If They Could See Us Now

What would your ancestors who lived a hundred years ago think of you today? We like to think that they would be proud of us, that the hard work they put into making a better life for us has paid off. On the other hand, would they be disappointed? Have we truly lived up to the expectations they set for us?

The reality is that we cannot know the answer to these questions because our ancestors are long gone, but what if we could talk to them? That is the premise of a new movie starring Seth Rogen called An American Pickle. In it, a Jewish pickle man falls into a vat of brine that preserves him for a hundred years. He meets his only descendant living in a very different Brooklyn and is baffled by the changes he sees.

To promote the film, Rogen went on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast and discussed a number of Jewish issues, the most controversial of which was Rogen’s comment that “[a]s a Jewish person, like I was fed a huge amount of lies about Israel my entire life. You know, they never tell you that […] there were people there. They make it seem like it was just sitting there.” Some took issue with Rogen’s simplistic portrayal of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while others regretted that someone who went to a Labor Zionist sleepaway camp for many years would not have received a better education.

Rogen’s comments are one more example of the increasing divide between the establishment Jewish community and some liberal millennial Jews. What I found more interesting was the discussion he and Maron had about their Jewish identity as it relates to their ancestors. Both grew up in the West, but have relatives from New Jersey. They talked about their shared working class family history.

Rogen noted that he came from a family of postal workers and plumbers and that his grandfather looked askance at the younger generation’s middle class ways. For Rogen and Maron, there are tough Jews and soft Jews, and most of the current generation are the latter: people who don’t work with their hands, have advanced degrees, and live lives of relative comfort.

Of course the immigrant generation had to be tough: as Rogen points out, virtually every Jew in America has grandparents or great grandparents who fled someone trying to kill them. Immigrants also had to work long, difficult hours just to get by. Ultimately, our ancestors made these sacrifices so that their children and grandchildren could have better lives.

While much has been gained by the advancements of the Jewish community in America, we should also acknowledge what has been lost. I don’t necessarily agree with Rogen that we have gone soft, but as Jews have assimilated and spread out through the country we have lost some of the warm communal feel of the old days. Long gone are the corner delis and walking neighborhoods with shuls on every block. So what would our ancestors say if they could see us now? Perhaps with a little bit of astonishment and some amusement they might shake their heads and tell us, “What a country.”

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