Jay Sanderson always thought that the story of 350 years of Jewish life in America would resonate well beyond the Jewish community, but even he underestimated the impact.
A look at the ratings of the six-hour PBS miniseries "The Jewish Americans," aired in three segments in January, showed that some 3 million households on the average viewed each of the episodes, with the audience expanding from week to week.
These are impressive figures for PBS programs, augmented by sales of some 20,000 DVDs during the first week they became available.
Both statistical analysis and anecdotal evidence indicate that the large majority of viewers were non-Jewish families, said Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions.
The company, an outgrowth of the Los Angeles-based Jewish Television Network, was the initiator, production coordinator and chief fundraiser for the four-year, $4 million project, Sanderson said.
His partners were producer/director David Grubin and PBS stations WNET (New York) and WETA (Washington, D.C.).
"'I always believed if we told our story honestly, talking not only about our Nobel Prize winners but also about our gangsters, we would come up with a fascinating documentary of general appeal," Sanderson said.
He thinks that the ratings confirmed his judgment, with some of the highest ratings reported in cities like Portland, Ore., with relatively small Jewish populations.
There were some complaints about a few "negative" episodes, a reaction Sanderson attributes to "the defensive nature of the Jewish community."
In one New York panel discussion, an audience member objected to the mention of atomic spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. A Los Angeles community leader protested inclusion of a statement by a Southern rabbi during the civil rights struggle, urging young Northern Jewish activists to go back home.
Both Sanderson and Grubin expect the film to have a long shelf life, with frequent reruns at home, showings abroad and as an educational tool in schools and universities.
Next on Sanderson's agenda is a two-hour documentary "Worse than War: Understanding and Stopping Genocide in Our Time," based on a new book by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, author of "Hitler's Willing Executioners."
"We will deal with the Jewish experience, but we also have a moral imperative to speak of the genocides of other people in the Balkans, Africa and elsewhere," Sanderson said.
Added the ever-upbeat Sanderson, "We hope to be a voice against genocide, in the way that Al Gore took on global warming in 'An Inconvenient Truth.'"
-- Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor
Jewish World Watch, Tinseltown Urge China to End Arms to Darfur
Leaders of Jewish World Watch (JWW), along with more than 25 supporters, were received with sealed doors and locked gates upon arrival at the Chinese Embassy in downtown Los Angeles on Feb. 12. Holding a press conference during the "Global Day of Action," JWW founder Janice Kamenir-Reznik pleaded for the Chinese to stop supplying the Sudanese government with firearms, helicopters and fighter aircraft. A Sudanese government-backed group is responsible for an estimated 200,000 deaths and 2.5 million displaced people since 2003.
Conference speakers included the Rev. Howard Dotson of the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, who explained that as a minister of the gospel, following the word of God is not easy, but God calls on us to protect our neighbors. "It is our moral duty to trump our greed and strategic interests," he said. Others voicing concern were Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah and Stop Genocide Now's Gabriel Stauring, who recently returned from visiting refugee camps in Chad.
The protest is one of many to come, announced Kamenir-Reznik, who said there will be monthly vigils at the Chinese Embassy until the August Beijing Olympics. Southern California synagogues are lined up to march with the goal of pressuring China to use its leverage with Sudan and end the Darfurian genocide.
On the same day, Steven Spielberg, film director and founder of the Shoah Foundation, announced his resignation as artistic adviser of the opening and closing Olympic ceremonies. Although China's representatives have assured Spielberg in the past that they were working to end the tragedy in Darfur, "The grim realities of the suffering continue unabated," Spielberg said in a statement.
Jewish World Watch, an organization formed to mobilize synagogues and surrounding communities to combat genocide and other worldwide human rights violations, presented an open letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with a faux lead medal signed by olympians, writers, actors, artists, Pulitzer Prize winners and Nobel laureates as well as others.
Spielberg's withdrawal has received "tremendous response from all over the world, from individuals and organizations," said his spokesman, Andy Spahn. In response to the announcement, China released a statement saying the Games would be a success regardless, Reuters reported, Feb. 14.
"All preparation work for the Beijing Olympics is proceeding smoothly. The Chinese people are willing to work with artists from around the world with wisdom and talent and the Olympic Games will be a success," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao in a news conference.
-- Celia Soudry, Contributing Writer