Documentary tracks 350 years of Jews in America

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c. 2008 Religion News Service

(UNDATED) Think American Jewish angst over intermarriage is a modern creation? Consider Abigail Franks, a high-society Jewish mother in Colonial New York.

The year was 1733, and Franks’ daughter had just married a Christian from another prominent family. Franks was so distraught and angry over this that she plotted to have the whole family shun her daughter.

“My spirits were for some time so depressed that it was a pain for me to speak or see anyone,” she wrote her son, Naphtali. “ … I shall never have that serenity or peace which I so happily had hitherto. I am determined I never will see, nor let none of ye family, go near her.”

Alas, Naphtali, also the recipient of written motherly advice to keep kosher while living abroad, also would marry a Christian. None of Franks’ great-grandchildren were raised Jewish.

The saga of Franks’ family is among dozens of segments in “The Jewish Americans,” a three-part PBS series starting at 9 p.m. Wednesday (Jan. 9) and continuing the next two Wednesdays. It charts American Jewish history in an engaging _ if familiar _ manner from the 1654 arrival of 23 Brazilian Jews on New Amsterdam’s shores to the 21st-century success of Hasidic reggae rapper Matisyahu.

The series spends considerable time on what has become standard fare for Jewish history museums and documentaries: American freedom of religion, European immigration, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, Zionism, assimilation, the move from working class to middle class, and the storied successes of Jewish entertainers.

Its main achievement is in putting it all together, the highs and lows and in-betweens, in a digestible form.

There is Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg remembering seeing a sign on a boarding house that read, “No dogs or Jews allowed.” There is actor Fyvush Finkel fondly recalling a thriving Yiddish theater scene. Jews beam with pride over baseball players Hank Greenberg and Sandy Koufax, and even the 1945 Miss America, Bess Myerson. There is some embarrassment over Judah Benjamin, a leader of the Confederacy.

There are explorations of tensions between wealthy German Jews, who immigrated in the mid-1800s, and the later-arriving Eastern Europeans who lived in poverty in the heavily Jewish Lower East Side.

“Jewish restaurants, Jewish libraries, Jewish bookstores, all of these made kind of the ordinary living of life inherently Jewish in its feel, in its texture, in its smell,” Hasia Diner, a professor of American Jewish history at New York University, says in the series, over photographs of Jewish shops and crowded Lower East Side streets from a century ago. “It’s like the one place in American history where Jews can say, `We’re kind of in the majority, where numbers are on our side.”’

The series also shows how Jewish participation in the Civil Rights movement was followed by tensions between Jews and African-Americans. It looks closely at a 1968 strike that pitted blacks and Hispanics at a Brooklyn school against a heavily Jewish teachers union.

And it takes pleasure in American Jews’ contributions to mainstream culture _ Irving Berlin’s writing of “White Christmas” and the creation of “Superman” by Jerry Segal and Joe Schister, Cleveland Jews both.

“They were these little nerdy Jewish guys _ Clark Kents as it were _ and they must have seen all these girls going around with the jocks, all these Lois Lanes with their arms around these big jocks, big goyim with muscles, and they came up with this brilliant idea for a superhero,” Pulitzer-Prize winning Village Voice cartoonist Jules Feiffer says in the series.


Not unexpectedly, the documentary ends with reflections on how freedom of religion in the United States has both helped and hindered the growth of a Jewish community that numbers more than 5 million but sees large numbers choose the route of Abigail Franks’ children.

“The whole of American society is open to Jews in a way that I believe is virtually unique in the annals of Jewish history,” said Rabbi Saul Berman, a Jewish studies professor at Yeshiva University and a prominent voice in Modern Orthodoxy. “Previously, you could choose not to behave as a Jew, but your identity was still there and the external society continued to identify you as a Jew. And that identification meant something in terms of the constraints that they imposed on your life.

“Today, Jews can choose whether to either preserve or abandon the whole of their identity as Jews. And we are deeply challenged by that.”

(Jeff Diamant writes for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J.)

KRE/RB END DIAMANT800 words, with optional trim to 625

Eds: note time element (Wednesday, Jan. 9) in fifth graf

Photos from “The Jewish Americans” are available via

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