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March 26, 2006

No more shame about his name
By Steve Israel
Times Herald-Record

The boy was playing stickball with his friends in Brooklyn when the moms called them home for supper.

"Steve," a mother yelled. "Mark," another screamed. "Joe," one more shouted.

The names echoed off the streets like spaldeens off a concrete stoop. Then Jacob Ehrenreich's mother called him.

"Yankl," she yelled in the thick accent of her native Poland, using the Yiddish name for Jacob.

He cringed.

"That would pierce me," says Ehrenreich, about those days in the 1950s when all his friends had American parents and his were from Poland. "That was too Jewish. You wanted to fit in. You wanted to be an American."

So Jacob Ehrenreich called himself "Jack."

You don't have to be Jewish or the child of immigrants to understand the story of Jacob "Jack" Ehrenreich. It's the story of the transformation from shame to pride, from denial of your roots to acceptance of who you are. But it's also a story that's so poignant, it landed on a stage on Broadway.

It's a story that begins in an East Flatbush apartment that, like so many in the neighborhood, had furniture covered with clear plastic and rooms filled with the chatter of Yiddish, the old language of European Jews.

This is where 3-year-old Jacob Ehrenreich first learned why he was different from the other kids.

"Why don't I have grandparents, like my friends?" he asked.

At first, his father Jonah was silent.

How could he explain to this little boy why Hitler killed 6 million Jews? How could he even try?

"We have enough questions," says 86-year-old Jonah today, his voice frail, but his Yiddish accent strong. "We don't have enough answers."

This Brooklyn apartment is where Jack Ehrenreich grew up determined to become an American. So he read his favorite book, "Kings of the Home Run," and dreamed of Mickey Mantle. His father, who had come to America with just the clothes on his back, read the Yiddish newspaper, the Forward, and tried to figure out this game where two men played catch and the others watched - when he wasn't Jew working 14-hour days, seven days a week as an upholsterer. Jack's mother, Bella, would cook boiled chicken as she cried and talked about the relatives she'd lost - her father, her brother, her sisters and mother - when she and Jonah fled Poland during the Holocaust.

Jack Ehrenreich didn't like hearing that talk.

He wanted to be out with the guys playing punch ball.

As he grew up - and grew his black hair long to play drums with rock bands - Ehrenreich was so embarrassed by his parents, he didn't bring dates home. He didn't want to explain their accents, his mother's tears or the Holocaust.

This is the way it went all through Samuel J. Tilden High School for Jack Ehrenreich. Even in the Catskills, where he played his first professional gig as a drummer, he was reminded of how different he was. His family's bungalow was perched on a hill with the bungalows of the other immigrants with their Yiddish accents - away from everyone else.

After high school, Ehrenreich, 19, landed a job as a drummer in the show band on a cruise ship. As it sailed across the Atlantic, he began to ponder something he'd always thought about, but never allowed himself to ask: Why did his father never speak of the Holocaust?

In a letter, he asked.

"My words would pale in comparison to who and what was lost," came the reply.

This is when Jack Ehrenreich first began to come to grips with who he was - and who he would become. He told the cruise-ship director about his parents. The director was stunned. He thought Jack Ehrenreich was this cool rock'n'roll dude who got all the chicks.

"I had created this persona of this young, good-looking rock guy," says Ehrenreich.

That persona began to change, even as Ehrenreich became more of a "rock guy" - wearing shoulder-length hair and black leather, playing Ringo in "Beatlemania," playing drums with Gregg Allman, playing a rock star in the Public Theatre show, "Jonah."

When his mother was confined to a nursing home, thin and silent with Alzheimer's disease, he asked a pianist entertaining the old folks to play a Yiddish song for her. Ehrenreich said he would sing. The pianist was shocked that this young dude knew Yiddish. But how could Ehrenreich not remember the language he heard every day in Brooklyn?

So he sang "Mamela" in Yiddish.

Then the pianist asked him to appear in a Yiddish play, "The Golden Land." Ehrenreich did. And for the first time in his life, he used his real name.

Jacob Ehrenreich.

The transformation continued when he met the woman he would marry, actress Lisa Randall. They talked about who they were and the life they would create together.

When they married - in the Sullivan County Catskills - they devised their own versions of traditional Jewish rites. For the purifying waters of a mikvah, they stepped into Lake Joseph, in Forestburgh. Ehrenreich wore his version of the white robe that symbolizes purity, the kittel.

After he and his wife moved to Monroe to be near his elderly father, they moved him to a home a mile away from their lakeside house. When 50-year-old Jake Ehrenreich greets Jonah today, it's with a kiss on his lips.

But perhaps the most important symbol of Jake Ehrenreich's transformation from shame to pride, which he recounts with humor in his play "A Jew Grows in Brooklyn," is the story of his 7-year-old son.

That son might sing "God Bless America" in a video at the end of his father's play. He might be a Mets fan - like his dad who croons "Meet the Mets" in Yiddish at Shea Stadium.

But that little boy also sings these Yiddish words to his grandfather: "Oy, iz dos a zeidela" (Oh boy, what a grandfather).

Jacob Ehrenreich, who called himself Jack because he was ashamed of who he was, also gave his son a very un-American name:

"Joseph Dov-Behr."

It is the name of Jacob Ehrenreich's Polish uncles, who were murdered in the Holocaust.

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