To prep himself for writing this review, Judge Erich Asperschlager, he brew some coffee.
"Today, there are 6 million Jewish Americans, but even now, the old challenge remains: how to navigate the shifting currents of two traditions—to be both Jewish and Americans."
The Jewish Americans begins with the story of 23 Jewish refugees who fled to America to escape religious persecution by the Inquisition. It was a path many would follow in their search for a better life across the Atlantic. And though their fight for acceptance would last some 300 years, Jewish Americans ultimately found what they were looking for.
Jews in America faced more than discrimination by those outside their community. Balancing the values and traditions of Jewish faith with their desire to start new "American" lives would be a constant struggle. Assimilation was both the dream and the fear. While some held fast to the old ways, many chose to abandon their faith, embracing a cultural Judaism that allowed them to enjoy the upward mobility of an American middle class. Others opted to reform their religion, changing rituals and traditions to fit new surroundings.
Through it all, Jewish Americans thrived: surviving economic turmoil, cultural and institutional anti-semitism, and the horrors of a Holocaust that left them the largest Jewish population in the world.
Facts of the Case
Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, filmmaker David Grubin's three-part documentary tells the story of The Jewish Americans through interviews, personal photographs, and historical footage.
• "They Came to Stay/A World of Their Own"
By the 1870s, there were more than half a million Jews in America, many of whom lived in New York City's Lower East Side. Here, Jewish Americans created a world of their own, of Jewish-owned businesses, newspapers, and theaters. Cramped living and working conditions also gave birth to an influential labor movement—bolstered in the aftermath of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
• "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times"
Unfortunately, Jewish accomplishments did not erase deep-seated hatreds. Anti-semitism reached from the poorest Americans to the heights of society. Early-20th Century anti-semitism may have came to a head in Europe—where Hitler's rise to power paved the way for the mass slaughter of European Jews—but American isolationism kept Jewish refugees from escaping overseas. Though 20,000 Jews were eventually rescued thanks to Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau and the War Refugee Board he helped create, in many ways it was too little, too late.
More than any other white group, Jewish Americans added their numbers to the Civil Rights movement. As a long-suffering people, Jews felt closeness to American blacks, and risked their lives to help, especially in the South. Eventually, though, the bonds crumbled, as black leaders voiced concerns about accepting help from whites, and questioned the severity of Jewish discrimination as compared to that experienced by African-Americans. So Jewish Americans turned back to help their own community—working throughout the '70s and '80s to free their oppressed Soviet brethren.
Today, Jews in America enjoy unprecedented freedom within society and their faith communities. Expressing their faith and culture in almost unlimited ways, they are both fully Jewish, and fully American.
As suggested by the collage of photographs behind its opening titles, The Jewish Americans is the collective story of many individuals. Grubin builds his documentary through interviews with modern Jews (including Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Tony Kushner), and historical accounts—highlighting individuals whose story represents an important aspect of Jewish American history. These stories range from the recognizable faces of big names like Sid Caesar, Levi Strauss, and Louis B. Mayer, to lesser-known figures like Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, Confederate bigwig Judah P. Benjamin, and Aaron Sapiro (the lawyer who sued outspoken anti-semite Henry Ford, and won).
The Jewish Americans does an impressive job of retelling and re-examining important events in American history through a Jewish perspective. The section on World War II, for example, is more than a recounting of the horrors of the Holocaust. We see the tragedy through the eyes of a Jewish American soldier entering the Mauthausen death camp to liberate the emaciated survivors at war's end. And where most accounts leave the story in Europe, Grubin brings the tragedy home—addressing the uncomfortable subject of lingering American anti-semitism that kept Jewish refugees from being granted asylum.
Another fascinating sequence deals with Jewish involvement in the African American Civil Rights movement. My own ignorance may be to blame, but I never knew how fully immersed Jewish Americans were in the '60s struggle for equal rights. How many times have I seen Mississippi Burning? And yet I had no idea two out of the three murdered men were Jewish. The earnestness with which both groups fight for equality is striking, not only for the similarities that brought them together, but for the way their bond crumbled as differences tore them apart.
For those who caught the series on TV and are on the fence about buying the DVDs, there's not much in the way of extras to sweeten the deal. There are three bonus features—all of them short. There's an "interview" with the director that's really more of a promotional series overview, a brief piece at Jewish cooking, and what appears to be a deleted scene showing a modernized Rosh Hashanah service. The lack of any meaty extras is certainly disappointing—I find it hard to believe no interesting interviews or material hit the cutting room floor.
The documentary is presented in widescreen format, as it aired on PBS. Quality of the historical photos and footage aside, the picture is clean and vibrant, and the sound does exactly what it should—balancing the music, interviews and narration.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The Jewish Americans is strongest from its second hour through about the fifth. The beginning and end are the weakest sections of the documentary. With fewer recognizable names and an endless parade of badly painted portraits, the early years are a slow start, despite Grubin's rocketing through two hundred years in less than an hour. And while the bulk of the documentary is a compelling tale of struggle and triumph, the end—with its stories about modern Jews expressing their faith through meditation, experimental performance, and reggae rap—is pretty anticlimactic.
It's hard not to notice this documentary's specific point of view. While not exactly a bias, The Jewish Americans is a celebration and examination of American history from an unapologetically Jewish perspective. As a result, there's a tendency to cover one side of a controversial topic more than the opposing point of view. For example, though the creation of Israel was cause for celebration within the Jewish community, it was certainly considered by many to be unjust. Grubin escapes these objections by including a few lines of narration about "disagreement" within the Jewish community, but there's no real time given to debate. On the other hand, this is a six-hour documentary covering the entirety of Jewish American history. Viewers interested in subjects not fully explored can turn to any number of books, or other documentaries.
Telling the story of a single group among many melting in the metaphorical American pot is no easy task. Especially when that story covers almost the entirety of American history. Though uneven at times, The Jewish Americans is both compelling and uplifting. It's also personal. As touched as I was, I can only imagine how moving this tribute must be to a Jewish audience. Grubin's documentary is the proud story of a resilient and passionate people who came to this country seeking a better life—and ended up making life in America better for us all.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview With Filmmaker David Grubin
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