A Jew Grows in Brooklyn

Written by and starring Jake Ehrenreich

Lamb’s Theatre

130 West 44th Street, New York

(212) 239-6200


“When you go back and you think about what it is,” Jake Ehrenreich told me over the phone, pausing to put down his cell phone whenever he saw a nearby police car, “it’s all about tradition.” Tradition and cell phones might be the perfect symbol for Ehrenreich’s new autobiographical play, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn.” The play is a tale about growing up from being the kid who tried so hard to be all-American, only to be reduced to “super immigrant Jew kid with Holocaust survivor parents.” Then his mother would call him into the house from his stickball games, yelling “Yonkee!” Fast forward to Ehrenreich’s career, singing and acting, beginning with hotel gigs in the Catskills.


Brooklyn has become somewhat of a theatrical “frequent flyer” lately, which Mark Schoenfeld’s and Barri McPherson’s recent Broadway show, “Brooklyn: The Musical” – which proved as stylized and unconvincing in its portrait of Brooklyn as “What a Girl Wants: London Calling” – was in its portrayal of the capital of England. But Ehrenreich’s off-Broadway affair presents a convincing portrait of Brooklyn, for which the playwright spent a year and a half interviewing his father and rummaging through boxes of old family photographs. The first draft of the script – which was initially titled “Growing Up in America,” but was changed to underscore the Jewish angle – was a whopping eight hours, but Ehrenreich knew he wanted to cut the play to fewer than two hours for the sake of his audiences’ attention spans.


For his part, Ehrenreich is “so grateful and surprised that audiences keep coming, and how many tell their mothers and sons you gotta go see it.” The play is so popular, because the tale is so familiar to the audience, which is overwhelmingly Jewish and middle-aged and beyond. Audience members recognize Ehrenreich’s tale of his parents who lived on the Lower East Side, “the center of the immigrant Jewish world.” Jake’s father, who was fired from his upholster’s job when the foreman told him “your best is not good enough,” eventually built a furniture company that allowed the family to move away from the Lower East Side.


Throughout the performance, Ehrenreich – who wears a Samuel J. Tilden High School sweatshirt – plays with a rubber ball (“which everybody insisted on calling a spaldeen; although it clearly said the word Spaulding on the ball”). He delivers stand-up comedy (“I love when people from Brooklyn are here, because it means there are fewer of you out there to be robbing my house Actually, if you go back far enough, everybody is from Brooklyn did you know that scientists believe the first amphibian came out of Sheepshead Bay?”). He also sings and plays the trumpet, trombone and a long drum solo.


Jake Ehrenreich in “A Jew Grows In Brooklyn”, a new comedy musical at The Lamb’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.



Like Woody Allen’s “Radio Days,” Ehrenreich’s tale is largely a nostalgic one about music. He first dreamt of being a rock n’ roll musician, and when he learned that a favorite singer, Manfred Mann, was really Manny Lubinsky, he said, “I didn’t know and I didn’t careI just wanted to get as far away from my mother’s Yiddish records as I could.” But midway through “California Dreamin,” Ehrenreich encounters, “California dreaming on such a winter’s day. Stopped into a church.” and he stops. “Here I am, I’m living my life through the American top 40, but they still gotta give me a little kick in the kishke stopped into a church, how is it, in all the years I’m listening to pop music, no one ever stopped into a shul?” To his horror, Ehrenreich realizes, “All of the rock and roll songs, and all of the Christmas songs were written by people with the sameJewish background as mineevery time I try to get out, they pull me back in!”


With his first musical gig one summer in the mountains, Ehrenreich earned $35 a week; he spent the other half of the summer in camp. He remembers those performances as “the finest training ground there ever was for singers comedians and musicians. We got an opportunity to work with talent, way beyond our scope.” One time, the performer had to stop the band because Ehrenreich and his peers (about age 11) could not keep up with the music. The performer turned to the audience and said, “Ladies and gentleman, these are excellent musicians they just saw the music for the first time a few hours ago, and we’re going to try it again.” With “desperation, but love in his eyes, he said ‘fella’s, let’s try it again from letter A.’ We learned so much watching the poise of these performers!”


Jake Ehrenreich in “A Jew Grows In Brooklyn”, a new comedy musical at The Lamb’s Theatre. Photo by Carol Rosegg.



In a sense, Ehrenreich’s response to his Jewish music crisis as a youth came when he introduced the Mets at Shea Stadium. Upon his father’s advice, Ehrenreich introduced the players in Yiddish. “Un yetz mayne libe Metnicksayer NY Mets! Der ershter shlugger, shpilndik tzvaite baze, numer tzvelveRoberto Alomar!” Of the introduction, Ehrenreich imitates the MasterCard commercial: “Introducing the ballplayers in Yiddish $500. Seeing the faces on the Cincinnati Redspriceless.”


As much as Ehrenreich’s tale is a cell phone tale – of a younger generation trying to “fit in” by masking its relation to parents with accents – it is most significantly a tale of memory and tradition, especially of the Holocaust. The memories are especially sad for a child of survivors. But to Ehrenreich, the period of shiva is only for a prescribed time, and then “you live your life again. We survived. We came here. I now have a son and a wife. We are here. I am here.”


“A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” is an unusual play. On the one hand, it entertains as a comedy and a quasi-musical. But Ehrenreich’s laughs are laughs that say, “Oh, this is what I looked like” – not laughs that mock. The goal is to allow viewers to access their own stories through their similarities to the play’s prototype – “to bring themselves to the American Jewish experience.”


And perhaps the real reason to see the play is its self-meditative act. “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” reflects not only on one autobiography and not only on tales of second-generation immigrants in New York. Ehrenreich’s tale revives a sort of Jewish culture and sociology that is scarce today. “It is the substance of Judaism that is important, what’s behind and informs the ritual. And it is the same thing with Yiddish; it is informed by religion and culture,” Ehrenreich told me, citing his father. “Look, here’s the difference between the shtetl and Judaism today in the shtetl we knew we were all Jews, without the kind of barriers we have today.”


Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.