This story contains spoilers for An American Pickle, streaming on HBO Max August 6.
An American Pickle is a very Jewish movie. In fact, Seth Rogen — who stars as both Herschel Greenbaum, a Jewish immigrant to New York who finds himself pickled for 100 years after falling into a pickle factory barrel, and his own great-grandson, Ben Greenbaum, an app developer living in Brooklyn circa 2019 — has said that it’s “probably the most Jewish movie that almost anyone’s ever made.”
But of course, that’s not entirely true. The most Jewish movie anyone has ever made is Barbra Streisand’s Yentl, which even makes a cameo appearance in an end credit scene capping off Herschel’s (Rogen) arduous journey.
Having finally returned to Brooklyn after Ben was accidentally deported back to Herschel’s home shtetl of Schlopsk, the two are sitting in the apartment they now share, unwinding with a movie night. On the screen, we see Streisand confronting a young and very bearded Mandy Patinkin, revealing that she (SPOILER) isn’t a delicate-looking yeshiva boy, but a woman in man’s clothing. It’s the film’s most pivotal scene, so before we get into what that means, let’s take a step back.
If you’ve never seen Yentl — what are you waiting for? It’s got absolutely everything: heart-rending songs, emotional drama, humor, and a young Mandy Patinkin’s naked butt. The film marked Streisand’s directorial debut — she won a Golden Globe for her work, making her the first and only woman to win for directing — and took her roughly 15 years to get made. As she told Refinery29 back in 2018, she originally pitched the project on the heels of her Oscar-winning performance in 1968’s Funny Girl. “Are you kidding me?” her agent said. “We already turned that down for you,” she remembers him saying. “You’ve just played a Jewish girl, and now you tell me that you want to play a Jewish boy?”
Written, directed, and produced by Streisand, Yentl finally hit theaters in 1983. It was nominated for five Oscars, and won for Best Adapted Score. In addition to Streisand’s Golden Globe win for director, the movie also nabbed the award for Best Motion Picture — Comedy or Musical. Based on a short story by Jewish author Isaac Bashevis Singer, it centers around a young woman (Streisand), who masquerades as a man in order to pursue a religious education after the death of her father. At yeshiva (a Jewish school devoted to the study of religious texts and doctrine), she meets Avigdor (Patinkin), an enthusiastic and brilliant scholar who also happens to be a total babe.
In the scene that Herschel and Ben watch, Yentl, who through a series of misunderstandings and mishaps finds herself married to the woman Avigdor once loved, reveals to him that she too, is a woman. And what’s more, she’s in love with him! This is all a lot for Avigdor to process, hence the very confused look on Patinkin’s face throughout the shot.
Using Yentl as an end credit scene for An American Pickle makes sense on many levels. For one thing, the film’s action takes place in an era that Herschel himself would easily recognize. Sub in Lublin, Poland for the fictional town of Schlopsk, and Yentl could have been his neighbor. But it’s also a way for Rogen, along with director Brandon Trost and writer Simon Rich, to pay tribute to one of the most iconic Jewish stars in Hollywood, who largely paved the way for their own movie to exist.
“I like her very much,” Herschel tells Ben in the scene. “What is her name?”
“Barbra Streisand,” Ben answers. “Babs.”
“She very pretty,” Herschel replies. “She is a Jew?”
“Oh yes,” Ben says. “She is a Jew. Very much Jew.”
That line is obviously designed to get a laugh — who is a better representation of Jewish womanhood than Barbra Streisand? (Rogen should know. She played his overbearing Jewish mother in 2012’s The Guilt Trip.) But it’s also a way for Rogen to telegraph across another Jewish success story. Before Streisand made her film debut as turn-of-the-century stage actress and comic Fannie Brice in Funny Girl, Jewish women in Hollywood felt the need to conceal and/or downplay their identity in an effort to appear more mainstream. Throughout her career, she has strived to bring complex Jewish women to the screen, and openly rejected pressure to alter her appearance (read: get a nose job) in order to fit in.
Ultimately, Streisand — and by extension, Yentl — is a symbol of what Herschel dreams of finding in America: A place where Jews can rise to the top and thrive without fear of persecution. And where fresh seltzer is always just a press of a button away.