Next year, Seth Rogen will play his most Jewish role yet in “American Pickle,” a movie based on this short story by Simon Rich, in which Rogen is Herschel Greenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant to the United States at the turn of the 20th century who falls into a pickle barrel. When he emerges, fully preserved, in a 2018 Brooklyn he is left to make sense of his new world and of his only descendant, his computer programmer great-grandson.
On Monday, Rogen will channel the Yiddish he learned for the role at the Workmen’s Circle dinner, an organization dedicated to promoting Jewish identity based on social justice and Yiddish language. Rogen and his father, who previously worked for the organization, will be honored with the Generation to Generation Activism award.
We spoke to the 37-year-old comedian, actor and producer ahead of the awards ceremony. Below is an edited transcript of the interview.
Jewish Week: When I told my grandmother you were being honored by the Workmen’s Circle, she said you must be a pretty good communist. [Workmen’s Circle was at one time a socialist organization.] So, are you a communist?
Seth Rogen: [Chuckling] Not anymore, I keep my money. My parents met on a kibbutz, they’re pretty socialist, and I’m Canadian and people in Canada are usually more socialist than people in America. I learned at a very young age the difference between lowercase ‘c’ communism and capital ‘c’ communism and I was told that lower case communism is not that bad.
JW: Why is it important to you to be involved in social justice work through a specifically Jewish organization?
SR: It has played a very key role in my life. When I moved to Los Angeles when I was 17 to start working, my dad worked at the Workmen’s Circle and he seemed to really get a lot from it. My grandparents spoke Yiddish, they called it ‘Jewish,’ and I think that when you’re a part of a group of people that is targeted globally, there’s some comfort in getting together and working within that community and I think that is just something that I’ve always found throughout my life. At a very young age, my dad told me everyone hates Jews so just be aware of that, and it’s probably a fine reason to, at times, do things that involve just other Jews ’cause at least you’re surrounded by people who don’t hate you.
JW: Do you feel like the perception of you and your Jewishness matches the way you see yourself?
SR: It’s not something I ever really shied away from, it’s something that’s always been just a very big part of my life, although I’m not an observant person or a particularly religious person. One of the great things about being Jewish is you can not believe in any Judaism and you are still a Jewish person. The first jokes I ever wrote were about it, it was a very inherent part of who I was.
JW: Do you think of your humor as Jewish?
SR: I think if you went through all of our movies, almost every one has some sort of Jewish joke in it. And so I understand why… (trails off) I also do think it’s like a slightly anti-Semitic way [that] I think sometimes non-Jewish people like to categorize things that Jewish people do. A lot of people would refer to Seinfeld as Jewish humor, I don’t know if I would consider the whole thing Jewish humor, and to me the term Jewish humor, it’s like unless you’re singing in Hebrew or Yiddish it’s not really Jewish humor, maybe it’s humor on the subject of Judaism.
I don’t consider it Jewish humor, if it was I’d be a lot less successful than I currently am because there’s just not enough Jews in America to support me. Our humor, specifically, is not tied to Judaism. The more personal humor is, the more everyone likes it, the more people see you’re incorporating your own life, your own sensibility, your own work, the more they appreciate it, even if it’s different than their own, people can relate to it.
JW: You filmed your very Jewish movie, “American Pickle,” that’s coming out next year, in Pittsburgh right after the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue. What was that like?
SR: It was very strange and upsetting, 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. But in a way it felt — again 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.
I think there’s some sense of receding that happens in moments like that, and that’s appropriate 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. We were a couple miles away from the most anti-Semitic attack that had ever taken place. We were making one of the most well-funded Jewish-centric movies that has been made in my recent memory. 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. It reaffirmed the many themes that we liked about it.
JW: What drew you to this movie?
SR: The opening essentially follows the journey that my grandparents’ families took and that most Jewish families took. It starts in Eastern Europe and the ‘Old Country’ and the Cossacks trying to kill all the Jews and the Jews having to flee and immigrate to America. It was an interesting reminder to me that the reason that I’m here, and that pretty much every Jewish person I know is in North America, is because people were trying to wipe us off the planet in our home country of Ukraine or Poland or Eastern Europe and I do think that’s something that most Jews don’t think about that often; “Oh we’re here because everyone was trying to kill us.”
The fact that we were literally dramatizing in the movie, and dramatizing that a few weeks after the attack, there was something reaffirming our intention, which is this is not a story you see that often. It is still relevant. These are clearly still a targeted group of people. Just because we are here now doesn’t mean, for whatever reason, people do not want to wipe us off the planet. So it was a very interesting convergence of things.
JW: Can you tell me what it was like learning Yiddish for the role?
SR: It was hard. It’s a strange language. I speak Hebrew pretty well, and I speak English also pretty well, I would think, but there was no… It was very difficult for me, it wasn’t like learning another language. It was essentially like learning gibberish. I could not tell what word meant… I had to just memorize it basically by sound because I’d have, like, two words to say in English, and it would turn into, like, three sentences in Yiddish and I was like I don’t even understand the one to one ratio of this stuff, but I did my best.
JW: Are you planning to keep it up?
SR: [Chuckling] No. I don’t have an ear for languages. It wasn’t like coursing through my veins. I don’t have a latent Yiddish gene anymore.
More on the Workmen’s Circle award Seth Rogen and his father will receive here.