January 3, 2008
PBS documents struggles and successes of U.S. Jewry
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The roster of commentators and analysts accompanying the visual images is in itself proof of Jewish contributions to American thought and art.
Among the keenest talking heads joining narrator Liev Schreiber are Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Tony Kushner, journalist J.J. Goldberg, comedians Carl Reiner and Sid Caesar, sociologist Nathan Glazer, Rabbi Rachel Cowan, African American convert Julius Lester and University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann.
Representing Los Angeles, besides Schulweis and Reiner, is Rabbi Laura Geller, while behind the scenes Jay Sanderson and his JTN Productions played a key role in initiating and carrying through the four-year, $3 million project. Other collaborators were PBS stations WETA in Washington and WNET in New York.
Given the scope of the subject, viewers are bound to criticize some historical omission, interpretation or misplaced emphasis.
For instance, the documentary leaves the impression that the entire organized American Jewish community rallied actively and immediately behind Israel's War of Independence and the Soviet Jewry movement, while in reality it took a relative handful of activists to awaken an initially lethargic or fearful communal leadership.
While Grubin partly acknowledged this point, he responded that in tackling such a vast and complicated topic, "some complexities will get lost."
Grubin, 63, is a highly respected filmmaker, with a shelf full of Emmy and Peabody awards for his PBS documentaries. He conducted more than 100 interviews for the series.
As a secular Jew, he learned in making the film that "there are lots of ways to be a Jew in America, and this work is an expression of my Jewishness."
He was also impressed by the growing self-assuredness of Jewish identity in America.
"When I interviewed [playwright] Alfred Uhry, he said that when he was a boy growing up in the South, he felt 10 percent Jewish and 90 percent American, but now it's 50-50," Grubin said. "So we are moving up in the Jewish scale."
Dr. Uri Herscher, founding president of the Skirball Cultural Center, generally agreed with the film's optimistic thesis.
"We have good reason to feel at home in America and we are justified in celebrating that fact," Herscher said. "Yet, we should be aware that we have lived through several golden ages in our history, which didn't last. We must be wary at all times of the marginalization of any minority in our country."
Grubin anticipates that the film will have a long shelf life as an educational tool in schools and universities, and expects it to be televised in Israel, Britain and other countries.
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