be honored Monday by the Workmen’s Circle, an organization dedicated to promoting Jewish identity based on social justice and Yiddish language.
Rogen, 37, and his father, Mark, who worked for the organization in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, will receive the Generation to Generation Activism award.
“It’s something that’s always been just a very big part of my life,” the actor said of his Jewish identity in an interview with The Jewish Week. “The first jokes I ever wrote were about it; it was a very inherent part of who I was.”
Rogen’s Jewish upbringing has also played a significant part in his career which, he acknowledges, has included at least one Jewish joke in just about every one of his movies. (“We did not kill Jesus!” his character, Isaac Greenberg, yells at one point in the 2015 comedy, “The Night Before.”) Growing up in Vancouver, British Columbia, Rogen went to a Habonim Dror summer camp and a Talmud Torah elementary school, which provided the material for his first standup sets. He even headlined a Workmen’s Circle event in Los Angeles when his father worked there.
“My dad worked there for years, I would go there and spend time there, and my grandparents spoke Yiddish and it’s highly connected to my own personal identity,” Rogen said.
“It’s really going to be a Rogen family affair,” said Ann Toback, executive director of the Workmen’s Circle, who said the organization’s mission this year was “generation to generation activism.” She described the Rogen family as “heimishe.”
The group’s history as a socialist organization has been part of the Rogens’ family history for generations. Mark’s grandparents, Labor Zionists who performed in the Yiddish theater, grew up down the street from a Workmen’s Circle office. Mark and his wife, Sandy, met on a left-wing kibbutz in Israel in the 1970s.
“It’s the kind of organization that philosophically fits into our family values,” said Mark, who has always worked for nonprofits. His goal in working there, he said, was “to try to let people know that there are people out there suffering and we have to try to do something about it.”
Although Rogen has played explicitly or implicitly Jewish men in most of his films, “American Pickle,” due out next year, is Jewish to its core. The immigrant time traveler he plays meets his lone surviving descendant, Ben Greenbaum, a computer programmer living in the transformed New York of the 21st century.
The film opens with a scene involving the anti-Semitism that drove Rogen’s character to immigrate to the United States in the first place. It was particularly eye-opening for Rogen to find himself filming the movie in Pittsburgh in October last year, when an anti-Semitic gunman killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue there. Being so close to the attack reminded Rogen that anti-Semitism “is still relevant.”
“We actually were in Pittsburgh at the time of the attack, and we were making one of the most Jewishly themed studio films that I could name,” said Rogen. “It was terrible, obviously, and very traumatic and surreal, but there was some sense of pride of being in Pittsburgh at that time and making something that was so outwardly Jewishly themed.”
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Rogen said filming a movie about anti-Semitism and about finding safe haven in America felt like the right response to the attack.
“There’s some sense of receding that happens in moments like that and that’s appropriate,” he said. “And there’s some sense that the opposite is what’s appropriate, that you should stand kind of taller and occupy more space rather than less space, and that’s kind of what it felt like we were doing. So it was two very oppositional forces occupying the same space, but it felt good in some ways to be a part of that space.”
Rogen spent some time studying Yiddish, which he speaks for part of the movie, but found the Jewish-Germanic language of Ashkenazi Jews to be surprisingly difficult.
“I speak Hebrew pretty well and I speak English, also pretty well, I would think. But it was essentially like learning gibberish,” said Rogen. “I’d have two words to say in English and it would turn into three sentences in Yiddish and I was like, I don’t even understand the one-to-one ratio of this stuff.”
Asked if he was planning to keep his Yiddish up, Rogen chuckled but gave a quick “no.”
“My grandparents spoke Yiddish, they called it ‘Jewish,’” said Rogen. “But it wasn’t like, coursing through my veins, I don’t have a latent Yiddish gene anymore.”
But he plans to revive the language for the dinner on Monday. “You gotta lay some Yiddish on them at the Workmen’s Circle,” he said.
Read the full Q&A with Seth Rogen here.