Sunday, December 13 at 1:00-9:00 p.m. on WPBT2
– Documentary Follows 350 Years of Jewish American History, From the First Settlement in the 17th Century to the Present, and Explores the Experience of Immigration and Assimilation –
THE JEWISH AMERICANS, a three-part documentary series written and directed by the Emmy Award-winning filmmaker David Grubin, examines the struggle of a tiny minority to make its way into the American mainstream. While the story of Jewish life in America is emblematic of the American immigrant story, it is also a unique story of ongoing discrimination and stereotyping coupled with some of the most remarkable accomplishments in American history, the arts, commerce, science and academia. The programs air Sunday, December 13, 2009, at 1:00-9:00 p.m. on WPBT2.
Beginning with the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam in the 17th century, the film offers a revealing portrait of a people who epitomize the immigrant experience. Even as they have faced bigotry and rejection, Jews have embraced American culture while keeping alive their traditions and heritage.
“Throughout the film there is a recurring theme,” filmmaker David Grubin said. “With each wave of Jewish immigration, Jews expressed an immense desire to become American while retaining their own identity. Out of this struggle emerged not just a Jewish-American culture, but also the integration of Jewish culture into the larger American landscape.”
The film begins with the story of the first Jewish immigrants to arrive in the American colonies — a group of 23 Jews who fled in 1654 from Brazil to New Amsterdam, where the governor, Peter Stuyvesant, tried to reject them. His superiors in the Netherlands, however, overruled him on the grounds that the Jews would contribute to the economic well-being of the colony.
THE JEWISH AMERICANS goes on to tell the stories of Jews who have participated in major milestones and cultural phases of U.S. history. Among these are Judah P. Benjamin, who owned slaves and served as attorney general, secretary of war and secretary of state for the Confederacy; Marcus Spiegel, who fought and died for the Union and whose brother later founded the Spiegel Catalogue Company; and Anna Solomon, a 19th-century frontier woman who operated a successful store and hotel in an Arizona town that would eventually be named for her family.
Other Jewish cultural and historic figures in THE JEWISH AMERICANS include Hank Greenberg, Detroit’s baseball slugger; Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish U.S. Supreme Court justice; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the only Jewish woman to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court; Henry Morgenthau, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of the treasury, who pushed Roosevelt to save European Jews from the Nazi concentration camps; Molly Goldberg, the first Jewish character to gain wide acceptance on radio; Carl Reiner, Sid Caesar, Jerry Stiller and other “Borscht Belt” comedians who would define American humor in the second half of the 20th century; Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster, creators of Superman; Bess Myerson, the first Jewish Miss America; Jewish Americans involved in the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s; Betty Friedan, a founder of the modern feminist movement; and Matisyahu, the popular Hasidic rapper who combines hip-hop music with traditional Jewish themes; as well as many others.
The film examines the separation of church and state and how that opened up the door for Jewish immigrants to establish a home in which they were on equal footing with their neighbors and from which they would not have to fear being driven. THE JEWISH AMERICANS also documents a long history of anti-Semitism in the United States, epitomized by the virulent attacks of automotive magnate Henry Ford, who created a newspaper for the express purpose of spreading anti-Jewish sentiment; the lynching of Leo Frank in the South; and the establishment of Jewish quotas at elite universities.
Ultimately, however, THE JEWISH AMERICANS is an exploration of the opportunities, freedoms and prosperity that Jews have found in America, after struggling through millennia of persecution. As Dr. Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania, says in the film, “To be Jewish in America today is to be as free as a Jew has ever been in the modern world.”
THE JEWISH AMERICANS features narration by Emmy- and Tony-nominated actor Liev Schreiber and interviews with prominent Jewish Americans, including playwright Tony Kushner, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, comedians Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar, actor and singer Mandy Patinkin and numerous other Jewish leaders in entertainment, academia, business and politics who share their personal reflections on what it means to be Jewish American.
Visit the website at www.pbs.org/jewishamericans.
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