Directed by David Grubin
Aspect Ratio: 1.78:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 360 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround English
MSRP: $ 34.99
Release Date: February 5, 2008
Review Date: January 27, 2008
From the moment in the 17th Century when Jewish immigrants first landed in the New World, their road has been an arduous, uphill battle to both assimilate into their new culture while attempting to retain the very ethnicity that makes the race unique. PBS’ recent series The Jewish Americans is a detailed chronicle of those struggles with both successes and failures over their complex, ever-challenging existence in America for the past three plus centuries. David Grubin has done a superb job organizing stories, selecting archival footage, and finding worthwhile commentators to add their own views on a subject near and dear to their hearts.
Grubin’s videography is divided into three lengthy episodes. It begins with the stories of the first Jewish immigrants “They Came to Stay.” Though not finding a particularly warm welcome on their arrival in New Amsterdam, they nevertheless persevered to begin gaining a foothold in the new territories. Over the next two hundred years, such names as Abigail Franks, Marcus Spiegel, the Lehman Brothers, and Levi-Strauss began to gain notice and influence, and by the time of the Civil War, for example, the Jewish Judah Benjamin was enough respected to be second only to Jefferson Davis in the Confederate hierarchy. These stories in this first section reiterated the desire of the Jewish immigrants to find their own place in this new civilization that was being formed.
Episode Two of the history is entitled “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times,” and this title taken from Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities pretty much encapsulates the theme of the remaining two episodes of this chronicle. For every step forward Jewish Americans made in their struggle for acceptance, there were almost always one or two steps backward for them. On the one hand were sweat shops and the Jewish criminal underworld, and on the other there were success stories like Irving Berlin, Lillian Wald, and Hank Greenberg. The surprising anti-Semitic leanings of people like Henry Ford and the ugly story of Leo Frank’s lynching are recounted unblinkingly. The rising in strength of the Ku Klux Klan is told in counterpoint to the runaway success of Gertrude Berg as Molly Goldberg on the radio. And, of course, the rise of Hitler in Germany and his open hatred of Jews happens as the Great Depression makes life hard for many in America, leading into World War II with Jewish and Gentile soldiers serving alongside one another and all encountering the horrors of the Holocaust once they liberated concentration camps in eastern Europe.
Episode three is called “Home,” and its focus is the America after the war when such events as the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948, the Red Scare of the 1950s that dragged many Jewish liberals into the fray (including the Rosenbergs whose story is recounted in detail), the proliferation of popular Jewish comedians on television, and Jewish influences during the early civil rights movement are recounted. The feminist movement, the campaigns to free Russian Jews being persecuted by the Communists, the rise of orthodoxy, and even the traditions of young Jews now being established are also covered in detail.
Through all of these sections, an outstanding succession of famous faces gives facts and opinions about the topics at hand. Such familiar names as Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Tony Kuschner, Carl Reiner, Fyvush Finkel, Sid Caesar, and Mandy Patinkin along with rabbis, historians, authors, and politicians whose names might not be so readily familiar also give stirring testimony about their faith and about their culture. Their words - eloquent, passionate, moving - give The Jewish Americans its very real heart and soul.
The program is presented in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. All of the newly shot footage looks very sharp, but as the programs are a mélange of photographs, old film, videotape, and kinescopes, naturally the quality of the images is going to be variable. More irritating is that all of the film footage (mostly shot in 4:3) has been recomposed to fit the 16:9 aspect ratio of the new footage, so heads routinely get lopped off in film clips from classics like Gentlemen’s Agreement or in other older interview footage. Each episode has been divided into chapters that provide easy access to specific sections of the documentary. The chapters are easily accessible from the main menu.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo surround track is a solid encoding with the ethnic music forming the basis of most of the surround activity. There is some rather impressive sound in battle footage used in old film clips, but for the most part, the front channels get the majority of the sound designed for this program.
Director David Grubin has a 5 ¾-minute conversation explaining how the three year journey to get the show put together happened. He also goes into his philosophy for writing and producing the show (not to make it a “Greatest Jewish Hits” kind of documentary) and the difficulties he encountered along the way in gathering material and finding interview subjects. It’s in anamorphic widescreen.
Two other bonuses on the disc also in anamorphic widescreen appear to be scenes cut from the broadcast versions of the program. The first is “Jewish Cooking with Gil Marks” as Marks talks for about 2 minutes on how certain foods become Jewish foods.
A 2½-minute excerpt called “Rosh Hashanah Ceremonial Scene” is an extended moment from Episode Three as some Jewish teenagers take a traditional Jewish holiday and make it their own. Amichai Lau-Lavie narrates the segment.
The Jewish Americans is an entertainingly educational documentary on an aspect of American civilization that has gotten short shrift in historical documentaries up to this time. The presentation of the documentary on this two-disc set is very well done and recommended highly for those with an interest in the subject.