It was either a joke gone bad or one of the funniest moments in Jake Ehrenreich’s acting career. Someone’s cell phone had rung in the middle of his show, A Jew Grows in Brooklyn, and, instead of ignoring it, or and asking the person to turn it off, Ehrenreich answered the phone himself.
“Hi, how are you?” he asked, speaking into the phone from the stage.
“Who is this?” the person on the other end asked.
“You’re calling in the middle of the show.” Ehrenreich said.
“Altar Boyz,” he deadpanned as the audience laughed.
Before A Jew Grows in Brooklyn begins, an announcement is played for the audience. Instead of reminding them to silence their phones, a common procedure in most theatres, it encourages them to keep them on, and take calls in the middle of the show. According to Ehrenreich, a few audience members don’t realize that it is a joke. However, it is not considered a problem either.
“In my show, it’s the kind of show where you can do that and get away with it,” Ehrenreich said. “People love it, and it’s normal.”
A Jew Grows in Brooklyn is an autobiographical one-man show that tells the stories of Ehrenreich’s family’s past and his understanding of his own cultural identity. The son of two survivors of the Holocaust, Ehrenreich grew up in Brooklyn, embarrassed by his heritage and wishing to be considered an average American.
“This was the sort of place that I seemed to avoid most of my life,” he said of his Jewish background. “And about two years ago, I decided to do it.”
The show is a multi-media one, in which Ehrenreich sings, dances, plays instruments and tells jokes, as well as including photographs from his past and family events. He wanted to tell his individual story using as much humor as possible. While he felt the need to share the story of his parents, he did not want the audience to leave the show feeling saddened.
Mixing light-hearted stories as well as serious ones, Ehrenreich attempts to balance the elements of comedy and tragedy throughout his performance. But while he does talk about the Holocaust and what his family survived, Ehrenreich does not consider his show to be a sad one. He does acknowledge the Holocaust during the show but he does not consider that he focus of his performance. He struggled with transitioning to and from the Holocaust while writing the script, deciding on focusing on the Holocaust near the end of the first act, but abruptly switching to jokes before the intermission begins. The jokes is short, but it jars people out of the somber mood so they can go into intermission without being saddened.
“I want to bring people there, but I don’t want to leave them there,” he said of the Holocaust. “Going between these emotions is a balancing act. But that’s what this is. There’s no way to avoid that.”
Personal tragedy has touched Ehrenreich’s life frequently, causing him to lose his mother and both of his sisters to early Alzheimer’s disease. Describing the stress from those situations as “tremendous,” he credits his own survival to his being distanced by his age and his American upbringing. However, he states his awareness of his family and his own life has increased greatly, saying, “I found this thing, and I talk about it.”
“I just think that when you have a history like this, you need to be able to laugh,” he said. “If you can’t, you go out of your mind. One of the common threads is the ability to laugh at yourself. There’s a lot of laughing. You’ve got to go there. In my show, they’re right next to each other – it’s obvious. In any of these shows, there is the culture which has all of these challenges…I have so many people that say, ‘I cried so much at both parts. I cried nice and I cried sad. Bu I was laughing while I was doing it.’ I’m putting them together.”
He said his experience with this show has been deeply rewarding and unique. “I’m sure I will never have anything like this again. I will have other things in my life, but it’s never going to be like this.”
The response to A Jew Grows in Brooklyn has been unlike any other show he has ever done. “People stay and wait for me after and tell me the most personal things about their lives,” he said. He described the people who speak to him after his performance as fitting into four different categories: people whose parents survived the Holocaust or who are survivors themselves, people who grew up in Brooklyn, people who were visitors of the Catskills and people who are not personally related to the show’s topic in any way, but who are deeply moved by it.
Witnessing how people interpret his material personally has been a great experience, he said.
“For a 90 year old Holocaust survivor coming to the show, it is different. It’s one emotion for one person and an entirely different thing in another person….I think that is part of the creative process,” he said. “You create something and then what’s great about it is that people will take it and morph it into something that works for them. What these songs mean to me is related to what I was going through in my life. And for someone else the same song relates to something entirely different in theirs.”
Ehrenreich’s show is an interactive one, during which he permits the audience to speak out and share their own opinions and stories. He said he does not mind the interaction, as long as it is during an appropriate time in the show. He is sensitive to it, due to his experiences with his sisters and his mother when they were suffering from Alzheimer’s. If someone shares that his or her parent was in a concentration camp, he will engage the person and ask which camp.
“Most people love to participate,” he said. “They love to yell out. And I love it. I think it’s a lot of fun.”
It is fun, and it is also tiring. Exploring his past onstage every night has been challenging for Ehrenreich.
“Friends ask me, ‘How do you do this over and over, 7 times a week?’” he said. “It’s not easy.”
His love for his story and for performing, as well as the experience he shares with the audience, keeps him going.
“All of us have challenges in our lives,” he said of his drive for doing his show. “We have a decision that we can make to really try to focus on the joy, the things that are wonderful, rather than being the victim. I’ve chosen not to be the victim. You see your responsibility to live, and to live joyously and be grateful.”