As a New York child with parents who survived the Holocaust, Jake Ehrenreich grew up
wanting to feel more American.
But as a kid in a Yiddish-speaking household, he never did. Now, as the writer and star of the solo musical, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, he gets to sing and dance his story about finding his way into the mainstream comfort zone.
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“Baseball and pop music was real America to me,” says Ehrenreich, by phone from New York. “I wanted to hear rock and roll, but my mother only listened to Yiddish radio.”
With four backup singers and a multimedia set, Ehrenreich sings his way through a personal history. The 50-year-old performer shares his journey out of a maze of cultural anxiety. This was no easy trick. His Polish folks survived the horrors of Nazi Germany, and were even interned in a Siberian work camp before their escape.
After settling in Brooklyn, however, the memory still seemed to pursue his family. No one felt secure. In his household, the psychic trauma of war remained alive.
And it turned out that this perception can be as destructive as the reality.
“I learned that if you let stress eat you up, it will kill you,” says Ehrenreich. “My sister Joanie was always fussing, and she never seemed to feel safe or satisfied. She got sick in her 40s, and then died at just 55. She never found love, though she gave so much.”
To escape this post-war trauma, young Jake turned to great rock acts like Cream and the Righteous Brothers. And there he found an unexpected connection with his own Hassidic heritage.
“It turned out many of my favorite songwriters were Jewish, too. Regular, ordinary America wasn’t nearly as far away as I had thought. The rock music I loved wasn’t so foreign after all.”
Loving the rock and pop of the ’60s, Ehrenreich found himself gradually coming to accept more traditional material, too. His mother’s taste for Yiddish music began to rub off on him. And, for some reason, he also fell in love with Christmas music, too.
Singing medleys sporting all this different material, Ehrenreich celebrates being grateful for what life offers right now. Pleasure is part of what keeps us alive. There’s no point in fretting during a rock concert or a Brooklyn Dodgers game.
“We have a duty to find the joy inside ourselves,” he says.