This review marks the second time I've seen A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, Jake Ehrenreich's solo show about his Yiddishe upbringing, Holocaust refugee parents, and Borscht Belt vacations. I liked it well enough last season when it rolled through Plays and Players Theatre, and a few of its audience members (almost uniformly bubbes and zaydes ranging in age from their 50s on up) liked it even more, threatening me with a serious case of Jewish guilt if I didn't represent the evening to their satisfaction.
There was no need for them to worry, then or now, and upon further viewing, Ehrenreich grows even more endearing, his gentle nostalgia bearing witness to a nearly departed generation, language, and way of life. It's worth noting that Ehrenreich and his father (via video, for Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation) also describe their relatives' upbringing in a Poland that's completely gone, and the weight of those lost memories makes these an uplifting treasure.
This time around, the corny jokes seem delicately calibrated to offset the tragedy that suffused the survivor immigrants - and their families. Ehrenreich recalls a friend who told him how, back home in Brooklyn, his father cried behind a locked door all day, but in the Catskills he'd watch him laughing all night.
That poignancy and specificity of place and time is what separates this show from its schlockier brethren, such as My Mother's Italian, My Father's Jewish and I'm in Therapy, or any of Sister's various Catechisms, and puts it in the same elevated company as Billy Crystal's 700 Sundays or Chazz Palminteri's A Bronx Tale. It's funny - Ehrenreich recalls his bar mitzvah as being "like Gulliver's Travels; big they didn't make these people in Eastern Europe" - with brief musical forays, aided by a backing trio on keyboard, guitar and drums. At its worst, say, in a rock medley representing Ehrenreich's teen years, that music and comedy plays like a self-indulgent attempt at a lounge act. But at its best, when recreating perennial Catskills lounge act Aaron Lebedev's rendition of "Rumania," it's a privileged peek upstate and back in time.
However, to be sure my affection for the piece wasn't unduly influenced by ethnic bias, this time around, instead of bringing my parents, I took a goyishe pal. The verdict? It seems that whether he's name-checking the Concord Hotel or you're hearing a stream of Yiddishisms that warms and comforts like a steaming bowl of matzo-ball soup, Ehrenreich is a mensch, and a universally appealing mensch, at that.