‘Jew Grows in Brooklyn’ creator reflects on East Flatbush boyhood

May 16, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Raanan Geberer

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

This is an important week for Jake Ehrenreich, creator and star of the one-man show “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” about growing up in East Flatbush as the son of Holocaust survivors.

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Not only will he get a sandwich named after him at the Carnegie Deli on Thursday, his show, which has been on the road for the past six years, is now back in New York, at the Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Theater in Manhattan.

But “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” is not Ehrenreich’s first brush with fame. Since emerging as a musical prodigy in junior high school, he has played in the orchestra for several Broadway shows, toured internationally in the role of Ringo Starr in “Beatlemania,” led the band at the Rainbow Room, and backed up such famous artists as Richie Havens, Tito Puente and Cab Calloway.

In “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” Ehrenreich, wearing a Tilden High School sweatshirt, not only talks about his boyhood and young adulthood, he also drums, plays several other instruments and sings a variety of songs, from ’60s rock songs to his mother’s Yiddish lullabys. In the background, we see images representing familiar locales in his life, such as his boyhood house on East 91st Street in East Flatbush.

Ehrenreich’s parents, both from Poland, ran away from their respective homes one step ahead of the Nazis and spent the war in a labor camp in Siberia, where one of Jake’s two sisters was born. After the war, the family moved to the U.S., and Ehrenreich’s father opened a successful furniture store on Rockaway and Pitkin avenues. Jake was born in 1956, and spent his first few years in Brownsville, until the family moved to East Flatbush when he was about 5.

Ehrenreich was always conscious of the fact that his parents were Holocaust survivors and recent immigrants, unlike most of the other parents he knew. “My mother would call me ‘Yonkie’ [a Yiddish diminutive for Jacob] and my friends would make fun of me.” Jake says that in his teen years “there were three things that I thought would make me a normal American kid — sports, rock music and girls.”

On the subject of Brooklyn in those days, he says that while there was a lot of ethnic tension in the 1960s and ’70s, “Brooklyn was a melting pot of so many cultures — Irish, Italian, Jewish, Black, Puerto Rican — that I really learned what the world was like.” He returned to the borough recently to help create a PBS show based on his narratives, and when he visitied his old house, he met the man who bought it from his father. “He still remembered me,” said Ehrenreich.

Part of his show also dealt with the Catskills — both the site of the bungalow-colony vacations he took with his parents and a defining locale for Ehrenreich’s musical development thanks to the local bands who let him sit in in the early days. “I learned so much in the Catskills, that by the time I got through, you could show me any clean sheet of music and I could play it.” The Catskills were also important to survivors like his parents: “That’s where they learned to laugh again.”

By the time Ehrenreich was in his early 20s, he was already straying from his roots and soon became heavily caught up in the sex-and-drugs, rock-star lifestyle. His attitude about his background, he says, began to change in his late 20s or early 30s, when his mother began to develop Alzheimer’s. He would sing her old Yiddish lullabies back to her, and began to remember details such as trips to the Catskills and listening to WEVD, the Yiddish radio station, at home in Brooklyn.

By the time he wedded the former Lisa Randall at the age of 40, he wanted to get married in a kittel (a traditional white robe) and he went to his “own version” of a mikvah (a traditional ritual bath), although he doesn’t consider himself Orthodox. His son, Joseph Dov Bear, goes to a Solomon Schechter school (a conservative Jewish day school) in New City. He now devotes himself to “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn,” which has also spawned a book by the same title, and has more or less retired from other performing.

The sandwich-naming event will take place on Thursday at 10 a.m. at the Carnegie Deli, 854 Seventh Ave., Manhattan, and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who will be in attendance, will give him a proclamation. The sandwich, by the way, contains corned beef, turkey, pastrami, lettuce, tomato and Russian dressing on rye, with a broccoli flower on top. For more information on “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” and tickets, visit ajewgrowsinbrooklyn.com.

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