PBS's 'The Jewish Americans': A Triumphant Tale

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 9, 2008

One can tell the story of the Jewish people as a litany of miseries or as an epic on the theme of rising above those miseries.

Writer-director David Grubin wisely chose the latter approach in his six-hour documentary series "The Jewish Americans," a kind of "Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Jews" view except that, as the title says, it concentrates on Jews who, starting in 1654, migrated to America.

They sought, as did so many others, a promised land of milk and honey and streets paved with gold and all the other better-world cliches. The first 23 to arrive, fleeing the Inquisition, were initially turned away from New York (as it would later be called) by the bigoted official Peter Stuyvesant. That was but the first in a long, long list of obstacles -- so successfully overcome, says narrator Liev Schreiber, that soon a Jew living in the United States would feel "as free as a Jew had ever been in the modern world."

Deftly deploying the documentarian's tools -- old photographs and film, celebrity commentators, evocative music -- Grubin does an admirable job at a manifestly hopeless task: telling the Jews' story comprehensively in a mere six hours (tonight and each succeeding Wednesday on PBS).

He accomplishes that by concentrating on epochal events and symbolic personalities. Irving Berlin, for example, is called upon to represent all the Jewish composers -- George Gershwin, Jerome Kern, ad infinitum -- who rose up from the hardscrabble world of New York's Lower East Side and created great American music, arias from the melting pot that, singer-actor Mandy Patinkin demonstrates, sometimes still sounded intrinsically Jewish.

Berlin's earliest songs were written to stay within the community as self-deprecating comic riffs. Thus it is that everybody knows "White Christmas," "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Cheek to Cheek," but few can recall "Cohen Owes Me Ninety-Seven Dollars." How could Berlin write the most popular American Christmas song ever? He thought of Christmas as a secular patriotic holiday, relatives say, as he thought of Easter for "Easter Parade."

It's a pity that Grubin couldn't have found a better print of Kate Smith singing Berlin's "God Bless America" from the wartime flag-waver "This Is the Army." The musical extravaganza, produced by Warner Bros. and starring Ronald Reagan and Berlin himself (singing "Oh, How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning"), fell into a state of neglect that is especially deplorable considering its status as a national landmark. It was restored in recent years at UCLA, but the blurry-mess version is what shows up in the documentary.

The film, however, does include miles of priceless historical footage. Parents planning to watch with their children should take note that explicit footage of Nazi concentration camps, as shown in American movie theaters after the war, is included in Parts 2 and 3. As in previous centuries, Jews were persistently plagued by anti-Semitism, even in the "land of the free" and even by such prominent 20th-century Americans as the deranged Henry Ford, the raving Father Coughlin (a depraved radio priest) and pacifist crackpot Charles Lindbergh.

A previous documentary on a similar theme alleged that Franklin D. Roosevelt knew of Adolf Hitler's "final solution" well before the president publicly acknowledged it and that much more could have been done by America to save European Jews who would go on to perish in Nazi death camps. That seemed hard for some of us to accept, perhaps because it meant disrespect to the heroic Roosevelt. FDR's Cabinet included several Jews, one of whom -- Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau -- kept his ethnicity in low profile until he was told convincingly of what Hitler was doing.

Grubin says in "Jewish Americans" that Morgenthau implored his good friend FDR to do something -- specifically, come to the aid of 70,000 Romanian Jews who could have been rescued. When FDR finally gave the go-ahead, pinheads in the State Department blocked the measure. Not until 1944 was Morgenthau able to form something called the War Refugee Board, whose purpose was to save Jewish lives, but by then little could be accomplished.

Many dark chapters in the American Jewish experience are recalled in detail in the film -- among them the tragic Leo Frank case in Georgia. Although evidence was essentially nonexistent in the murder trial, rabid crowds called for a guilty verdict and the death penalty, inflamed by Frank's status as not only a Jew but also a Yankee from up North. Courageously, Georgia Gov. John M. Slaton commuted Frank's death sentence to life.

But the mob would not be quieted. Frank was abducted from his jail cell and taken to one of the South's innumerable lynching trees. Picture postcards that showed the hanging in grisly detail were sold by the hundreds. A fictionalized version of the story is told in the still-shocking film "They Won't Forget," but with the Jewishness taken out. The Frank case became a national nightmare, stirring up pockets of hatred and prejudice and reinvigorating the Ku Klux Klan, whose white-hooded members are seen marching down Pennsylvania Avenue in this documentary.

Repeatedly, Jews improved their status with contributions to the culture -- something as benignly symbolic as Bess Myerson being named the first Jewish winner of the Miss America pageant in 1945, or the richness of Jewish humor, developed in the Yiddish theater and later Catskill resorts. Sid Caesar is the symbolic personification of this great tradition, along with colleague Carl Reiner, heard with Mel Brooks in their classic routines starring "the 2,000-Year-Old Man."

Baby boomers and their parents probably remember the 2,000-Year-Old Man, but Grubin recalls another comic icon that was far more pervasive in its time and may have done worlds of good when it comes to Jewish-gentile harmony: Gertrude Berg as Bronx yenta Molly Goldberg, on radio and later on television. How reassuring to see her again, leaning out her tenement window to shout "Yoo-hoo!" to Mrs. Whoever across the way -- and beaming with good will and sage counsel. This great creation, wildly popular in Jewish and non-Jewish homes for years, is hard to find now, even in the age of the DVD and the rescued past.

Contributing commentators include Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, particularly effective when talking about the first Jewish justice, Louis Brandeis, named to the court by Woodrow Wilson. Another member of the court at that time, James Clark McReynolds, was such an anti-Semitic bigot, Ginsburg recalls, that he would stand and leave the room whenever Brandeis spoke.

The last half-hour of the film, dealing with present-day generational conflicts and the so-called "Jewish by Choice" movement, dawdles severely. More examples of contemporary Jewish humor would have helped, but then the documentary might have become "too entertaining." This is PBS, after all. But no, there's no need to call Grubin's film a mitigated success; it's an emphatic one. Some of it is interesting, much of it is fascinating, and parts of it are truly aglow -- with the Jewish spirit, with American bravado and, inevitably in telling such a story, with the human condition.

Part 1 of The Jewish Americans (two hours) premieres tonight at 9 on WETA (Channel 26) and WMPT (Channel 22). Parts 2 and 3 air the next two Wednesdays at 9.

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