Jews by choice

A PBS mini-series charts US Jewry's uphill success story.

By TOM TUGEND
January 7, 2008 08:29
Matisyahu 88 224

Matisyahu 88 224. (photo credit: AP/Wide World)

 
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Jewish life in North America was nearly aborted before birth when the governor of New Amsterdam sought to expel 23 Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil who had landed at the southern tip of Manhattan in 1654. In a petition to his superiors at the Dutch West India Company in Amsterdam, Peter Stuyvesant urged "that this deceitful race…be not allowed to further infest and trouble the new colony." Fortunately for posterity, Stuyvesant was overruled, and how Jews and the United States changed each other over the following 353 years is the subject of The Jewish Americans, a six-hour PBS miniseries set to air in the US on three successive Wednesdays (January 9, 16 and 23). Producer/director/writer David Grubin has packed enough historical data, anecdotes and sidelights into the series to impress the expert and astonish the layman, without ever losing the thread of the narrative. The documentary traces the Jew's struggle, from colonial merchant to the most recent immigrant, to become a fully integrated and accepted part of American society, while still retaining his ethnic and religious identity. "In the broad sweep of history, the Jewish experience in America has been a remarkable success story," said Grubin in a phone interview from his Manhattan office. The beginning was hard, however, and colonial Jews readily adopted the old Diaspora strategy of being like everyone else on the outside, and like a Jew on the inside. Even when Jews felt that they were well on their way to acceptance and equality, their sense of security could be shattered by a Ulysses S. Grant during the Civil War, the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank in Georgia, an anti-Semitic Henry Ford and his Dearborn Independent or a Charles Lindbergh before World War II. With all their hard-won self-confidence, today's Jews can still be rattled when, for instance, Jewish neocons and Israel are blamed for pushing America into war with Iraq and confrontation with Iran. But in pre-screenings of the series, Grubin said he found that while older Jews might express concerns over the Jews' status in America, they were hardly on the radar screen of younger Jews. So particularly for this younger generation, Jewish or not, the PBS series offers a striking lesson on how far America and its "Israelite" component have come. THE SERIES traces the trends and events that shaped the Jewish American community. "They Came to Stay" is the opening segment, which rapidly covers two centuries, from 1700 to the early 1900s. At the beginning of this era, New York City's population of 5,000 included about 200 Jews, and in 1730 this tiny community consecrated its first synagogue, Shearith Israel. This auspicious event was followed shortly by the beginning of the perennial intermarriage problem. In the 1820s, German and East European Jews arrived, working initially as peddlers. Within a generation, they had graduated from the "Harvard School of Jewish Business" by acquiring a horse, later a wagon and then opening a store. During the Civil War, 7,000 Jews fought for the Union and 3,000 fought for the Confederacy, and Charleston, South Carolina, had the largest Jewish population in the country. Judah P. Benjamin, as the Confederacy's secretary of state, was the first Jew to rise to high office and when the South lost he was scapegoated as Judas Iscariot. The second part of the first night's showing, "A World of Their Own," opens in the first decade of the 20th century, when some 500,000 immigrant Jews were packed into New York's Lower East Side and soon dominated the garment industry as owners and sweatshop employees. Further uptown, the German Jews of "Our Crowd" formed their own high society. Jews organized labor unions, hospitals, philanthropic institutions and Yiddish theaters which drew two million viewers a year. IT WAS "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times" in the second two-hour segment of the series, roughly spanning the period from World War I through the end of World War II. Irving Berlin and George Gershwin wrote the nation's songs, Hank Greenberg batted for the Detroit Tigers, Louis Brandeis became the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, Molly Goldberg was everyone's favorite radio mother and America's future top comedians honed their skills at Catskill resorts. But in parallel, anti-Semitism rose across the nation; country clubs, private universities and corporations largely barred Jews, and one could encounter signs with the subtle message "Hebrews, Consumptives and Dogs Not Allowed." The Depression hit the Jewish community twice, as economic victims and as scapegoats for the country's miseries. Jews rallied behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt and served in World War II, but were conflicted about how far to push in trying to help their desperate European brethren. The third part of the feature (January 23) picks up in the mid-1940s and brings the ever-evolving story up to the present. The era started on a note of triumph as Bess Myerson became the first Jewish Miss America, and continued as old restrictions and prejudices slowly faded away. Jews found new pride in the birth of Israel and the Six Day War, fought for black civil rights, moved to the suburbs, largely sparked Hollywood's and Broadway's golden ages, and invented new forms of religious and spiritual expressions, up to hassidic rapper Matisyahu. Yet the old insecurities were never completely buried. Jews and their organizations were profoundly shaken by the executions of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as atomic spies, and quickly went about purging their own radicals during the McCarthy period. AFTER SIX hours of words and images, the series is wrapped up by Rabbi Harold Schulweis, one of the leading voices of the Conservative movement. He concludes that at this point, freed largely of outside antagonisms, Jews are at liberty to decide what it means to be a Jew and how to express their Judaism. "We are all Jews by choice," he says, "and to embrace that choice is to enlarge Judaism." The roster of commentators and analysts accompanying the visual images is in itself proof of Jewish contributions to American thought and art. Among the keenest talking heads joining narrator Liev Schreiber are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Tony Kushner, journalist J.J. Goldberg, comedians Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar, sociologist Nathan Glazer, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, African-American convert Julius Lester and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann. Given the scope of the $3 million project, which was four years in the making, viewers are bound to criticize some historical omission, interpretation or misplaced emphasis. For instance, the documentary leaves the impression that the entire organized American Jewish community rallied actively and immediately behind Israel's War of Independence and the Soviet Jewry movement, while in reality it took a handful of activists to awaken an initially lethargic or fearful communal leadership. While Grubin partly acknowledged this point, he responded that in tackling such a vast and complicated topic, "some complexities will get lost." GRUBIN, 63, is a highly respected filmmaker, with a shelf full of Emmy and Peabody awards for his PBS documentaries; he conducted more than 100 interviews for the series. As a secular Jew, he learned in making the film that "there are lots of ways to be a Jew in America, and this work is an expression of my Jewishness." He was also impressed by the growing self-assuredness of Jewish identity in America. "When I interviewed [playwright] Alfred Uhry, he said that when he was a boy growing up in the South, he felt 10 percent Jewish and 90% American, but now it's 50-50," said Grubin. "So we are moving up in the Jewish scale." Dr. Uri Herscher, founding president of the Skirball Cultural Center, generally agreed with the film's optimistic thesis. "We have good reason to feel at home in America and we are justified in celebrating that fact," said Herscher. "Yet, we should be aware that we have lived through several golden ages in our history which didn't last. We must be wary at all times of the marginalization of any minority in our country." Grubin anticipates that the film will have a long shelf life as an educational tool in schools and universities, and expects it to be televised in Israel, Britain and other countries. Information on the film's DVD, a CD of its music and a companion book is being posted on www.pbs.org/jewishamericans.

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