A Jew Grows in Brooklyn
nytheatre.com review by Alyssa Simon
April 8, 2006
Jacob Issac Ehrenreich, named for his grandfathers killed in the Holocaust and also called Yankel by his immigrant parents, wanted nothing more as a teenager than to be an all-American guy named Jake. A Jew Grows In Brooklyn is his one-man story of how he's come to accept who he is, transforming his adolescent embarrassment to pride while taking the audience on a musical nostalgia trip through the Brooklyn and Catskills of the '50s. My experience throughout the show paralleled young Jacob's journey. At first I was uncomfortable, cringing at all the schmaltz. By the end, I was tearing up and happily clapping along to the old Yiddish songs most of the audience knew by heart.
Ehrenreich grew up in East Flatbush with his two sisters in a home where every piece of furniture had a plastic slipcover and children played stickball till their mothers called them in for dinner. His loving and overprotective family encouraged his musical talents, and as a young man he performed on Broadway, played drums, and toured with Greg Allman's band. In video clips, we see family vacation pictures around the swimming pool of women wearing beehive hairdos and tired-looking men in bathing trunks and black socks, and stiffly-posed bar mitzvah photos in front of silver curtains that match everyone's outfits. We are told the people had Old World names that made Yankel Ehrenreich sound like Mike Smith.
A meditation on existential dread, this is not. However, Ehrenreich's good-natured optimism and celebration of family, tradition, and corny jokes are not thoughtless. The people were not blood relatives, we are told, though Ehrenreich and his sisters called them Aunt and Uncle. They were fellow survivors who came out of DP camps like his mother and father and who had lost entire families. These people became family for one another, sharing simple joys like summers in the Catskills with their children. If they could pick up their lives and laugh at a tummler's jokes, who are we, Ehrenreich seems to be saying, not to be upbeat?
A tummler was an activities director, comedian, musician, and singer who worked in the Catskills resorts back in their heyday. In the strongest part of the show, Ehrenreich—backed by his band, Elysa Sunshine (guitar and musical director), Ted Kooshian (keyboard), Ray Josephs (drums), and David Solomon (guitar)—goes through a typical day and evening in the life of a tummler. Starting at the top of Act II, he comes out in camp director shorts (pulled up almost to his armpits with the shirt tucked in for authenticity, a great comic touch) and a visor. Then, after working the crowd—"Where are you from?" "Mill Basin! Brownsville! Flatbush!" people in the audience shouted out—we are led in a round of "Simon Says." Like I said, there are elements of the show that could be called corny. But, they are shamelessly so, which like a tummler's jokes ("My bris went horribly wrong. I couldn't walk for a year!") makes it enjoyable.
After the games, Ehrenreich becomes the emcee in the "Starlight Lounge" ("Every resort in the Catskills had a place called the Starlight Lounge," he says). He tells jokes, sings songs, plays the trumpet, trombone, and drums, and finishes off with a rousing almost punk version of the Yiddish chestnut "Romania." His voice and energy are very strong, admirably carrying him through. The director, Jon Huberth, keeps the action and pace moving throughout and makes good use of Joseph Egan's set, designed to look like a family's home in 1950s Brooklyn. Ehrenreich ends the show by bringing us up-to-date on his present life. We see pictures of his marriage, wife, and son. I didn't enjoy watching someone else's wedding video and baby pictures as much as other parts of the show, but I did understand the reason. During his wedding reception, Ehrenreich's father, Jonah, said the wedding tents should have held ten times the amount of family in attendance.
That poignancy, along with the name Ehrenreich gave his own son, Joseph Dov-Behr, named after great-uncles who were also killed, instead of the American name he always wanted for himself, brings a deeper meaning to A Jew Grows in Brooklyn. According to articles in the press kit, the show had been ending with a video of Ehrenreich's little boy singing "God Bless America." That didn't happen and I think it was a wise move to cut it. But, really, by the end of this very sweet journey, I probably would have choked up about that too.