“The Jewish Americans”: PBS series on immigrant experience

Spanning three nights, six hours and 350 years, the PBS series “The Jewish Americans” is an ambitious project by any measure. And yet, despite the swath it cuts through the January TV schedule, it is not a landmark program of lasting significance.

Veteran filmmaker David Grubin concocts a blend of factual, sociological and anecdotal (or oral) history that is always interesting, occasionally fascinating, but rarely revelatory. That might be the best one could hope for, given that the series has to be accessible to non-Jewish audiences without being so superficial that it turns off Jewish viewers.

“The Jewish Americans” is consistently intelligent, although occasionally bewildering in what it emphasizes or skips, but lacks daring. Grounded by an adherence to chronology and an insistence on soft-pedaling controversy, it will neither rile nor inspire anyone not already heavily tilted either way.

“The Jewish Americans” airs on three consecutive Wednesday nights, beginning Jan. 9, on KQED.

The choice of title (as opposed to “The American Jews”) encapsulates the programés thesis that immigrant Jews adapted and subjected their Judaism to American mores while making major contributions to the nationés development. The critical dance between identity and assimilation is referenced a hundred different times over the course of the series, but the punch is almost always watered down.

Brazilian Jews were the first to venture here, arriving in New Amsterdam in 1654. Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdamés Dutch governor, protested that they would éinfecté the colony, but he was overruled and by 1730 the first synagogue in America had been consecrated.

For a period in the 19th century, Charleston, S.C., boasted the largest Jewish community in the U.S. Jews settled around the country, often starting out as traveling peddlers, then founding stores. Tucson, Tombstone and El Paso elected Jewish mayors. Judah P. Benjamin, the senator from Louisiana who became the powerful Secretary of State of the Confederacy, gets a segment to himself.

“The Jewish Americans” (narrated by actor Liev Schreiber without a hint of his Jewish ethnicity) hops a train to New York after the first hour to catch the wave of immigrants that flooded Ellis Island from 1880 to 1920. Here’s everything you already knew about life on the Lower East Side – the Daily Forward, the Yiddish theater and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911.

The most compelling detail is mentioned in passing: The established, assimilated and accepted Jews – German, mostly – by and large looked down on the unwashed masses of poor Russian and Eastern European Jews. They didn’t want to be identified with the unschooled ruffians, hustlers, criminals and boors that crammed the Lower East Side. (One might see a parallel in the attitude toward Soviet Jews who immigrated in the last 20 years, but it isnét broached in the celebratory segment in the final episode devoted to the campaign of American Jews to save Soviet Jewry in the ’70s and ’80s.)

The second night (‘The Best of Times, The Worst of Times’) does the great service of reminding contemporary viewers of Henry Fordés anti-Semitism (although it barely mentions Father Coughlin, who surely reached as many people with his radio slurs). The trial of Leo Frank in Atlanta in 1915, and his lynching, is presented as sober evidence for Jews in the South and beyond that assimilation was an illusion.

But the crossover success of éThe Goldbergsé on the radio and later on television, along with Bess Myersonés Miss America title and the insular, middle-class vibe of the Catskills resorts, reassured Jews (or at least those on the East Coast) that Jews had never had it better than they did in 20th-century America.

“The Jewish Americans” loses some of its freshness in the final two-hour episode, -Home, perhaps because the events of the last 60 years are so familiar to us. World War II, the Holocaust, Israelés founding, the civil rights movement and the fraying of the black-Jewish bond have been covered in countless documentaries and have few surprises left to offer.

Grubin could have opted to inject a blast of heat and unpredictability by focusing on issues currently galvanizing the Jewish community – intermarriage, the gulf between secular and ultra-religious Jews, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But “The Jewish Americans” is not remotely interested in ruffling feathers.

Even at six hours, “The Jewish Americans” necessarily omits key figures or events. Every viewer will have quibbles, but ités ridiculous to devote so many sequences to popular culture without mentioning the Jewish influence on American intellectual life. Novelists Meyer Levin, Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Stanley Elkin and Joseph Heller – not to mention scientist Albert Einstein and political philosopher Leo Strauss – deserve more than their snapshot (if that) flitting across the screen.

Alas, David Grubin’s tele-version of American Jewish history is the only one we will have for a long time.


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