It’s impossible to resist describing Seth Rogen’s current woes as anything other than a pickle.
His problem, after all, surrounds the publicity for his new film “An American Pickle,” which premieres on HBO Max this Thursday – specifically, his appearance on the “Marc Maron WTF Podcast,” where he delighted progressive circles, infuriated pro-Israel circles and generally set Jewish Twitter on fire.
The two comedians joked about touchy subjects, but what really fanned the flames was Rogen’s musings about Zionism and the ill-conceived notion of putting all the Jews together in a “blender.” There was also his assertion that he had been “fed a huge amount of lies” about Israel while he was growing up in Vancouver, attending the Talmud Torah day school until he was Bar Mitzvah age, and spending his summers at Habonim Dror Labor Zionist sleepaway camps staffed with Israeli counselors, who, he joked with Maron, were “psychopaths.”
And so Rogen, 38, finds himself on the eve of releasing what he describes as “probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made,” having angered parts of his target audience.
It appears he’s currently engaged in a damage-control operation to what he now sees as problematic humor on Maron’s podcast. Rogen received criticism for saying Jews should “spread out” around the world instead of “putting all your Jews in one basket,” which was taken by some as denying Israel’s raison d’être.
The Jewish Agency released a statement Monday announcing that its chairman, Isaac Herzog, held a Zoom conversation with Rogen in which he said the comedian “apologized” for any misunderstanding. This came in the wake of a letter by Herzog expressing his dismay over what Rogen had said on the podcast. Rogen denied that he apologized, adding that the Jewish Agency head did not represent the conversation accurately and violated a promise of privacy: “I did not apologize for what I said. I offered clarity. And I think [Herzog] is misrepresenting our conversation.”
Had candid convo w @Sethrogen. He made clear his recent comment on Israel was said in jest & doesn’t reflect his clear belief in Israel’s right to exist. I invited him to visit Israels’ vibrant democracy. Criticism is legit but delegitimization isn’thttps://t.co/pXYwQUNHH5— יצחק הרצוג Isaac Herzog (@Isaac_Herzog) August 2, 2020
According to Rogen, Herzog “sent a letter to my mother somehow, on official letterhead – very fancy letterhead. My mom implored me to call this guy and I did and told him I thought this was a private conversation and I hoped it was a private conversation. After all, I did it because he reached out to my mother asking to talk to me,” he said. “At no point did I give him permission to publish any part of the conversation.”
Sources close to Herzog insisted that his summary of the conversation was accurate, and that Rogen did indeed express an apology to Herzog. They added that there was no privacy violation: That Herzog asked Rogen what he could say about their conversation, and Rogen replied: “Everything.”
In a Zoom interview with Haaretz on Sunday, discussing everything from the podcast controversy to the new film, antisemitism and, yes, pickles, Rogen did not use the words “apologize” or “I’m sorry.” He said repeatedly he was “sensitive” to those who had been offended when reading reports of his remarks.
“Things I said were taken and chopped up, and the context literally removed from it, and if I read some of those things out of context I would also probably be upset about it,” he says.
Rogen describes himself as a “proud” Jew, and discussed speaking out against antisemitism, including when it happens on his home turf of Hollywood. He was equally outspoken about politics and the recent Black Lives Matter protests, saying that “no part of me was questioning why people were as angry as they were.”
The comedian has made a career out of playing Jewish stoners in boundary-pushing comedies such as “Knocked Up,” “Pineapple Express,” “This is the End,” “The Interview” and “Long Shot,” which makes “An American Pickle” something of a diversion. He admits to feeling “nervous” about the release of the film, which has a classic “time travel” premise: Herschel Greenbaum, a turn-of-the-century Jewish immigrant in Brooklyn, falls into a pickle barrel and is brined for a century, waking up and meeting his great-grandson Ben (Rogen plays both roles).
But the whimsical conceit and entertaining plot, poking fun at hipster affectations and – irony alert – Twitter wars, are interlaced with serious themes of grief and the embrace (and rejection) of religious heritage – themes that Rogen, as a producer, was instrumental in emphasizing in the film.
Multiple scenes take place in a Jewish cemetery and involve the ritual of saying Kaddish (the Jewish prayer of mourning). Rogen says his film’s importance was hammered home to him as they began filming on location in Pittsburgh in October 2018, just two days after 11 worshippers were murdered in the city’s Tree of Life synagogue by a white supremacist.
The interview, which has been edited for brevity, starts with discussion about “An American Pickle,” which Rogen has been working on for the past six or seven years. But it wasn’t long before talk turned to the controversy surrounding the Maron podcast. “I think both Marc and I were highly aware of how sensitive some of the subjects he and I were working on there,” Rogen says. “I actually listened back to it yesterday morning and, truly, I do [think] that the conversation we had is a very common conversation.”
It’s a common private conversation among Jews, but you don’t hear Jewish celebrities saying it publicly.
“When you’re having a conversation about something so sensitive and nuanced, it’s not just what we said – well it’s partially what we said – but [it’s] also what we didn’t say. When you’re having even a humorous conversation about something so nuanced, leaving things out or omitting things can become just as bad as the things you do say.”
So you don’t regret things you said, you just think you didn’t give them enough of a background?
“I think that it’s a tricky conversation to have in jest. And that’s something that perhaps I now look at and say, ‘Oh, now that we joked about that, perhaps we could clarify some things so people don’t run around thinking that I think Israel shouldn’t exist anymore.’ And I’m sensitive to Jewish people being hurt, as a Jewish person. And I’m sensitive to Jewish people thinking I’m not a proud Jewish person, which I am.
“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 – you know what I’m saying? 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.”
Can you tell us how your parents met on kibbutz?
“My parents met on Kibbutz Beit Alfa [in northern Israel]. My dad is from New Jersey and my mom was from Vancouver, and they were two young hippies looking to get out of their cities and meet other people. My dad actually would have lived on the kibbutz forever, and still talks about it.”
Imagine if they had — you would have been Seth Rogen the Israeli.
“My dad is a socialist and I was raised with a lot of very socialist ideals. And I think a part of him is deeply upset that he ever left the kibbutz. But he’s probably very happy he did because he married my mom and started a life in Vancouver as a result.”
Canadian Jews and American Jews can be a completely different breed.
“I think there’s a difference in general. And truthfully, I think that to some degree it speaks to why I understand people are not happy with some of the things I said. Antisemitism and bigotry in general is prevalent in Canada, but not to the degree that it is in America.
“My wife [actress Lauren Miller] grew up in Central Florida, where she faced terrible antisemitism on a regular basis. I’m from Vancouver, British Columbia, one of the most progressive cities on the planet. And although I did face regular antisemitism, it wasn’t to the degree that people who grew up in America – especially in southern American cities – faced. There’s not a lot of Jews on the west coast of Canada, either. I think it’s a different phenomenon: we [did] live in a west coast Canadian Jewish bubble. Even the Jews we know from Montreal and Toronto had a much different experience than I did.”
Did you hate your Jewish day school, because it kind of sounds like you did.
“I didn’t hate my day school. It’s an interesting thing to find that you’re going to school to learn things that you’ll maybe one day decide you should unlearn. And I think religion in general – not specific to Judaism – is a very tricky thing with kids. I don’t have kids; I see my friends with kids and I see their discomfort with how to introduce religion into their kids’ lives, especially when they themselves are not religious and are agnostic to a large degree. It’s a very complicated thing. Like many aspects of my life, it’s conflicted in some ways.
“I’m not mad at my parents for sending me to Jewish school, by any means – I still have very good friends I met there. I’m sure if I went to public school, there would have been things I didn’t like there either.”
I listened to another podcast you did and it sounded like you felt oppressed and misunderstood in Jewish day school, and then liberated and free in high school. (Rogen’s high school antics were the inspiration for the 2007 breakout film he co-created, “Superbad.”)
“It was not a diverse school at all. It was little white Jewish kids whose parents were all friends with each other and it was very enclosed. And then I got to public high school and I could dress however I wanted, there were kids from all different backgrounds, all races, from all different countries. My school was 65 to 70 percent people from Asian countries – especially being from Vancouver, which is so heavily populated by people from Asian countries, it was a wonderful and eye-opening experience to get to become friends with the people and spend the whole day with the people that I lived among.
“I lived in a completely East Indian neighborhood, so to be able to go to school with East Indian kids was really exciting to me, honestly, because I had grown up among them in my neighborhood, but in my school I was only around Jewish kids. But I’m glad I know a lot about Judaism, and I did retain a lot of that.”
And you met your writing partner, Evan Goldberg, in Bar Mitzvah class, right?
“Yes, Tallis and Tefillin class.”
See, if not for Judaism, where would you be?
“I mean again, I could not identify more as a Jewish person. I talk about it almost constantly. I could talk about it less, but I don’t.”
But could you unpack where you said you were lied to you about Israel. It’s a big conversation in this moment. People saying they were lied to and activists saying we need to change Israel education, and so you triggered people when you said that.
“I’d say personally, holistically, I was just not given a full picture of the situation. And I understand it’s a wildly complex picture to give a child, and perhaps that’s why it was not given to me.”
“There was just an abandoned desert here and the Jews came and built a country”? That’s what you were told?
“Essentially, yeah. That’s what me and many people I know were told. And again, all I am attacking there is the education I was given about it. And I talked to my parents about it actually just yesterday and I was like, ‘Do you feel that what we were given … was a complete story?’ And they said ‘No. Looking back, at the time, you were given a less complex view of the situation than maybe you could have been given.’
“And I think that’s something that, as I look to Jewish people I know with kids, I think they’re taking it on themselves to try to paint a more complete picture of how complex a situation it is. So I understand how that is upsetting, and how Jewish people wish I was given a better education about it. And I understand how it’s uncomfortable for some people to hear me say that I was not given that education.”
Your remarks about not putting Jews in the same place — it’s not uncommon.
“That’s a joke I’ve heard Israelis make, and I understand how … when you take a comedic monologue and treat it as if it’s not based in humor, there are probably some very questionable thoughts in there.”
Jews are supposed to have a sense of humor.
“Well, I don’t want to blame people; I don’t want to put it on the people for misinterpreting what I said. Things I said were taken and chopped up and the context literally removed from it, and if I read some of those things out of context I would also probably be upset about it. I understand the sensitivity as far as things to joke about – it’s a tough one.”
Not a lot of humor in it. I heard you were shooting “American Pickle” when the Tree of Life shooting happened in Pittsburgh. What was that like?
“We were supposed to start shooting on Monday, and the shooting happened on that Saturday if I’m not mistaken – and I was about a mile away from it when it happened. It was, in a sense, very scary, but in another sense 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.”
Was that a thing during production — thinking that maybe this is ‘too Jewish’ for America? This isn’t a mainstream thing, it’s too ethnic somehow?
“One hundred percent it was a topic of conversation. From the studio, the producers, the overall sense of: This is a very Jewish film, and there aren’t a ton of Jews in America, and there are a lot of people who just plain don’t like Jews in America.
“So yes, it was definitely a topic of conversation. But honestly, this [Tree of Life] shooting made me think it was a more important message to be putting out there. A pro-Jewish story where the antagonists are Jews, a story that is unabashedly about Jews and Judaism – part of me really thought that now is the exact time to do this and put this into the world.”
Is it hard to think about antisemitism in Hollywood, where there’s the perception that Jews are in charge and control, so they can’t exactly feel victimized? There have been these incidents lately with Nick Cannon and Ice Cube. You called out Mel Gibson.
“I personally haven’t found it incredibly hard to juggle. I try to call out antisemitism where I see it. I know for a fact that antisemitic people also do thrive in Hollywood – so the notion that Jews control the careers of everyone in Hollywood is wildly inaccurate. Mel Gibson has made several movies over the last several years. He won an Academy Award for one of them, I think, in the wake of making horribly antisemitic comments. [Gibson received an Oscar nomination for “Hacksaw Ridge” in 2017.] “So to me, it’s not a reality I have a hard time grappling with: I know factually that Jews do not control every element of Hollywood. If they did, there would be a lot of people who are working who would not be. The notion of calling out antisemitism within Hollywood is easy to me, especially because it’s my home community – Hollywood, not Jews.”
You have a busy production company and one of the things you’re creating is a lot of comic book properties for television — “Preacher,” “The Boys.” It’s kind of like carrying on a Jewish tradition.
“Ever since I was a kid, I was a huge comic book fan. Stan Lee is Jewish and he’s one of the architects of the comic universe as we know it. And I think the more you analyze the stories of comic books, the more you see these themes of people being othered, people being attacked for how they were born, their attributes. There are explicitly Jewish storylines in some of the comic books – Magneto [in ‘X-Men’] is a Holocaust survivor – and as a kid, reading that was very powerful and something that just really hooked me.
“I think Jewish storytelling is a tradition, and I think the fact that Stan Lee and other Jewish creators were able to thrive in that field – probably because they weren’t allowed to work in other ones – is a large part of the reason that I love comic books and everyone loves comic books.”
You said on the Maron podcast your wife wishes being Jewish meant more to you.
“That is not a joke that I think is best serving my interests [laughs]. Again, my wife grew up in an environment [in Florida] where there were very few Jewish people. … So I think to her, meeting other Jewish people was a very important thing. Although there’s not a lot of other Jews in Vancouver, I knew pretty much all of them and so I had a lot of Jewish friends growing up.
“My wife’s personality is what it is because of her being Jewish and her upbringing. And for me to say I don’t care about that is really a dismissive joke. I love every element of my wife and the fact she’s Jewish is an element of her, and so by default I love it.”
But do you love pickles? The movie is full of pickles, though your character doesn’t eat them on screen.
“I do like pickles. Yes, the character isn’t eating the pickles. He does not get high on his supply. I actually did not eat even one pickle through the filming of the entire movie, though I’m surrounded by the eating of a lot of pickles.”
Pickles were big in another classic, very Jewish Hollywood film, “Crossing Delancey.”
“It was a good profession – it was a good Jewish business back then. And I think even today pickles have a Jewish association. You go to a deli, you get some pickles.”
Do you know that pickles in Israel and pickles in America taste totally different?
“I do! And I was shocked when I went to Israel and had a pickle for the first time. They have a much more subtle flavor – they are much more cucumber-y in Israel.”
Moving away from pickles, we used to sit here in Israel and say it’s an easy, soft life for Jews in America – and it’s not that way anymore.
“The president is [a] white supremacist, so things are not great here. And Republican politicians literally tweet blatantly antisemitic propaganda pretty regularly. It’s a weird time in America.”
“An American Pickle” is available to stream on HBO Max from Thursday August 6.
This article originally appeared in Haaretz. Reprinted with permission.