Ten years ago this month, public TV aired a big, rich, generous six-hour tapestry on Irish Americans and their immigrant experience. Finally on Wednesday night, the big, rich, generous, six-hour bookend-of-sorts arrives.
But the obvious question is, what took PBS so long?
There are about 6 million Jewish Americans, whom pound for pound, person for person, probably comprise the single most dynamic and influential ethnic group on the entire planet. American history - or American life, for that matter - is inconceivable without the American Jew.
Of course, the same could be said of Irish Americans, but there are a lot more of them, so, from a TV exec’s perspective, an Irish series is an easier sell.
While a TV history of American Jews may be long overdue, it’s an especially complicated history to render as well, and here’s why: “The Jewish Americans” (Wednesday, Jan. 16 and Jan. 23 at 9 p.m. EST) demonstrates how and why American Jews have sometimes conducted their own parallel - even private - history in a sea of gentiles over the past 350 years. Jabbed periodically by anti-Semitism, Jews wanted to become part of America and hold tightly to their own heritage. Tensions were (and are) inherent in the process, and those animate this extraordinary TV program from the first minute to the last.
Beginning in 1654 with the 23 men, women and children who immigrated from Brazil to Manhattan to escape persecution, “The Jewish Americans” ends with Matisyahu - born Matthew Paul Miller - the Hasidic rapper who provocatively argues that “the struggle (in modern America) is in fighting a silent death.”
There’s a narrative thread connecting those two distant points in Jewish-American history, and the story’s as kaleidoscopic and dramatic as you might imagine. But, as we said, it’s also complicated, although maybe the person best qualified to tell it is the one doing the honors tonight.
David Grubin is one of public TV’s pre-eminent documentary filmmakers. He has produced celebrated portraits of presidents, as well as ones of Marie Antoinette and Napoleon, but one gets the impression that “The Jewish Americans” - a co-production with JTN productions and PBS’ Washington, D.C., affiliate, WETA, in association with New York affiliate WNET - was his toughest challenge yet. One reason may be that this is his own story as well.
“The theme that runs through this whole thing,” he says, “is that you’re watching this tiny minority struggle to make its way to the mainstream. And they embrace America, and love America, they also want to hold onto their identity. That’s a story that resonates with every American.”
The broadcast is structured as straight-ahead history, with a beginning, middle and end, but because the story’s so sprawling, Grubin tacks across vast chunks of terrain. He eschews what he calls “the all-star parade” of famous or influential Jews - “if you do that, you’re sunk,” he says, because the program would become a series of portraits.
Instead, he follows the “tension” that animates the Jewish-American experience, often by relying on stories of individuals, like that of one Anna Solomon, who migrates with her family to New Mexico in the 1870s to claim her own homestead. (The documentary is especially good at tracking the Diaspora of Jews within American borders.)
“The Jewish Americans” explores (or re-explores) familiar territory as well. “Our Crowd” - the secular German Jewish community and scions of New York for two centuries - gets only cursory treatment. The story of Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazis, who transformed New York City’s Lower East Side and then the rest of America, fills almost all of Wednesday night’s second hour, however. Grubin, meanwhile, resurrects the cultural treasures of that now mostly forgotten world (like Yiddish theater, with Fyvush Finkel, who spent half a century in that profession, as tour guide).
The overarching theme, Grubin says, “is `How do you become an American and not lose your heritage?’ The Jews were very good at knowing how to do that.”
That’s not to say the process was seamless. In Grubin’s hands, this history is largely positive, although he charts the first stirrings of anti-Semitism in the post-Civil War era to its hydra-headed form in the 1940s, when Jewish quotas were imposed at such places as Harvard and Jews were barred from some hotels or even restaurants. Only when that abated in the `50s did Jewish culture - in the words of the program - “go mainstream.”
Grubin, meanwhile, seems to embrace it all: Jewish comics, Hollywood, Civil Rights, Israel, and on and on. He also seems to talk to everyone - from Ruth Bader Ginsburg to Carl Reiner, though you’ll still be left wondering why so many people are left out. (Woody Allen, for example, didn’t respond to a request for an on-camera interview, Grubin says.)
The most compelling part of this vast story is religion, which forms much of the sixth hour. “The Jewish Americans” here turns from the past to the present, and the “bewildering” ways of being Jewish now, from secular to ultra-Orthodox.
“There was always,” says narrator Liev Schreiber, “a tug-of-war between being a Jew and being an American,” and apparently a tug-of-war even between Jews themselves. This is the living part of Grubin’s sweeping history, and six hours can hardly begin to do it justice.