The Jewish Americans (1 & 2)
Originally broadcast on PBS, The Jewish-Americans covers 350 years in the lives of Jews who have struggled to maintain their religious identity and still be fully accepted as Americans. It is a story at once specific and universal, one that can be appreciated by any ethnic or religious minority who tests whether "democracy, like America, can find room for everyone."
Beginning with 23 Jewish exiles seeking safe haven in New Amsterdam in 1654, writer-director David Grubin does an admirable job of charting the often rocky and treacherous course for Jews in this country, and their personal "tug of war between being American and being a Jew." Do they consider themselves Jewish-Americans, or American Jews? Carl Reiner, Mandy Patinkin, Sid Caesar, Jules Feiffer, playwright Tony Kushner, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg are among the more recognizable personalities who offer illuminating commentary and bittersweet reminiscences. But Grubin presents what he calls "an ensemble of voices" rather than "a star-studded parade." Authors, historians, sociologists, academics, and rabbis share a rich personal and cultural history.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber, The Jewish-Americans is comprised of three two-hour episodes, "They Came to Stay," "The Best of Times, the Worst of Times," and "Home." Each is a richly textured tapestry of talking heads, still photos, archival footage, and audio and film clips (the inevitable Gentleman's Agreement), and reveal how Jews have become woven into the fabric of Jewish life. Songwriter Irving Berlin wrote "God Bless America," and the holiday classics "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster created Superman.
Another crossover pop culture success was Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg of the Bronx, offering sage advice and homespun wisdom on radio, television and the movies. One illuminating segment reveals how assimilated movie mogul Louis B. Mayer's Andy Hardy films, with their "fairy tale visions of small town life," were the "American fantasies of a Jewish immigrant." Anti-Semitism rears its ugly head throughout the series. Grubin captures the hysteria surrounding the murder trial of Georgia factory worker Leo Franks, who, in 1915, was falsely convicted in the murder of 13-year-old Mary Phagan, and subsequently lynched by a homicidal mob. The segment that addresses the Holocaust documents America's indifference in dealing with Hitler's "Final Solution." Grubin notes how political activism has long been a part of Jewish-American life, and how Jews took an active role in the Civil Rights struggle.
As the old saying goes, you don't have to be Jewish to be compelled and profoundly moved by this ambitious documentary miniseries. But it couldn't hurt. --Donald Liebenson