In the 20th Century no group was better at chronicling its own experience than the American Jews. You want self-loathing, assimilation and paranoia? Turn to Philip Roth. You want bright young women resisting and yet conforming to family expectations? Check out Allegra Goodman. You want the passionate rediscovery of Jewish history and values? Turn to Steven Spielberg.
The story of the Yiddish-speaking bubby with the Harvard educated grandson has been told so often—in fiction and in life—it's become an American cliché and a reference point for subsequent generations of immigrants.
American Jews have documented their own journey so thoroughly and in so many brilliant, hilarious and accessible variations, the efforts of a documentary filmmaker to package it all in one television extravaganza is a bit puzzling. Nevertheless, starting this week and unfolding in three weekly, two-hour segments, PBS stations will air "The Jewish Americans," directed by David Grubin. With all the slow-moving self-importance of a Ken Burns documentary, "The Jewish Americans" tries to do too much: it sums up the highs and lows of the Jewish-American story, beginning with the first Jewish immigrants to New York City in the 18th century and ending with a Hasidic rapper, and still it manages to offend no one. Like an evening spent at dinner with one's beloved grandparents, "The Jewish Americans" is a pleasant if old-fashioned encounter with Jewish boosterism.
At its best, the series unearths stories not part of the Jewish folk canon, like that of Judah Benjamin, who was the attorney general for the Confederacy and, when the South lost the Civil War, fled to England and reinvented himself as a barrister. In a lovely aside, one commentator wonders aloud what Passover must have been like in the antebellum South, with Jewish families thanking God for their freedom from slavery while slaves served the Seder meal. In another memorable chapter Harvard president Abbott Lowell announces in 1922 a simple and effective way to reduce anti-Semitism on campus: admit fewer Jews. In a chapter about Jewish contributions to the westward expansion, the example of Anna Solomon, who moved to the Arizona desert, opened a store and then a hotel, and raised a bunch of Jewish kids with no synagogue in sight, is unforgettable.
Too often, though, the documentary functions as a kind of "Jewish Hall of Fame." Featured talking heads include Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sid Caesar and the playwright Tony Kushner. Exemplars of Jewish achievement include Albert Einstein, Hank Greenberg, Irving Berlin and Louis Brandeis. Worthy exemplars all, but in the 21st century, when so many have accomplished so much, and when Jewish identity is frequently a matter of hyphenation—Kushner laughingly calls himself a "gay American Jewish socialist"—this earnest ritual of praising famous Jews feels insufficiently meaningful.
Guardians of Jewish culture mourn the loss of Jewish identity—no one speaks Yiddish anymore, they say, and intermarriage is epidemic—and "The Jewish Americans" is clearly a valentine to a time when despite (or perhaps because of) anti-Semitism, Jews knew who they were. Now, the film rightly points out, the absence of significant antiSemitism in America allows Jews to embrace Judaism on their own terms, a situation that raises questions for which history has no answers. Can good American Jews disapprove of Israel's foreign policies? Does intermarriage mean the end of Judaism or the birth of a new kind of Jew? Can synagogues satisfy American Jewish longings for spiritual connection without sacrificing orthodoxy? "The Jewish Americans" ably reminds us and our children of where we came from, but it fails to address the more challenging question of where we go from here.