When my book Bieganski the Brute Polak Stereotype first came out, some naysayers said, "Well, negative stereotypes of Poles as big, stupid, hateful, primitive, violent clods will disappear within a few years. Those stereotypes are based on Poles being peasants. Most Poles are no longer peasants, so the stereotypes will disappear."
There is a couple of things wrong with such assumptions.
First, why assume that Polish peasants deserve to be stereotyped as big, stupid, violent clods? Look at archival photos of peasants and you will see some tiny people, much shorter than most of us today, and looking rather underfed. No, they weren't all big.
Furthermore, why assume that peasants are stupid, hateful, primitive or violent? No respectable person talks that way about American slaves, for example. Any such comment would result in terminal social sanction. But it is standard to talk about Polish peasants that way. Why do we talk about one group of oppressed agricultural laborers one way and another group another way? Exploring the reasons why we talk about comparable groups in different ways helps us to understand stereotypes.
Also, the hope that stereotypes of Poles will disappear because Poles are no longer majority peasants is uninformed. Stereotypes don't work that way.
Lauren, an informant for Bieganski, told me that her stereotypes about Poles were defied by her face-to-face encounters with flesh-and-blood Polish people, and yet still, in her mind, the stereotype overrode her actual, lived experience.
"I would have characterized Poles as big, beefy people, not overly educated ... my image of Poles throughout my life could be characterized as an urban version of well-to-do peasants (always working class, very blue-collar), but my actual experience of Poles from Poland as a college instructor showed them to be quite sophisticated and highly educated."
Why do people stereotype Poles the way they do? The answer is long and complicated, and found in Bieganski.
An American Pickle is a 2020 Warner Brothers movie, now streaming on HBO. It's directed by 38-year-old Brandon Trost, who was born in California and descends from a Hollywood show business family. It's written by 36-year-old Simon Rich. Rich was born in New York City, educated at exclusive prep schools, and graduated from Harvard. He's written for Saturday Night Live. He describes himself as extremely privileged and coddled. An American Pickle stars 38-year-old Seth Rogen. Rogen was born in Vancouver and has been in show business since he was 12 years old.
In other words, An American Pickle is the product of privileged American millennials who have never lived among Polish peasants. I knew, therefore, that it would be chock full of predictable Bieganski stereotypes. Why would I assume that young, privileged Americans would be a font of stereotyping of Polish people? Again, the answer is long, complicated, and in the book.
Here are the stereotypes I knew I'd see in An American Pickle.
I knew the film would depict
* Eastern Europe as an ugly, dark, primitive, cursed backwater
* Eastern Europeans as brutish and full of murderous hatred for Jews
* Poles as stupid
I knew all this before I saw so much as a still photo from the film. I have now seen the film, and it does, indeed, present all of the above-listed stereotypes. The New Yorker piece on which the film is based is also chock full of Bieganski-style stereotyping.
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency describes An American Pickle as "one of the most Jewish Hollywood films ever." An American Pickle tells the story of Herschel Greenbaum, a ditch-digger in "Schlupsk, Eastern Europe." Escaping pogroms, Herschel emigrates to the US, where he works in a pickle factory. He falls into a vat of brine and is preserved for one hundred years. He is revived and meets his great grandson, Ben. Both Greenbaums are played by Seth Rogen. Herschel and Ben fight. Herschel becomes a successful pickle vendor, and Ben sabotages his business. This back and forth sabotaging of one Greenbaum by the other continues for most of the rest of the film. Toward the end, Ben is deported to Schlupsk. Herschel meets up with Ben there, and they reconcile. The end.
An American Pickle is a rather minor effort. There isn't much plot and there aren't many characters. The two Greenbaums, both played by Seth Rogen, take up most of the screentime. There is no love interest, and no significant female characters. Sarah disappears early in the film.
An American Pickle is mildly amusing – I did laugh – and its sentimental scenes of family reconciliation did cause me to tear up. Seth Rogen is very impressive as both Herschel, the shtetl ancestor, and Ben, the secular American descendent. Otherwise there really isn't much to this film, and I did feel disappointed. The premise is intriguing. How would a shtetl Jew from a hundred years ago react to today's modern American Jews? So much more could have been done.
For example, An American Pickle never mentions either the recognition of the state of Israel or the Holocaust. These are big features of Jewish identity. Both are absent. What's present? Bieganski-style stereotypes. There's plenty of those.
As in many American Jewish treatments of Eastern Europe, the geography is dismissively vague. In real life, as opposed to stereotypes, Jewish people's ancestors didn't come from some unnamed "Eastern Europe." They came from actual political entities, like the Russian Empire, the Austrian Empire, etc. When reading American Jews' memoirs of Eastern Europe, I read many comments suggesting that Eastern Europe wasn't worth learning about. One woman planned a trip to her ancestral homeland without knowing where it appeared on a map, she was so uninterested in its actual name.
There is no "Schlupsk." There is a lovely Polish town called Slupsk, pronounced Swoopsk. It is in western Poland, far from territory inhabited by Cossacks.
During the opening titles of the film, one hears a disgusting sound. It is the sound of gray, mushy, feces-like mud being dug by Herschel. While Herschel digs this mud, his shovel breaks. What follows is a series of scenes where Herschel attempts to wield clumsily-made shovels that all break. Clearly Eastern Europe is so backward that its denizens can't even construct so simple a tool as a shovel.
Herschel meets and falls in love with Sarah, a woman so spectacular that she has all her teeth, "Top and bottom!" He buys a dried fish for her. She grabs the fish with her bare hands and bites off its head. Again, primitive.
Herschel and Sarah share the same favorite color, black. This joke implies that Eastern Europeans, Jews and non-Jews, have a dark view of the world.
Herschel and Sarah date by going to a "very special bog." There is nothing nice in Eastern Europe, so young people in love go to a bog.
Both Herschel's and Sarah's parents were murdered by Cossacks, and Cossacks stage a pogrom at Herschel's and Sarah's wedding. Eastern Europeans are nothing but murderers of Jews who are "Jew-hungry and drunk on vodka."
Herschel and Sarah immigrate to America. At Ellis Island, the staff there refer to some arrivals as "Dumb Polaks" and other arrivals as "Filthy Jews." So America, in this respect, is hardly better than Eastern Europe.
Even in Brooklyn, Herschel is tormented by "Jew-Hungry, drunken" Eastern Europeans. Kartoska vodka has erected a billboard right over Sarah's grave. Kartoska's logo is "toast your comrades." Herschel punches out the workmen erecting the Kartoska vodka billboard. Eventually Herschel makes enough money that he can remove the billboard from the graveyard. He unfurls the vodka billboard as if it were a captured enemy banner. He has finally achieved victory over the evil Eastern Europeans.
Herschel tells Ben that he, Ben, may be "stupider than a Polish person and they are the stupidest." Herschel later refers to Mary, Jesus' mother, as a prostitute who made up the story of the immaculate conception to cover for her whoring.
There's one stereotype that is not honored in An American Pickle. In works by both Jews and non-Jews, Jews in Eastern Europe are depicted as being less violent, and less strong, than non-Jews. Woody Allen has built a career on the stereotype of the nebbishy Eastern European Jewish man. Herschel is physically strong and solves problems with his fists. He threatens violence repeatedly and punches several people in the film. His descendant Ben is not depicted as being either strong or violent. He is not a man of action.
As mentioned, An American Pickle is based on a New Yorker piece. Below are some quotes from that piece. These quotes also reflect the Bieganski stereotype of Eastern Europe as an ugly, trackless wasteland of stupid and violent people.
Quotes from Simon Rich's New Yorker piece "Sell Out," below:
Ben is dating Claire. Herschel says of Claire, she is "a goyish woman Simon mates with in defiance of our Lord."
When Claire learns that Herschel is from Eastern Europe, the following exchange takes place:
"That's so cool you're from there," Claire says to me. "I've always wanted to visit Eastern Europe."
I fold my arms and squint at her.
"Why would you visit there?"
"I don't know," she says, shrugging. "I hear it's got a really cool art scene."
I lean in close to her.
"The only scene in Slupsk is people eating horse meat to live and killing each other for potatoes."
I point my finger at her face.
"You must never go to Slupsk," I warn her. "It is city of death." … "It is like time in Slupsk there was plague killing peoples and only one witch selling medicine."
Herschel describes his father's job:
He owned big shit cart, and every day, he went around collecting shit. He smelled like shit and was always covered in shit. Finally, after many years with the shit, he saved money up for house. But before he could even go inside, the Cossacks got drunk and burned it. All that was saved was his shit cart, which the Cossacks had shit inside."
Eastern Europe is hopelessly corrupt:
I was leaving Slupsk when Cossacks asked me to pay them "nighttime road tax." I gave them all vodkas and they let me through.
Eastern Europe is full of sick people:
"I have seen this disease in Slupsk," I tell him. "First, they cough the blood. Then they begin to shake. They ask for the water, but when you bring them some to drink it makes them vomit up the black. They die screaming, their eyes wide open, afraid."
Eastern Europe is just a very bad, no good, terrible place:
I assume that everyone will join me in my dance, but instead they all stare at me with dead eyes. I have not seen such miserable faces since the Great Siege of Slupsk, when the children were told they must butcher and eat their pet rats.
Anything associated with Christianity is bad:
"There is no wrong way to pray to Hashem," I whisper. "Just speak what is in your heart."
Simon remains still for long time. Then he nods softly, closes his eyes, and kneels.
"Why are you kneeling?" I shout. "Are you Christian now? Stand up, before God sees you!"
He jumps to his feet, his face bright red.
"I thought you said there was no wrong way to pray."
"Yes, well, O.K., but you cannot kneel! That is like slapping God's face. It is horrible what you have done."
I spit on the ground.
"Sorry," he mumbles.
"Is fine, is fine," I say.
JTA asked its readers for their impression of An American Pickle. Those impressions are below.
"Loved it; the perfect thing to watch with your Jewish family when Fauda is too intense for your mom." – Joseph Eherenkranz, New York, New York.
"Sweet but Rogen should have introduced the benefits of weed to Herschel."– Richard, Los Angeles, California.
"It was ridiculous but an exquisite escape from my political and pandemic obsessed life and it had a very satisfying ending." – Judy Simon, Monterey, California.
"This movie, that made me cry and respect Seth Rogen as an actor, was surprisingly entertaining and heartfelt, despite how terrible it sounds on paper." – Susan Wolper, New York.
"A funny and surprisingly heartfelt movie that touches on the nature of family, legacies, and the ways Jewish folks honor both." – Joseph Freundel, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
"An American Pickle ranks with Fiddler on the Roof and Yentl–among others as one of the most Jewish films ever." – Danielle Solzman, Chicago, Illinois.
"Loved the movie, made me want to eat matzo ball soup." – Jaden B., California.
There are critical comments, as well, but none of the critical comments I saw mentioned the stereotyping of Eastern Europe or Eastern Europeans, or Herschel characterizing Poles as stupid and Mary as a prostitute.