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Explore the Roots of Jewish America

by Tom Tugend

September 20, 2001 | 8:00 pm

Workers pose in front of the Boston Matzo Baking Company.

Workers pose in front of the Boston Matzo Baking Company.

Asser Levy lobbied for two years for the right of Jews to stand guard with Christian burghers of New Amsterdam (now New York) against Indian attacks.

Uriah Phillips Levy, an officer in the U.S. Navy in the early 19th century, was court-martialed six times but finally succeeded in abolishing flogging of American sailors.

Rebecca Gratz of Philadelphia refused to intermarry, remained a spinster and founded the Female Hebrew Benevolent Society.

Judah P. Benjamin became secretary of state for the Confederacy during the Civil War and his face graced $2 bills in Dixie.

These and dozens of other compelling personalities come to life in an engaging two-part PBS series, "They Came for Good: A History of the Jews in the United States." The first hour-long segment, "Present at the Creation, 1654-1820" will air on KCET on Monday, Sept. 24 at 10 p.m. The second part, "Taking Root, 1820-1880" airs the following evening (Sept. 25), also at 10 p.m.

Even fairly literate history buffs will be surprised at the wealth of information that documentary filmmaker, Amram Nowak, and his late wife, Manya Starr, were able to cram into two hours.

Freely mixing archival documents, diaries and photos with paintings, narration and reenactments by costumed players, Nowak starts his lively history lesson with the arrival of 23 Sephardim, fleeing Brazil ahead of the Portuguese Inquisition, in New Amsterdam, much to the chagrin of Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

The arrival marked the beginning of a centuries-long effort by Jews in America "to fit in and yet remain yourself."

The narrative pace picks up in the second segment, when the Jewish population grew from 3,000 in 1820 (with the Charleston Jewish community of 700 topping the list) to 1880, when waves of Jewish newcomers from Germany and central Europe had raised the figure to 250,000.

This period saw the rise of the German Jewish merchant princes -- the Seligmans, Guggenheims, Lehmans and Warburgs -- and the beginning of mass immigration from Russia and Poland.

Jews also became soldiers and one rib-tickling sequence shows two volunteers with John Brown's militant abolitionist raiders conversing in Yiddish. During the Civil War, 10,000 Jews fought for the Blue and Gray, and eight became generals.

The 76-year old Nowak said in an interview that he wants to add two more segments and is "working furiously" to raise the necessary money.

If he succeeds, the third segment will take the history from 1880 to 1939. The final part will span the war years and examine U.S. Jewry's reaction to the Holocaust, the birth of Israel and problems of intermarriage and assimilation.

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