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Life transformed into art

‘Jew Grows in Brooklyn’ creator Jake Ehrenreich talks about life, death, survival, and childhood

Jake Ehrenreich (Carol Rosen)
Jake Ehrenreich (Carol Rosen)

Jake Ehrenreich’s parents were all set to go to Australia from their displaced persons camp in Germany after World War II when his mother’s aunt and uncle offered to sponsor them to come to the United States.

In 1949, the Ehrenreichs arrived in New York with two little girls, one of whom had miraculously survived birth in a Siberian work camp, and began to adapt to their new life. The family settled in Brooklyn, Avrum Ehrenreich opened an upholstery shop, and in 1956 they joyously welcomed a son into their midst.

On November 13, that son, Jake Ehrenreich, will bring his acclaimed one-man show “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” to BergenPAC in Englewood. Since its original opening in 2006 in New York, Mr. Ehrenreich has changed the show continuously, he said. Since it’s his story, “I have a lot of freedom,” he explained, and whenever he got new insights through different ancillary projects, including a book with the same title published by the Chicken Soup for the Soul folks, he added them to the show.

Children of survivors see it in one way, he said, while long-term Brooklynites see it another. When he has performed the show in Europe, audiences have viewed it entirely differently. Each audience draws various inferences from the performance, but they all “just get that’s it’s true.”

Using music and multimedia, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” focuses on the experience of an American child growing up within a traumatized refugee family while longing to be part of that bright, optimistic world just outside his home. Even today, sometimes Mr. Ehrenreich sees families on the subway, wearing clothes that are not quite the right style and whispering in a foreign language, and “I think, that was us.” Although he lived in Brownsville, a heavily Jewish neighborhood at the time, he did not know other kids whose parents had thick accents, whose father worked constantly, whose lives were shadowed by a deep gloom. He desperately wanted to be like the other kids he saw in school, kids who went to baseball games with their fathers and ate white bread PB&J sandwiches.

When he became an adult, he realized that most kids feel like outsiders at one point or another, and he believes that is what makes “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” so universal.

A young Jake Ehrenreich, with family members.
A young Jake Ehrenreich, with family members.

Despite the inevitable sadness, the lack of an extended family, and the sense of otherness, “I didn’t have the same yoke that my sisters had,” Mr. Ehrenreich recalled. He was an American kid with typical American interests. His parents gave him much more freedom and he developed his musical skills. “I banged on the desk at school and sang in the choir,” and he became a drummer and a singer, performing in musicals all over the world. He toured as Ringo in “Beatlemania.” He was in “Dancin”, “Barnum,” and “They’re Playing Our Song” on Broadway and performed Yiddish music in two Off-Broadway productions, “Songs of Paradise” and “The Golden Land.”

Originally from Poland, Mr. Ehrenreich’s parents survived the war in Siberia, where they had the good fortune to almost starve. His mother talked about those times often and his father never did, Mr. Ehrenreich said. Both sisters suffered from early-onset Alzheimer’s syndrome, as did his mother, who died in her early 60s. Mr. Ehrenreich is convinced that those terrible early years had some connection to their illness. Still, his mother loved going out and having a good time when she was well, he remembers.

I grew up in a survivor community in Philadelphia, and I remember the adults around me as energetic, boisterous men and women who liked to smoke and play cards and dance and enjoy their lives as much as possible. They all reported having nightmares of the war, but during the day they went about the business of living. “Over the years, I’ve understood the courage it took for those people to start to laugh again,” Mr. Ehrenreich said.

Two days after his performance in Englewood, he will be at the Silicon Valley Film Festival, where he is a featured speaker at a screening of “The Last Laugh,” a film on humor and the Holocaust with Mel Brooks, Louis CK, Carl Reiner, Sarah Silverman, and others. (The film was the closing event at last week’s Teaneck International Film Festival.) Director Ferne Pearlstein combines interviews with comedians and the memories of Auschwitz survivor Renee Firestone to investigate the boundaries of what is possible when it comes to comedy and the Holocaust.

Mr. Ehrenreich is very careful to stay far away from humor when he’s talking about the Holocaust in his show. “There are other people that straddle that line differently,” he said; for instance, Mel Brooks always insists that he was making fun of Nazis, not the Holocaust, in “The Producers.”

Mr. Ehrenreich’s next stop will be back in his native borough, where he will be inducted into the Brooklyn Jewish Hall of Fame, along with other luminaries, including Senator Chuck Schumer and actress Lainie Kazan.

Just as he does in his show, Jake Ehrenreich circles back to the place and people who made him who he is.


Who: Jake Ehrenreich

What: Presents his one-man musical, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn”

Where: At the BergenPac, 30 N. Van Brunt Street in Englewood

When: Sunday, November 13, at 3 p.m.

How much: Tickets range from $39 to $79

For tickets or information: Call (201) 227-1030, email boxoffice@bergenpac.org, or go to www.bergenpac.org.

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