Ehrenreich Riding The Brooklyn Wave

Return of ‘A Jews Grows in Brooklyn’ given fresh relevance by new population survey.

07/03/2012
Special To The Jewish Week
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Call it the Jewish Cape Canaveral. Brooklyn has been the launching pad for so many eminent Jewish Americans — from Arthur Miller to Woody Allen, and from Barbra Streisand to Ruth Bader Ginsburg — that one could hardly imagine America without it. Perhaps this helps to account for the continuing popularity of Jake Ehrenreich’s one-man show, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” which has returned to New York after a record-breaking Off-Broadway run and a North American tour.

The show, which is currently running at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Theater, is especially timely in the wake of last month’s much-touted “Jewish Community Study of New York” by UJA-Federation that found that close to one in four residents of Brooklyn is Jewish.

Ehrenreich’s father, a Gerer chasid, came from one of the wealthiest families in Poland. During the Second World War, he and his wife were sent to a work camp in Siberia, where one of their daughters was born. They eventually made it to America, and settled in East Flatbush, where their son and another daughter were born.

Longing for acceptance by his peers, Ehrenreich developed an infatuation with baseball and pop music. Eventually, after discovering his talents as both a vocalist and drummer — and surmounting a drug addiction — Ehrenreich made it to the big time. He has appeared on Broadway in “Dancin’,” Barnum” and “They’re Playing Our Song,” and he has toured internationally as Ringo in “Beatlemania,” and recorded with Greg Allman, Tito Puente, Cab Calloway and the Smothers Brothers.

“A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” directed by John Huberth, originally ran Off Broadway for 18 months beginning in the spring of 2006. In addition to the national tour, it has inspired both a book version and a documentary that will air on PBS in the fall. When it ran in Los Angeles, critic Philip Brandes of the Los Angeles Times called the performer an “engaging and thoughtful raconteur” whose show is “skillfully calibrated to connect to the audience with the distinctive commingling of humor and sorrow characteristic of traditional Jewish folk tales.”

The musical begins with Jake’s boyhood and bar mitzvah, moves to the Catskills where Jake’s family vacationed in the bungalow colonies with other families of survivors, summons up the lost era of Borscht Belt entertainment, continues through Jake’s wedding and the birth of his son and celebrates his career as a musician, wedding singer and Broadway performer. Along the way, Ehrenreich plays four different instruments, sings numbers ranging from “Rumania, Rumania” to “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” and tells jokes and stories about how he “rebirthed” himself by seizing on the joys of life.

Ehrenreich, who now lives in upstate Monroe, told The Jewish Week that he has “shortened, deepened and ‘wisened up’” the show as it has developed over the years. For example, the show now touches on the fact that his mother and two sisters all developed early-onset Alzheimer’s disease in their 50s. But the message, he said, remains the same, in terms of the “choices that we all have about what to dwell and focus on in our lives.” One of the most poignant moments in the show, he said, is when he quotes his father’s wedding toast, which declared that rather than a tentful of guests at his son’s wedding there should be “10 tents full — the people here are the rightful inheritors of the unfinished lives of those who perished.”

Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis, has organized groups of rabbis to come to see the show, in hopes that they will advertise it to their congregants. Rabbi Potasnik, who lives in Brooklyn Heights, called Ehrenreich a “good spokesperson for the joy of our people.” The show, he said, teaches an important lesson to Jews, namely that “people will respect you because you respect yourself.” He suggested that it may help to contribute to what he called the “re-Jew-venation of Brooklyn,” which he called a “new Manhattan.” 

While much has changed over the last century, Brooklyn remains key to the future of Jewish life in America. More Jewish children are “growing” there, to riff on Ehrenreich’s title, than at any time since the interwar decades, when more than a third of Brooklyn’s population was Jewish — this during the era before the Brooklyn Dodgers decamped to Los Angeles, and before hundreds of thousands of Jews moved east to Long Island and west to the rest of America. 

The new demographic survey has put a spotlight on Brooklyn for the explosive growth of the fervently Orthodox community there, as well as for the borough’s large numbers of both Russian and Syrian Jewish immigrants. With its ongoing vitality and diversity, Brooklyn remains, in the words of Ilana Abramovitch and Sean Galvin, co-editors of “Jews of Brooklyn” (Brandeis University Press, 2002), a “central switchboard of the American population.”

Demographer Steven M. Cohen was one of the authors of the new survey, which was conducted by the Ukeles Consulting Group. Reached by phone at his home in Jerusalem, Cohen pointed out that the survey results that have been released so far are just the tip of the iceberg. He promised that the “Geography Report” will be released in the fall, showing great detail about the current state of Jewish life in 30 different New York neighborhoods, including half a dozen in Brooklyn.

Cohen asserted that his own upbringing in Flatbush — he grew up on Parkside Avenue, alongside the Parade Grounds — has been crucial to his conclusions about Jewish life in America, including his influential observation that one of the best predictors for a strong Jewish identity can be found simply by knowing someone’s zip code; in other words, it is residential proximity to other Jews that ultimately leads to a sense of belonging to the Jewish people. Cohen, who described himself as having a “strong secular and ethnic commitment” rather than a religious one, noted that he loves living in Israel in part because it feels like a “very big Jewish neighborhood.”

Rabbi Deborah Joselow serves as managing director for UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. While she has not seen “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” she speculated that the show taps into the deep well of nostalgia for Brooklyn that so many Jews, even those who did not grow up there, feel. “Everybody likes to claim Brooklyn,” she said. “Jews and Brooklyn go together like matzah balls and chicken soup.” She noted that Brooklyn is “ever-evolving; it’s popping and blossoming in all kinds of ways.”

“A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” runs at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Theater, 120 W. 46th St. Performances are Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday afternoons at 5 p.m. There are also Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2. For tickets, $59-$79, call (866) 811-4111 or visit www.ajewgrowsinbrooklyn.com.
 

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