The title of Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man show, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, is the perfect bait for Jews, Jewophiles, Brooklynites and those who appreciate the complex volley between joy and pain associated with the cultural heritage of post-Holocaust descendants growing up in America. It was my cousin, a Harley-riding Yeshiva girl and Brooklyn ex-pat, who suggested we check out the performance almost as an authenticity challenge put to Ehrenreich. I, also from Brooklyn, and being a second-generation American whose grandparents left Shtetls erased in Eastern Poland during World War II, felt my cousin’s challenge. We did not want Ehrenreich to fail. We wanted to scrutinize, recognize the familiar, be emotionally moved, learn something and laugh. And that, as it turned out, was the point of Ehrenreich’s show.
Jake’s journey began in a rough patch of Brooklyn where his main ambition was to fit in. When neighborhood moms called their all-American kids in from playing stickball, the name “Yon-ke” (or the cuter diminutive “Yon-keh-leh”) reminded all that Ehrenreich was from some other world. He was, in fact, one of the first members of his family born in the U.S.—his sister was born in a Siberian labor camp after his father’s Hasidic family was displaced during the war. In an effort to assimilate, Jake channeled his creative energy into music. He joined a band, auditioned for Kiss ... really! (a little known fact: two other members of Kiss were offspring of Holocaust survivors), appeared on Broadway (Dancin, Barnum), went on a world tour as Ringo in Beatlemania and—according to some interesting slide images—had a lot of fun in the 1970s.
Ehrenreich’s multiple talents as means to support the storytelling of his vignettes were impressive. His vocals on both rock and Christmas medleys were flawless. Not so incidentally, we learn that every song in the medleys were written by Jews. Ehrenreich played trumpet, trombone and even hopped on the drums for a high-energy solo like a seasoned musician. He regaled the audience with eloquent Yiddish songs and a gotcha game of Simon Says. He guided us through the phenomenon of summer exodus to the Catskills, complete with a slideshow, and borscht belt punchlines. All the showmanship entertainment wound itself around glimmers of incredible hardship, including the early onset of Alzheimer’s that claimed a severe familial toll. And in the end, we got a sense of triumph—with a glowing tribute of pride to Ehrenreich’s father as well as the joy of marriage and birth of Ehrenreich’s son.
What was particularly interesting was the casually encouraged audience participation. This was not a stoic thespian performance. It was as if we were all in the family living room and one particularly colorful member had the spotlight. Some audience members could be heard muttering in agreement or recollection, saying “I was there!” as certain slides splashed across the screen. At the end of the show, when Ehrenreich announced he’d be in the lobby if anyone wanted to have a book signed, a woman asked, seemingly disappointed, “There’s not going to be a Q&A?” to which Ehrenreich reassured, “Yes ... it will be in the lobby—I’m happy to answer any questions you may have there.” While you do not need to be from Brooklyn nor Jewish to appreciate the expression of transforming sorrow into joy, the quirkiness of family and thrill of creative expression, it certainly does help with a few of the punchlines. Additionally, in this day of rapid-paced, biting pop culture-based jokes, audiences may have to adjust their meter to appreciate the charm of schmaltz and kitsch humor—but the audience does tend to skew a bit older. A Jew Grows in Brooklyn is like Yiddish itself—rich with lyrical character and layered with bittersweet subtext.
A Jew Grows in Brooklyn only has a few performances left!
Through Saturday, Feb. 25. Monday through Thursday and Saturday evenings, 8 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 19 at 2 and 5 p.m. Please note: no performances on Feb. 24.
American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Dr., L.A.
To charge tickets, call (866) 811-4111
Tickets and Information: ajewgrowsinbrooklyn.com