the fascinating history of a great Jewish community
David Grubin's documentary about the history of the Jews in America made in 2008 for PBS was broadcast in Israel in six one-hour installments rather than the three series original format presented to the American public. It makes for a comprehensive and fascinating view, which is at the same time informative, as well as an opening for discussions, more by its subject rather then by the way the documentary is made. In any case it's recommended viewing for anybody who is interested on the history of one of the most important Jewish communities that ever existed (at this moment in the history it is probably no longer the greatest Jewish community in the world as it was for the second half of the 20th century, but the second in size), for people interested in the history of the Jewish people and of the United States.
And a fascinating history it is - a history that started 350 years ago when the first 23 Jews reached the shores of America fleeing the arm of the Inquisition that had extended its influence in the area of today's Brazil. As they settled in the New Amsterdam (today's Manhattan) their reception in the New World was not easy from the beginning, as Jews they had to fight all the difficulties of the life in the colonies that all other newcomers were fighting but also the prejudices towards Jews that the other colonists were bringing with them from their countries of origin. Yet, the New World offered a much better opportunity for personal and community development, a system of laws and a climate of freedom and tolerance that far from perfect was better than what Jews met in most of their tribulations as an exiled people. While the first episode focuses on the first two centuries of Jewish life in America, the next three successively present the successive waves of Jewish immigration from Europe, the contributions that the Jews brought to the American industry, culture, science while developing their own identity and fighting with the issues that confronted an old religion and traditional mode of life that had to adapt to a new and dynamic world. As the story enters the 20th century the issues of full equality and fight on antisemitism take the front row. Fascinating personalities like Louis Brandeis the first Jewish justice of the Supreme Court or composer Isaiah Berlin are presented in details. A great part of the last two episodes is dedicated to the reaction of the Jewish American community faced with horrors of the Holocaust and of its relation with the newly born state of Israel. All the story is told in a balanced manner, with emphasize on documents and filmed material. The supporting talking heads are not big personalities (as far as I know at least), but their commentaries fit the overall tone of the presentation of history.
The documentary value of the film is impressive. As an Israeli Jew I just realized how little I know about this big Jewish community and the PBS series filled in some of my knowledge gap. The presentation and the level of the commentary exceeded in breath and depth what usually can be seen on American channels like the History Channel or Biography. Yet, I would have expected a more crisp and daring approach on some of the current issues that are confronting the Jewish community in the US today. While the pluralism of Judaism in America is celebrated including the brand of 'Jew by choice' who comes to the synagogue by choice and following an internal need for identity and fulfillment , no time is spent with the consequences and dangers that come together with the liberalization of the Jewish faith such as assimilation by marriage and lost of the Jewish identity in the coming generation, principal cause for the constant decrease of the number of Jews in America in the last decades. There is no discussion either about the Pollard case, or about the rift caused in the Jewish American organizations by the different attitudes towards policies of Israel in the territories occupied after the 1967 Israeli-Arab war. Maybe these events are too recent, and maybe they are thought to belong to another kind of film that would deal with the problems and crisis of the Jewish Americans in the present - but in their absence the final impression after viewing the last episode is a little bit too festive and didactic.
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