As I noted in my recent review of The Mysterious Human Heart, producer/director David Grubin consistently provides PBS with some of its most superb documentary series. Perhaps because this particular story is closer to home for Grubin than some of his other excellent work, The Jewish Americans raises Grubin's game to a whole new level with an always fascinating and incredibly detailed look at a group that has consistently been among the most maligned and influential (could the two be related?) in American (and world) history.
Grubin's three part series starts with the first Jews arriving in Manhattan (New Amsterdam) in 1654, having escaped Brazil just as the Inquisition was spreading its vicious tentacles to the "new world." The Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam were not particularly receptive to this immigrant class, but were overruled by their Dutch government in their Netherlands home. That gave the Jews a foothold in America that would see them rise to almost unparalleled heights of influence and accomplishment even while suffering the slings and arrows of a public at large not entirely certain they wanted to share space with them.
Grubin keeps the history lessons both general enough to capture large themes and specific enough to hone in on some surprising individual stories. Spanning the entire history of the colonies and then the nascent United States Grubin consistently comes up with surprising anecdotes abou various Jews, such as Judah Benjamin, who served with Jefferson Davis during the Civil War or another Jew who served as Sitting Bull's translator. Grubin also explores the strange dichotomy that confronted (and still confronts) Jews who had come to this new, free and supposedly religiously tolerant land: were/are they Jewish Americans, or American Jews? This dialectic informs much of the first two episodes, as old traditions die away and new ones supplant them. There is also the larger dialectic of the Jews initially being not quite as disparaged as some of the other immigrant groups, then finding, circa the 1870s, that their lot had suddenly changed dramatically for the worse.
While the first two episodes move through broad swaths of history, taking us from 1654 to the 20th century, it is the third episode, "Home," which may be most reverberant for contemporary viewers. Starting with the post-WWII mainstreaming of Judaism (highlighted by Bess Myerson's win as Miss America), this episode follows the new Jewish diaspora (so to speak) to the suburbs, with the "good life" and new success mirrored by the influx of Jews to the new medium of television and recording (featuring some great bits by such legends as Sid Caesar and Carl Reiner).
The episode then moves into the 1960s and sees the comingling of Jews and Blacks working together in the Civil Rights movement, followed by the sad disintegration of that relationship (including some frankly shocking anti-Semitic poetry written by a black child). The exploding Arab-Israeli conflict is covered as are some of the newer trends in Judaism, including the strange concatenation of Chasidism with rap music.
Grubin bookends the series with some contemporary footage of a torah scroll being raised to bring home the focus of what ostensibly unites Jews even as their individual stories and traditions are so varied. With a great array of such disparate talking heads as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Kushner and Fyvush Finkel (to name but three), and with great archival stills and film (including clips from such classics as Gentleman's Agreement and Hester Street), Grubin keeps his visual presentation as lively as the information being imparted.