It’s tempting to use pickling terms to describe Seth Rogen’s new Jewish time-travel fantasy film “An American Pickle.” It’s salty in places, sour in others. It’s not exactly artisanal like the pickles that pop up in the film or an authentic kosher dill pickle. The premise is weirder than it is outright funny.

Hershel Greenbaum, played by Rogen, is a Jewish immigrant from Schlupsk, a fictitious village in Poland. The name alone parodies Anatevka. Giving off more “Fiddler on the Roof” vibes, the film even has a scene where Cossacks cartoonishly crash Hershel and his beloved Sarah’s wedding. Shortly after that, the couple immigrates to America.

Hershel and the pregnant Sarah arrive in Brooklyn in 1920, where he works in a pickle factory, killing the rats that overrun the premises. One day the rats become too much for Hershel, and in a panic, he falls into a vat of brine. No one notices, and the vat is sealed. Shortly after that, the factory is condemned and abandoned. A century later, two kids go looking for a missing ball in the factory ruins and discover Hershel pickled and alive.

Hershel is a scientific wonder, and soon after his one living relative—a great-grandson named Ben—shows up as a DNA match. Ben, also played by Rogen, is a befuddled millennial app designer living a mostly isolated life in Brooklyn. Highlights of the family reunion include Ben showing his ancestor, fresh from another century, the wonders of Alexa, the inner workings of a seltzer machine (back in the old country, Hershel longed to taste seltzer, a rich man’s beverage), and an iPad. Other indications of a progressive society include spotting an interracial couple on the street. “It’s totally cool,” Ben assures Hershel, “…in parts of the country.”

Ben has still not perfected his app for identifying ethically made products. It’s been five years in the making, which baffles the impatient Hershel. Hershel, it turns out, is no old-world zayde. While he’s traditionally religious, his full beard and rugged face reflect his pugnaciousness. He has a violent streak and is not hesitant to punch anyone in his way.

Familial strife bubbles up like brine in a vat (I gave fair warning about the pickling metaphors!) when Hershel and Ben, at Hershel’s insistence, visit Sarah’s grave. The cemetery is in disrepair, and Hershel quarrels with a crew putting up a billboard on the edge of the property advertising vodka. He sees “Cossacks” everywhere and attacks the workers. Great-grandfather and grandson are charged with assault.


Things go downhill for Ben. The venture capitalist he’s been courting doesn’t want anything to do with him after his arrest. After all, who would trust the felonious creator of an app that scores how ethically something has been produced? Ben kicks Hershel out of his apartment. But Hershel is the ultimate survivor and culls cucumbers and salt from dumpsters. He finds second-hand jars and uses rainwater to make his pickles, which he eventually peddles on a Brooklyn street corner.

Herschel is an instant hit with the hipster crowd. Rogen has a light touch when satirizing food trends, social media and even unpaid internships. When Ben sees his great-grandfather on television, a culture war ensues between them. Some hilarious bits segue into more touching themes, namely a long-simmering grief. Ben’s parents died in a car crash when he was just out of college. As a lapsed Jew, he did not see the point of mourning them in traditionally Jewish ways.

The film comes full circle, and screwball events lead to a case of mistaken identity in which Ben is deported to Schlupsk. He’s completely lost in his ancestral homeland until he finds a synagogue. He is needed to complete a minyan (a quorum of 10 men), so the Kaddish—the Jewish prayer of mourning—can be recited. It’s touching to watch Ben remember the words of the Kaddish and tearfully say them. Hershel finds his way from America to the Polish synagogue too (with Alexa’s help), and the two men reunite.

Rogen and first-time director Brandon Trost pack this story, adapted from Simon Rich’s novella originally published in The New Yorker in 2013, into just 90 minutes. To achieve that brevity, Rogen and Trost skipped mention of momentous events of 20th-century Jewry, including the Holocaust and the founding of Israel. Imagine if Ben told Hershel that the Jews finally had their own country!

The topic of Israel recently overshadowed the debut of “An American Pickle.” Publicizing the film on “WTF with Marc Maron,” Rogen and Maron joked about controversial subjects, including Zionism. At one point, Rogen said he had “been fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel in the day school and Jewish overnight camp he attended in Vancouver.

He set Jewish social media ablaze with his comments and upset his target audience on the eve of releasing what Rogen told Haaretz is “probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made.” In the same Haaretz interview, Rogen explained that he made assumptions in his interview with Maron. Maron is also Jewish and Rogen felt they were two Jews having a “nuanced conversation.”

Rogen further explained in the interview: “Truthfully, I think my pride in being Jewish and how deeply I identify as a Jewish person perhaps made me feel like I was able to say things without as much context as perhaps I should give them…. And I am sensitive to Jews thinking that I don’t think Israel should not exist, and that there are a lot of Jewish people who are alive who wouldn’t be without Israel. And my parents met in Israel; I’ve been to Israel several times.”

Rogen began filming “An American Pickle” in Pittsburgh two days after the tragedy at the Tree of Life Synagogue, the worst antisemitic attack on American soil. In the Haaretz interview, he further noted: “I remember thinking: I’m about to make the most Jewish movie I’ve ever made, probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made, in the wake of the most violent antisemitic attack in the history of America, in the same city. And there was a sense that it suddenly became much more important to do it. 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.”

Recently, Kveller designated “An American Pickle” as an American Jewish classic. Rogen, who grew a bushy beard and filmed the two roles at different times, captures immigrant disorientation and millennial malaise in his performances. But in the end, the film is too silly and the premise too manufactured to be included in the pantheon of American Jewish movie classics.

“An American Pickle” is streaming on HBO Max.