Yiddish gets its star turn in Seth Rogen’s “An American Pickle”
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When the trailer dropped for “An American Pickle,’’ starring Seth Rogen as Herschel Greenbaum, a Yiddish-speaking immigrant rat-chaser who finds himself in 21st century Brooklyn after a century preserved in pickle brine, the reaction among Yiddishists was mixed. While the Yiddish in the trailer sounded promising, some feared that Rogen would be just the latest in a long line of talented North American Jewish comedians to make their ancestral language an object of derision. Since Yiddish appears so rarely in major Hollywood films, Rogen, known for his juvenile deadpan humor and love of absurdist violence, did not exactly seem to be the knight in shining armor most Yiddish scholars would have chosen to represent the language on the silver screen.
When I called up the Yiddish consultants for “An American Pickle,” Motl Didner, associate artistic director of the Folksbiene, and Eli Rosen, who oversaw the Yiddish on Netflix’s Unorthodox, both were quick to note that the comedy does not make the language the butt of any jokes.
“It’s a silly film, of course, but it’s a serious Hollywood production, and they put in the effort to get it right,” said Rosen. “It [the Yiddish] wasn’t an afterthought.”
“You have jokes about shtetl life and even about a pogrom,” said Didner, “but the Yiddish isn’t what’s funny about it.”
Didner got the gig after coaching several actresses who tried out for the part of Sarah Greenbaum, wife of the ill-fated rat-chaser Herschel. While the role eventually went to the Australian actress Sarah Snook, Didner was recommended to the film’s producers, who put him on a plane to Pittsburgh, where the old-country scenes set in the fictitious shtetl of Schlupsk were filmed.
“I worked with the Yiddish dialogue and also made sure the shtetl looked right,” Didner said, explaining that he oversaw the Yiddish and Hebrew writing on signs and gravestones. “But my main job was being on set and helping with the Yiddish lines.”
While Snook worked with Didner in advance to learn her lines and was off-book by the time production began, Rogen practiced his lines on set with Didner. During parts of the shoot, Rogen wore an earpiece and adjusted his pronunciation per Didner’s advice between takes.
“He speaks some Hebrew and had a very Jewish upbringing. His father worked for the Workers Circle,” said Didner. “So, like a lot of people, I think he expected speaking Yiddish to come more naturally. But it’s not easy. It was a little more foreign to him than he expected. He had a good feel for it though.”
Rogen said about as much in an interview with USA Today, calling Yiddish “a very difficult language to learn and to perform.”
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After Didner’s weekend in Pittsburgh was over, he was unable to return to the production due to a scheduling conflict, so he recommended Rosen who flew out to Pittsburgh, where he spent a freezing weekend on set coaching the actors in how to say Kaddish authentically with an Ashkenazi pronunciation. Rosen said that unlike some Hollywood actors, Rogen was friendly and gracious.
“He’s just as you’d imagine,” Rosen said. “Helpful, always smiling, funny. Takes his work seriously but doesn’t take himself too seriously. A pleasure to work with.”
That’s not to say they agreed on everything. “I corrected a few things he said, and he told me ‘no, I have a Russian accent so that’s how I’m pronouncing it.’ He took it seriously but had his own vision for it.”
Rogen’s character speaks English with a thick Russian accent, liberally dropping articles from his sentences — something uncharacteristic of Yiddish speaking immigrants, who tended to overuse them. The decision not to have his character speak with a Yiddish accent was, however, not an afterthought. Rogen worked closely with famed Hollywood dialect coach Jessica Drake to develop his Russian accent and peculiar idiolect. While unrealistic, it is perhaps for the best. Much of the humor in the film derives from Herschel’s politically incorrect pronouncements made in a Russian accent full of odd phrasing, including his frequent threats to “do violence.” By decoupling his immigrant Jewish character’s offensive statements from his native language, Rogen further assures that Yiddish and Yiddish speakers are not turned into a laughing stock.
Even though the trailer is full of Yiddish, the language plays only a small part in the film. With just one short Yiddish sequence, it may seem surprising that the producers went to the expense of flying in Yiddish consultants to get the dialogue right. Both Didner and Rosen explained that in previous decades, scenes filmed in the old country were almost always shot in English, with actors’ attempts at a Yiddish accent half-hearted. But with Bong Joon-ho’s Korean-language dark comedy “Parasite” winning Best Picture at the Oscars this year and numerous non-English-language shows gaining popularity among American audiences on Netflix, authenticity is in.
“Audiences want non-English dialogue done right,” Rosen said. “S’iz moshiekh’s tsaytn (It’s the Messianic age, i.e. great times). It’s good for art and great for Yiddish.”