Between the pandemic and moving toward a contentious election, it’s easy to overlook the positive changes that are happening, especially if improvements are happening gradually. For instance, it’s way too easy to just never think about that fact that since 1900, the US infant mortality rate has fallen by more than 95 percent. Or that 90 percent of humanity lived in extreme poverty in 1820 while less than 10 percent does today. And those are just the major long-term trends. From a recent Econtalk episode, I learned about an archive of interesting improvements to everyday life just since the ’90s, from smartphones becoming commonplace to brussel sprouts actually tasting less bitter.
I’ll admit that I have a soft spot for movies or TV shows that point out this kind of thing and remind us of just how much better we have it than pretty much anyone that came before us. I love websites like HumanProgress.org or books like Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West that try to highlight and celebrate the achievements that humanity enjoys the world over, but no matter how well-written or graphically represented, wrapping facts into a story makes them much more relevant and meaningful. That’s what really made me curious to watch An American Pickle, a new HBO Max movie starring Seth Rogen as both Herschel Greenbaum, an immigrant preserved in a freak pickling accident for 100 years, and his great-grandson Ben Greenbaum.
The story starts out with Herschel ditch digging in Eastern Europe. It’s hard work, his crappy tools keep breaking, and it’s a lighthearted illustration of how much harder life was just 100 years ago. Herschel eventually gets married and moves to America, where the freak pickling accident launches him into modern-day Brooklyn with his great-grandson Ben. It’s fun to see Herschel adapt to a radically different world of comparative luxury. For instance, Herschel’s lifelong dream of drinking seltzer water is easily accomplished with Ben’s SodaStream. But as the movie continues, the story reflects a deeper uneasiness with certain aspects of contemporary culture.
Herschel dreamed of his descendants becoming powerful and prosperous and is happy with the material conditions Ben enjoys. However, there are no family pictures displayed around Ben’s home, instead they’re shut away in a closet. Ben does not say traditional Jewish prayers for his family members who’ve passed away, he’s not religious. After working for years on an app he’s developed, Ben is reluctant to sell it and move on. His life seems unsettled and stalled.
In 2019, the Pew Research Center released a study finding that 26 percent of Americans, and 40 percent of Millennials, are religiously unaffiliated. Business dynamism has been declining for decades and many young adults have grown up in an increasingly safety-focused culture that tends to be more risk averse. It’s clear that Ben lives in this context and Herschel does not.
While not without his own flaws, like having a bit of a temper and being comfortable with casual violence, Herschel is deeply devoted to family. He insists on saying prayers for loved ones and much of the plot revolves around his determined defense of family honor. He seizes opportunities as they come, diving head-first into new endeavors despite numerous setbacks — the kind of entrepreneurial spirit we expect from an immigrant passionately chasing the American Dream.
As the movie unfolds, Ben moves toward accepting Herschel’s values and perspective. The transformation signals a hope that maybe by rediscovering some aspects of our past that have been brushed aside, perhaps too carelessly, we might find a way through some of our modern struggles. It’s a simple idea, but openness to returning to tradition and recognizing that there might be valuable lessons to learn from our ancestors isn’t always a popular cultural message.
When Herschel discovers that Ben’s app was an attempt to honor the memory of his late parents, and his reluctance to sell it wasn’t simple cowardice but a fear of losing a meaningful connection to them, the tacit emphasis on the value of family becomes a bridge between the estranged characters. By the end, Ben has finally let the app go and starts a family business with Herschel. More significantly, the film ends with Herschel and Ben praying together for their departed family members. Almost certainly, Ben is just going through the motions here — but it’s not something that he would have done when the movie began. Some will complain that such half-hearted gestures are meaningless, especially in the absence of a genuine religious conversion, but maybe they are enough, who knows where they’ll lead in time.
Overall, there was a lot to like in An American Pickle. It could have been funnier at times and there were some parts of the story that seemed to drag on a bit long, but it makes an important point about the value of family and suggests that the past might hold some clues on how to better navigate the present. As we learn more about how meaning and social connections relate to both economic success and life satisfaction, it’s an observation that’s likely to keep coming up.