My mother came to the United States in September, 1929. Six years old, she made the journey after both of her parents had traveled here earlier, sailing alone across the ocean (to this day my mother refuses to take a cruise). My grandparents, who had left their then three-year-old daughter behind in the shtetl (Jewish village) of Taurage (Tavrig), Lithuania, came here escaping religious persecution and economic hardship to find the true “land of milk and honey.”
Far from finding the legendary streets paved with gold as expressed in Yiddish poetry and song as the “Goldene Medina” — the golden land — they discovered a land of hard work and long hours, but the hope that with that hard work and long hours, they would make the future better for their children and grandchildren.
The Jewish Americans, originally airing on PBS in January is now available from PBS Home Video on DVD. The two-disc, six hour documentary tells the story of my people — and, to a certain extent, yours as well (whether you are Jewish, Catholic, Russian or Italian or of any heritage that ventured forth to the promise of this country).
Over the course of the three two-hour episodes,the story of how this tiny minority (less than two percent of the US population) has struggled over three centuries to assimilate into the fabric of America while maintaining its religious traditions and unique culture. Much the story is common to all immigrant groups. You don’t have to be Jewish for this beautifully rendered documentary by filmmaker David Grubin to resonate strongly, as it will for anyone whose lineage is but a generation or two (or three) removed from a distant land.
The Jewish Americans traces the 350-year history of Jewish life in America. It is filled with their successes and struggles in business, entertainment, literature, and politics. The documentary weaves photographs, film, television, theater, and musical clips with the reflections and reminiscences of celebrities, historians, politicians, and Jewish leaders, including Mandy Patinkin, Carl Reiner, playwright Tony Kushner, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Letty Cottin Pogrebin. The result is a rich and deeply-layered portrait of the Jewish life in America, as we get portraits of Jewish pioneers and frontiersmen; Jewish gangsters and southern belles; comics and writers; Jews who fought on both sides of the Civil War; and Jews who were at the forefront of the labor movement and the causes of civil rights and civil liberties for all.
Narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, the three segments include “They Came to Stay,“ presenting the earliest days of the Jewish experience beginning in the colonial days and through the 19th century. “The Best of Times, the Worst of Times” continues the story as Jews continued to find success in business and entertainment as the ever-present specter of anti-Semitism grew into something more overt.
The concluding chapter of The Jewish Americans, “Home,” depicts Jewish life in more modern times, as discrimination and overt anti-Semitism began to abate and Jews found new expression of their culture, faith, and ideals through Israel, entertainment, and social activism. As life grew more comfortable, more “American” and less traditionally Jewish, the form of that expression also changed, to the delight of some and the dismay of other, more traditional, Jews. But, as Grubin points out, American Jewish life does not necessarily mean forsaking one life for the other. Coming full circle with their ability to blend the antiquity of tradition with modern American life and even pop culture are people like reggae superstar Mattisyahu, who has found an uneasy symbiosis between the ancient Jewish texts of his lyrics and the hip-hop and reggae styles of his music, appealing in his Hasidic garb to Jews and non-Jews alike.
But for most American Jews, the documentary concludes, the challenge remains and constantly shifts as to how to best reconcile tradition and modernity. How can one blend the two together, while sacrificing not too much of either? It is, concludes one rabbi, being a “Jew by choice.”
The Jewish Americans is a worthwhile DVD set for anyone whose own parents came from a distant land, whether 300 years ago or last week. Michael Bacon’s evocative musical score lends a rich cohesiveness to the story. Deeper explorations of the series’ themes, including sources for further study, outtakes, clips, and educator resources are available at the PBS website. A CD of the score and a beautifully illustrated book by Beth Wenger are also available and make good companions to the DVD.