November 29, 2007
KCRW’s gift—five days of ‘Only in America’ Jewish history
This noble tradition has now come to an end, but KCRW (89.9) has come up with a worthy replacement in "Only in America," which will air over five days in one-hour segments, Dec. 3-7 at 2 p.m.
The series on the Jewish experience in this country has as its starting point 1654, when 23 Jews from Brazil -- four men and 19 women and children -- arrived in New Amsterdam, on the lower part of Manhattan, and asked permission to stay.
Peter Stuyvesant, governor of the colony, would have none of it. In a letter to his superiors in Holland, read by actor John Lithgow, he petitioned the directors of the Dutch West India Company "that this deceitful race ... be not allowed to further infest and trouble the new colony."
Fortunately for all of us, a number of Dutch Jews were major stockholders in the company, and the attempt to strangle Jewish life in America before it even began was rejected.
The producer of the ambitious program is Larry Josephson, a native Angeleno now settled in New York. The concept, he said in an interview, struck him four years ago when he heard about plans to celebrate the 350th anniversary of Jewish life in the United States.
"My great-grandfather came here from the Ukraine in 1900, but I realized that I knew nothing about Jewish history here between 1654 and 1900," Josephson said.
Even more historically minded listeners will be impressed by the presentation's color and detail, interspersing the jokes and songs of an era with eyewitness accounts and scholarly analysis.
There is a reading of George Washington's letter promising religious freedom to "the children of the stock of Abraham" and shocking descriptions of New York's sweatshops, but also Al Jolson belting out songs from "The Jazz Singer" and Philip Roth observing that "God gave us Irving Berlin, and Berlin gave us 'White Christmas' and 'Easter Parade.'"
In chronological order, the Dec. 3 broadcast on "The First Jews" traces the struggle of the pioneer Jews, from the initial arrival through the American Revolution and the adoption of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.
The ironically titled "The Streets Were Paved With Gold" program, on Dec. 4, introduces the mass arrival of Eastern European Jews and their settlement on the Lower East Side, where they retained the old language and customs while their children assimilated as fast as they could.
They voice their problems and frustrations in the Bintel Briefs in the Yiddish Forvertz, asking, "Will I die if I eat a tomato?" and "Is it okay for a socialist to go to Rosh Hashanah services?"
One woman writes, "I am a Russian woman, and my daughter just married a Hungarian, and now she's putting on airs. Now that she's a first-class Hungarian, she laughs at the way I talk, at my manners, even the way I cook.... I therefore want to express my opinion: that Russian Jews and Hungarian Jews should not intermarry."
"Becoming Americans," on Dec. 5, opens with the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, in which 164 young Jewish women died, and covers the struggle to unionize, the rise of the Yiddish theater and, ultimately, the exodus to fancier neighborhoods.
"White Christmas," airing on Dec. 6, is the first of two segments on "Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood" and celebrates the careers and songs of Israel Baline, the immigrant cantor's son who changed his name to Irving Berlin, and of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen.
In the second part on Dec. 7, "Over the Rainbow," we meet Eastern European immigrants Louis B. Mayer, Adolph Zukor and Samuel Goldwyn, who invented Hollywood and created the screen image of the Wild West and small town America. Jon Stewart and Mel Brooks are among the commentators.
Due to scheduling problems, KCRW is unfortunately not broadcasting one vital segment, "No Dogs or Jews Allowed," which chronicles the less-uplifting story of the strain of anti-Semitism that ran through much of American society from colonial days to World War II and beyond.
The chapter takes its name from an interview with Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in which she recalls, "I was driving through Pennsylvania, and there was a bed and breakfast with a sign outside that said, 'No dogs or Jews allowed.' I'd never seen anything like that."
This chapter, as well as an additional segment on Ginsburg's career, and "Never Again," with Elie Wiesel and ADL national director Abraham Foxman, are available on an eight-disc CD set. It can be ordered by calling (212) 595-2920.
For more information on the KCRW program go to www.KCRW.com and/or www.onlyinamerica.info.