The Jewish Americans



9-11 p.m. Wednesdays, Jan. 9, 16 and 23

A hearty mazel tov to David Grubin, producer, director and writer of PBS' "The Jewish Americans," on his well-organized, comprehensive and at times diplomatic story of how Jews arrived and adapted to the U.S.

Grubin, assisted by Liev Schreiber's fine narration, connects the dots from the first boatload of Jews that arrived in New Amsterdam by way of Brazil in 1653 (Gov. Peter Stuyvesant didn't want them but was overruled) to contemporary Jews with a previously unimaginable array of life choices.

With vintage film clips, paintings and modern-day interviews, he paints a picture of an ethnic and religious group once imperiled for their beliefs and now imperiled by their freedom to believe what they will.

Grubin, an award-winning producer of historical documentaries, generally makes excellent use of all six hours, though one wonders how many viewers -- even Jewish viewers -- will be willing to spend that much time on the subject. If you are among those who are interested but not that interested, I'd recommend the second part, "The Best of Times, the Worst of Times," which covers the period from just before World War I to the end of World War II.

Although the second episode covers the shortest period of time of the three parts, it also provides the richest explanation of what it took for Jews to break through the barriers of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrants in general to become largely accepted by the rest of America.

It highlights the careers of baseball star Hank Greenberg and songwriter Irving Berlin as well as the virulent hatred of Henry Ford and Father Coughlin. It looks at how Jews were affected by the Depression and the two world wars and how Jews invented and dominated the entertainment industry. And it treads carefully on the controversy over the extent to which the U.S. could have prevented at least some of the carnage of the Holocaust.

In the third episode, Grubin spends an inordinate amount of time on black-Jewish relations and presents a relatively unfocused look at Jews in the 21st century. The episode could have been stronger by instead documenting Jewish successes outside the world of entertainment. It also would have benefited by examining Jewish life beyond the confines of New York, which it does only sparingly and to highlight some extraordinary event.

Grubin offers many examples of how Jews have contributed to society in far greater proportion than their numbers would suggest. But he doesn't try to explain why or pose the question to the many successful Jews who are interviewed. That's too bad, because this phenomenon is central to the Jewish-American experience.

Among the many funders of the series are the Skirball Foundation and the Harry & Belle Krupnick Endowment Found of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.

JTN Prods., WETA Washington D.C. and David Grubin Prods. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York
Executive producers: Jay Sanderson, Jeff Bieber, Dalton Delan, Stephen Segaller
Producer-writer-director: David Grubin
Co-producers: Rachel Buchanan, Amy Brown
Editors: Don Bernier, Susan Fanshel, George O'Donnell, Deborah Peretz
Cinematographer: James Callanan
Narrator: Liev Schreiber