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Theater review: ‘A Jew Grows in Brooklyn’ at American Jewish University

February 21, 2011 | 12:15 pm

Ajgb_009_300_dpi Bar mitzvah faux pas. Plastic slip-covered sofas. Summer resorts in the Catskills. Growing up as a post-World War II-generation Jewish American supplies writer-actor-singer-musician Jake Ehrenreich with material for plenty of nostalgic satire in “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn.” 

There’s more to the show than laughs, however. Essentially a solo performance with live musical accompaniment, Ehrenreich’s autobiographical compilation of stories and song is skillfully calibrated to connect to a kindred audience with the distinctive commingling of humor and sorrow characteristic of traditional Jewish folk tales.

The son of Polish immigrants who escaped the Holocaust, Ehrenreich spent his youth yearning to be the “all-American kid” — baseball and rock ’n' roll were his cultural anchors. To demonstrate their indelible imprint, he launches into a lively whirlwind mash-up of 1960s pop hits, stopping short in “California Dreamin’” when the line “stopped into a church” drives home a wedge of recognition about his different heritage. 

Ehrenreich’s exploration of his Jewish identity is built on emotional pivot points like this — poking at the sore spots of his family life with the fierce affection that Jews have for one another, then linking each comic anecdote to a more serious theme. 

From Ehrenreich’s curiosity about why he didn’t have grandparents like other kids, the Holocaust emerges gradually but inexorably as the formative event of his parents’ generation.

The most tightly structured part of the piece is an extended homage to summer retreats in the heyday of the Catskills Mountains. Having done a stint as a resort entertainer there in the 1970s, Ehrenreich knows his territory as he slips in and out of personalities typical of that bygone era -- the nerdy social director, the sequin-jacketed lounge singer, the Frank Sinatra-style crooner -- and shows his musical dexterity on trumpet, trombone and a hard-driving drum solo.

Ehrenreich is admittedly far from an A-list performer, but he’s capable enough with the songs and, more important, he’s an engaging and thoughtful raconteur who weaves philosophy into personal history with minimal sermonizing. His insight into the legacy of the classic Borscht Belt entertainers (whose style he effectively emulates) is elegant in its simplicity. They made Jewish comedy synonymous with American comedy, but for Holocaust survivors and their offspring their contribution was even more special and profound:  “They taught us to laugh again.”

–- Philip Brandes

“A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” American Jewish University, 15600 Mulholland Drive, Los Angeles. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7 p.m. Feb. 27 and 2 and 5 p.m. March 6. Ends March 6. $40 to $55. (866) 811-4111 or www.ajewgrowsinbrooklyn.com. Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes.

Photo: Jake Ehrenreich. Credit: Carol Rosegg.

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