At age 19, Jake Ehrenreich, a professional musician traveling the world, mustered the courage to ask his father a question in a poignant letter.
It was 1975. His parents were Holocaust survivors living in his native Brooklyn, and Ehrenreich always wanted to know why his father never spoke of what he endured in the prison camps.
By contrast, his mother often talked and cried about her experience. She gave birth to his older sister in a Siberia work camp. Another sister was born in a displaced persons camp in Germany.
“He wrote back a very beautiful letter, in which, he said that he was afraid that his ‘words would pale in comparison to who and what was lost,’" Ehrenreich recalled.
Ehrenreich's one-man show “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn” runs Oct. 7-24 at the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta in Dunwoody.
After their letters, Ehrenreich’s father, Jonah, opened up more and eventually wrote hundreds of newspaper editorials on the Holocaust and what he saw.
Years later, Ehrenreich would pen his show and tell how he straddled two worlds as a child; that of his Yiddish-speaking household, where he was the only American-born family member, and his Brooklyn neighborhood where he was happiest when he played outside and fit in with kids on his block.
Those worlds translate into music and laughter on stage. The set represents the front of the Ehrenreich’s Brooklyn home. Musical instruments are strewn across the front porch.
The critically acclaimed show ran off-Broadway for nearly two years before the entertainer took it on the road.
Last spring, he released a book, “A Jew Grows in Brooklyn: Curious Reflections of a First Generation American,” and a documentary on the show is currently in the works.
Q: Seems like there is a lot of levity in the show?
A: Yes. It’s heavy stuff that I’m talking about, but I made a conscious decision to really try to tell the story in a way that brings a lot of the humor and joy that we had.
Q: Why are the Catskills resorts significant?
A: It was a place where people like my parents learned to laugh and live again. It was an important time for me because there were kids there who were just like me. My name growing up was Yonkee -- an Americanized version of the Yiddish name Yankele. In my neighborhood, it was like being the odd man out. But in the Catskills it was the most American name you could find.
Q: Would you describe the music as the soundtrack of your life?
A: It absolutely is. Music was huge for me growing up – everything from baby boomer rock-and-roll to Christmas songs, which many, I discovered, were written by Jews.
Q: It seems like you are having fun on stage?
A: I am. I made a conscious decision to live life joyfully. [My family lived] challenging circumstances but if I were to talk to you about your life, you are going to tell me things that were challenging for your family also. If you focus on your challenges all the time you can’t live. People will come up after the show to say, “I have the same story.” I think that’s the most rewarding thing.
“A Jew Grows in Brooklyn”
Runs Oct. 7-24. Showtimes vary. $27-$38. Morris and Rae Frank Theatre at Zaban Park, Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta, 5342 Tilly Mill Road, Dunwoody. 678-812-4002, www.atlantajcc.org .
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