In American Pickle—the latest vehicle for the actor Seth Rogen—a Brooklyn Jewish slacker encounters his shtetl-born great-grandfather Herschel through a plot twist reminiscent of Rip van Winkle or Woody Allen’s Sleeper. The younger character eventually comes to appreciate the wisdom and power of Herschel’s traditional religiosity. “In theory,” writes Liel Leibovitz, such a plot “should delight anyone hankering for a movie that takes faith seriously.” In practice, however, it falls flat:
American Pickle feels about as convincing as Rogen’s comically exaggerated [East European] accent. A movie that takes faith seriously, for example, might have at least acknowledged that a few blocks away in hipster Williamsburg dwell Satmar Ḥasidim, men and women who worship and dress in ways that haven’t changed much since Herschel’s days and who might have made for suitable companions. But tradition, to Rogen, is necessarily a thing of the past. Even as he seeks to critique contemporary society, the only force he can conjure is nostalgia.
That there are religious Jews among us living according to the very same values as Herschel, and that they are thriving while liberal Judaism is decaying, doesn’t even occur to Rogen. Perhaps it’s because his movie, for all of its aspirations, was always meant to be a lighthearted comedy and nothing more. Or perhaps it’s because the realities of religious life require lived-in complexities and sacrifices, not only maudlin movie moments.
Leibovitz contrasts the film to the debut single of an ultra-Orthodox rapper who goes by the stage name Young Rechnitz, and may very well be from one of those Williamsburg ḥasidic communities:
Unlike American Pickle, Rechnitz’s single, titled “Yeshivishe Mozart,” delivers a torrent of one-liners that are as thought-provoking as they are hilarious. . . . With a pun a second (“Rebbe on vacation/ I’m going out reckless,” he quips, a rekl being the long black coat some ḥasidic Jews wear on weekdays, which means that going out rekl-less is, in fact, a rather reckless thing to do), Young Rechnitz achieves in three minutes what Rogen couldn’t in 90, mounting a fun-filled anthem to the joys and mysteries of religious life that also happens to be an excellent rap song.
At ease in his skin, cheered on by his community, and propelled forth by his faith, Young Rechnitz felt comfortable enough to reach out to pop culture at large . . . and stitch together a song that reminds us that the secular and the religious, the profound and the profane—all are parts of God’s magical creation. Rogen, meanwhile, reached into tradition for laughs and came up emptyhanded, delivering neither a particularly convincing defense of faith nor a very funny film.