Time Happened to the 20th Century (An American Pickle)

sarah silverman

This bit caught my attention concerning the passage of time and cultural time-consciousness here from A.O. Scott’s review of the new Seth Rogen, American Pickle. It suggests something true about contemporary American Jewish awareness. The set up of the film is basic. Rogen plays an old-timey Jewish immigrant named Herschel from the Ukraine who falls into a vat of pickle brine which preserves him. He comes back to life and meets his assimilated great-grandson Ben, also played by Rogen.

About the passage of time conveyed in the film, Scott writes, “The century that separates Herschel from Ben allows the story to leapfrog over quite a lot of history, including the Holocaust, Israel, socialism, and the complicated process of upward mobility, acculturation and self-preservation that is the movie’s very condition of possibility. The drama of Jewish male selfhood that preoccupied so many in the middle generations — the whole Philip Roth-Woody Allen megillah — is all but erased. Herschel had his beloved Sarah. Ben has no apparent sexual or romantic interests, or even any friends that we know about. There’s no room for women in this pickle jar.”

Scott’s comment here suggest an interesting thought experiment for those of us still interested in the recent past. What does it mean now at this still relatively early point in the 21st century to leapfrog a hundred or so years and be done with all that meshugas? At what point does it happen that a century whose struggles and values viscerally shaped the lives of so many of us alive today, having shaped both us and our parents and grandparents, when all these finally fade away into the background? What if that was all torn away? Different things matter today.

What’s left in the present from the past is not lived life so much as more or less empty placeholders, these being the reconstruction of traditions and vague appeals to spirituality in the face of death and our own family loss. Is this problem and its perception defined by gender? Would Sarah Silverman have made a better, more compelling, less lonely version of this early 21st century Jewish shtick?


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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