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The ethno-doc melting pot

The telling may be nothing new, but David Grubin's six-hour 'The Jewish Americans' on PBS is nonetheless a thought-provoking tale.

January 09, 2008|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

Documentaries examining the experience of one group or another as their members leaped, or were shoved, into the roiling melting pot of American culture have become so de rigueur they are beginning to seem dutiful. Not to mention predictable. The Irish Americans, the African Americans and now the Jewish Americans all must surrender, at some point, their stern-faced photographs, their newsreels and treasured diaries, their faded letters and splotchy tintype headlines to the carefully paced gaze and well-modulated narration of the historical documentary in the Ken Burns style.

So it is not surprising that the three-night, six-hour PBS series "The Jewish Americans," by David Grubin, which premieres tonight, hits all the above-mentioned marks with, of course, the obligatory thumbnail interviews of the famous and learned, all to the culturally evocative sound of a mournful clarinet. (Remember that fiddle in "The Civil War"?)

Like all such projects, "The Jewish Americans" is designed to appeal first to the members of the group it is examining, to explain to Jewish Americans of today where they came from and what forces have shaped their very modern lives. But more so than any other group, the story of the Jewish Americans plumbs the depths of what it means to be American. Jews arrived in the New World in the 1600s, helped in the very early settling of New Amsterdam, now Manhattan. They were among the first to try the tolerance of the Protestant founders of said melting pot -- George Washington spoke directly to, and in support of, the importance of accepting Jewish Americans into this new nation -- the first to attempt the uniquely American marriage of assimilation and cultural fidelity. As we are told countless times by narrator Liev Schreiber (so grave and earnest he is all but unrecognizable), American Jews straddled two worlds: They wanted to be wholly American but also unapologetically Jewish, part of the mainstream without surrendering the things that made them so easily categorized as "the Other."

The same could be said about virtually every ethnic group in this country, but the longevity of the Jewish community in America, and the cancer-like nature of anti-Semitism -- even after years of remission it can flare with deadly consequences -- make the Jewish Americans, the group and the documentary, a primer in real American history.

Which may not be the most exciting endorsement of a television show ever written, but "exciting" is not a word that really applies to "The Jewish Americans." "Significant" would certainly work, but "thought-provoking" is probably better. It is slow going in places, particularly the first night, precisely because so much of the Jewish experience is the American experience, and so very familiar. Yet this is what makes "The Jewish Americans" worth watching: It is at once quite specific and universal. You will learn things you did not know about Jewish history, but you will also find yourself contemplating the disorderly miracle of the American ethos -- just when you think the center will not hold, that nothing will every change, suburban moms are serving ham (and mayo!) on rye bread and Hasidic Jews have their own rap artists.

It is a difficult task to keep a project titled "The Jewish Americans" from becoming simply a history of anti-Semitism, but Grubin tethers his film firmly to the everyday lives of American Jews, interviewing people whose spiritual connection to the faith runs the gamut. This makes the narrative arc a bit murky at times but in the end it makes for a much richer viewing experience.

And after-viewing experience. While I found myself yawning a bit watching Mandy Patinkin extol the Yiddishness of Irving Berlin's songs and steeling myself for the horror of the Holocaust, I thought about "The Jewish Americans" for days after viewing it. I talked about it with friends, who compared many of its themes with the Armenian experience, the Korean experience, the Mexican and Latin American experience. We now live in a country where it is not unusual to hear four languages spoken in the local Gap, a land that invented the pita taco, or more fittingly, the hot dog bagel. In asking what it means to be a Jewish American, down to the specificity of which is the noun, which the adjective, Grubin is basically asking what it means to be an American. How much should an arriving culture be expected to give up for citizenship? How much of religion is cultural rather than spiritual? Does opposition and even oppression actually help strengthen a group's identity, and what happens when those forces loosen their grip?

Those of us who identify as combo plates -- Jewish American, Irish American, African American -- want to do so proudly, as we should. Ironically, that pride, and the social acceptance of it, may well render such labels at last obsolete.


'The Jewish Americans'

Where: KCET

When: 9 to 11 tonight, Jan. 16 and Jan. 23

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)

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