In 1922, Harvard announced a simple way to reduce anti-Semitism on campus: admit fewer Jews.
Jan 14, 2008 Issue
In the 20th Century no group was better at chronicling its own experience than the American Jews. You want self-loathing, assimilation and paranoia? Turn to Philip Roth. You want bright young women resisting and yet conforming to family expectations? Check out Allegra Goodman. You want the passionate rediscovery of Jewish history and values? Turn to Steven Spielberg.
The story of the Yiddish-speaking bubby with the Harvard educated grandson has been told so often—in fiction and in life—it's become an American cliché and a reference point for subsequent generations of immigrants.
American Jews have documented their own journey so thoroughly and in so many brilliant, hilarious and accessible variations, the efforts of a documentary filmmaker to package it all in one television extravaganza is a bit puzzling. Nevertheless, starting this week and unfolding in three weekly, two-hour segments, PBS stations will air "The Jewish Americans," directed by David Grubin. With all the slow-moving self-importance of a Ken Burns documentary, "The Jewish Americans" tries to do too much: it sums up the highs and lows of the Jewish-American story, beginning with the first Jewish immigrants to New York City in the 18th century and ending with a Hasidic rapper, and still it manages to offend no one. Like an evening spent at dinner with one's beloved grandparents, "The Jewish Americans" is a pleasant if old-fashioned encounter with Jewish boosterism.
At its best, the series unearths stories not part of the Jewish folk canon, like that of Judah Benjamin, who was the attorney general for the Confederacy and, when the South lost the Civil War, fled to
Too often, though, the documentary functions as a kind of "Jewish Hall of Fame." Featured talking heads include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sid Caesar and the playwright Tony Kushner. Exemplars of Jewish achievement include Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Irving Berlin and Louis Brandeis. Worthy exemplars all, but in the 21st century, when so many have accomplished so much, and when Jewish identity is frequently a matter of hyphenation—Kushner laughingly calls himself a "gay American Jewish socialist"—this earnest ritual of praising famous Jews feels insufficiently meaningful.
Guardians of Jewish culture mourn the loss of Jewish identity—no one speaks Yiddish anymore, they say, and intermarriage is epidemic—and "The Jewish Americans" is clearly a valentine to a time when despite (or perhaps because of) anti-Semitism, Jews knew who they were. Now, the film rightly points out, the absence of significant antiSemitism in
© 2008 Newsweek, Inc.