Religious Women Are Sidelined in ‘An American Pickle’

Seth Rogen in An American Pickle (2020). Left is Herschel, a Jewish man from the early 1900s, wearing a thick black overcoat and black cap, with a thick beard. He has a severe expression and points his finger in the face of Ben (also Rogen), an identical man but dressed in a modern burgundy jacket and beige snapback cap. He is looking confused.
HBO Max

Seth Rogen’s recent appearance on Marc Maron’s WTF podcast promoting An American Pickle ruffled some feathers in the Jewish community. As a millennial/Gen Z cusper from an Ashkenazi Jewish background, some of what Rogen said actually really resonated with me — especially his comments about feeling lied to about Israel and having to come to a more nuanced understanding of the territory and the conflict on his own. It’s the other things he said that really upset me, stuff like an offhand comment about being afraid of Jews and a weird aside about how the Ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community is “not doing us any favours.” 

After watching An American Pickle, I understand that Rogen’s and his collaborators’ perception of Judaism is actually very narrow, especially when it comes to religious women. Sure, a lot changed about America and American Judaism in the 90 years Herschel (Rogen) was preserved in pickle brine. But Jews never disappeared, and Jewish women only became more and more essential to preserving our place in America.

The only religious Jewish woman who appears in An American Pickle is Herschel’s wife Sarah (Sarah Snook), who’s been dead 90 years by the time Herschel wakes up in the Brooklyn of 2019. Where the very secular Ben (also Rogen) serves as Herschel’s 21st century analogue, we get no 21st century version of Sarah. There is no modern, secular Jewish woman to balance Herschel’s casual, outdated, religion-based misogyny.

That religion-based misogyny is exploited and played for laughs throughout the whole movie. Herschel accuses any woman who challenges him of “having menses,” and it’s clear throughout that he doesn’t take women he’s not married to seriously. In a movie that’s largely about Herschel addressing his old-fashioned biases in an America he doesn’t recognise, these specific biases could have been addressed easily with the inclusion of a religious woman character. Instead, they’re left unchecked, and Jewish women (if they’re on screen at all) remain voiceless.

Herschel and Ben bond at first glance like American Jews bond with each other — there’s that diasporic, “who do you know,” “where are you from” element to their early relationship despite the fact that they’re directly related. But Ben is not religious, where Herschel is very religious in a way that’s out of step with Ben’s experience of Judaism. There doesn’t seem to be a modern, American Jewish space in the New York of An American Pickle at all, much less one where people look like Herschel or one where women have voices. 

Seth Rogen, Eliot Glazer, and Kalen Allen in An American Pickle (2020). A New York street during the day, in front of a bar. Christian (Glazer) and Kevin (Allen) are stood with matching pale blue bicycles, smartly dressed in modern clothes. They are looking incredulously at Herschel (Rogen), a Jewish man with a thick beard and clothes 100 years out of date, who is sitting on the curb holding a sheet of paper and looking dejected.
HBO Max

People who look like Herschel absolutely exist in modern New York, and it’s kind of strange that it never comes up in the movie. Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up a large percentage of Jews in Brooklyn, and the community just keeps growing. Herschel becomes a social media icon in 2019 because he looks and sounds out-of-time and out-of-step with what the movie’s Brooklynites are used to. But in the real New York, where antisemitic hate crimes are at an all-time high and many of those hate crimes are directed at those who look most “visibly Jewish,” it’s hard to believe the public would be so surprised to see someone like Herschel. He probably would have only needed to walk a couple of blocks to find a community he recognised.

Also, Women are leaders and dominant voices in modern, American, Jewish spaces. Herschel fell into a vat of pickles in a world where Jewish women of any branch (Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform) were not allowed to join the clergy. As of the year 2000, women made up a majority of Reform rabbinical students in the United States (admittedly, Reform Judaism was very young when Herschel was preserved); Conservative Judaism has allowed women rabbis since 1985; and there is even a feminist movement among Orthodox women. While change has been slow-going, Jewish women have led the conversations advocating for our equality and inclusion within ancient, patriarchal religious structures. These movements often cite the same scripture used traditionally to oppress women as tools for liberation. 

Women aren’t just excluded from the American Jewish experience; they’re excluded from all of the religious spaces in the movie. When Ben ends up back in the shtetl, on the run from the American law at the end of the film, there’s a very moving sequence where he’s asked to join a minyan to say the Mourner’s Kaddish. Ben feels uncomfortable before the words to the Kaddish come back to him, in a very Angels in America, interacting-with-the-ancestors way. As a Jewish viewer, it’s beautiful, comforting, and familiar. 

But it’s notable to me that Ben comes back to Judaism in the context of a minyan. A minyan consists of ten men banded together in prayer, and that is ten men specifically. There’s no scriptural mandate on leaving women out of the minyan — it’s just another outdated, generational tradition. It’s nice that Ben has been asked to join his first minyan, and that he gets to be part of it with his great-grandfather. But the experience is limited and exclusive. It tells us that the filmmakers, who clearly think of many parts of traditional Judaism as trivial and silly, still subscribe to those traditional gender roles in ways that have been debunked and deconstructed by religious Jewish women. 

I’m all for watching any movie where young, American Jews reckon with our ancestors, and with our Americanness, and with the ways tradition coexists with our modern sensibilities. But part of me hopes that non-Jewish people will never see this movie, lest they get the wrong idea about who we are. We are so much more diverse than one secular, millennial, white dude in Brooklyn. The limited scope of Herschel’s interactions with modern Jews other than his great-grandson is a disservice to the many progressive, religious Jewish women who absolutely exist today. 

by Sarah Jae Leiber 

Sarah Jae Leiber is a Jewish playwright, screenwriter, comedy writer, and essayist from just outside of Philadelphia, PA. She writes regular film reviews for Screen Mayhem and theatre satire for The Broadway Beat, with bylines elsewhere at Bitch Media, BroadwayWorld, Sally Mag, Small Screen, The Niche, Uncomfortable Revolution, and The Validation Project. Sarah is the Entertainment Editor at BroadwayWorld, and was a member of Actors Theatre of Louisville’s 48th Professional Training Company. She holds a BA in theatre and history from Muhlenberg College. You can find her whole portfolio here, and you can find her on Twitter @sarahjaeleiber.

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