It's about questions, not answers

Director David Grubin examines how the American Jews were different from other immigrants.

David Grubin 88 248 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Grubin 88 248
(photo credit: Courtesy)
"I wouldn't have had the hutzpa to make this on my own," says David Grubin, the Emmy-award winning director of the PBS television series The Jewish Americans. He is in Israel this week to present his series at the Jerusalem Jewish Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque, which runs through December 19, and he is also giving a master class Wednesday. In a wide-ranging conversation this week in Jerusalem, the New York-based director explained that he worked with historians who are creating the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia, including Jonathan Sarna and Hasia Diner, to put the series together. "The story of the Jews in America is 350 years old," said Grubin. "It's a story many people think they know." But most viewers, if not all, will find themselves surprised by what they see in The Jewish Americans. In tackling this daunting subject, the veteran director, who has made films on everything from the human brain to Harry Truman to fashion, knew he didn't want to create "an encyclopedia" of Jewish life. Instead, he saw the film "as a collection of beads on a string. Each bead is a story, and the string is the historical context." As he assembled the material, he realized that the overarching story would be "the tension between assimilation and identity. Jews wanted to be in America, they wanted to belong, but unlike other groups, they wanted to hold onto their identity. That was the dynamic I was exploring." In each section of the fascinating three-part, six-hour series, all of which is being shown this week at the festival and will be screened in upcoming months on Israeli television, Grubin focuses on emblematic stories of particular Jewish Americans, including such well-known names as Hank Greenberg (the baseball star who faced the dilemma of whether or not to play on Yom Kippur), Bess Myerson (the first Jewish Miss America), and Irving Berlin (the immigrant who wrote "God Bless America" and "White Christmas"). But Grubin also looks at equally compelling but less famous stories of Americans like Abigail Franks, a member of one of New York's most prominent Jewish families in the 1700s, who cut her daughter off after she married a Christian. He also chronicles Jews who were part of the Western migration, and those who fought on both sides of the Civil War. (To learn more about these stories and the film, go to the excellent Web site at Other phenomena he explores are the great migration at the turn of the 20th century from Eastern Europe, the role of the Yiddish press, how the Catskills and the Borscht Belt comics shaped American entertainment, anti-Semitism and how it has eroded, and the role of the Jews in the Civil Rights Movement, as well as how Jews and blacks became estranged later on. IT'S IN the nature of a project like this that almost everyone will have ideas about what should have been included. "People are always asking, why did you leave this out?" Grubin says. "The key is knowing what you want to do. You have to compress, distill and synthesize. At a certain point, you have to decide, these are the stories you're going to tell... Each subject wants to take you to another place." Citing the Leo Frank lynching in the South as an example, he says, "That story could have been an hour in itself." PBS had originally asked him to make the program four hours, but when he showed them a cut of the early episodes, they gave him another two hours. Although Grubin had expected to conduct his research mostly in big cities, he was surprised at how much he ended up in smaller towns. "In the end, we looked in over 250 archives," he says. Another aspect of working on the series that surprised him was how some issues were a concern in every generation, particularly assimilation and intermarriage: "Jews were always worried about holding onto their identity." The contemporary sections were the trickiest, in a way, because "it's hard to know what will be important in the future." He was left with a feeling of "how vital and exciting it is to be a Jew in America today." He examines various branches of Jewish worship, from Reform congregations that incorporate meditation into services to the revitalization of Orthodox Judaism, exemplified by the hassidic reggae/hip-hop singer Matisyahu. Another important question for Grubin is that today, "being Jewish is a matter of choice," in an era when there is virtually no "institutional anti-Semitism." When an 80-year-old viewer asked him whether he thought the series would be good for the Jews, Grubin realized it was a question no young person would ask. Today, "they have no experience of anti-Semitism." He quotes one of the commentators on the series, Rabbi Irwin Kula, saying, "When they hate you, you know who you are - you are the one they hate." Grubin says, "How Jews define themselves in this era is a complex question... I'm not interested in the answers so much as trying to provoke questions."