Idol Chatter

book_cover_medium.jpgIt’s part heritage, part occupational hazard–but I have seen more than my fair share of documentaries about Jews. Many of them center on the Holocaust, or the post-Holocaust triumph and redemption earned through the creation of the state of Israel. Others focus on “Jews and showbiz” or “Jews in comedy.” I live in New York, and working in Jewish journalism, I’ve met many academics, historians, movers and shakers. I’ve been to the Lower East Side for both its history and its hipsters, many of whom I count among my colleagues and friends (and a few of whom, not entirely unexpectedly, pop up during the course of the film).
But with the arrival of “The Jewish-Americans,” David Grubin’s three-night series airing on PBS beginning tonight, I’m humbled by what I don’t know about my own heritage: as one of the eponymous Jewish-Americans (or, depending on the day, American Jews), even in my modern laptop-bearing writer’s life–a few dozen blocks north and emotional miles away, but a mere three generations from–a member of an immigrant nation.

They came to a land that was rumored to be paved with gold, and instead was found to be teeming with immigrants of all nationalities. Through photographs, letters, and family histories told by their descendants (and outstanding narration by Liev Schreiber, who seamlessly disappears into the narrator character, imbuing the voice of the series with mellifluous, and ageless tones) the stories of Jewish-Americans begin to emerge after the first settlement in the new land in 1654, run through colonial times, the Civil War (on both sides), and become foundational to business–both industrial and “show”–development in America. They were the union heads, trying to ensure fair labor practices, but in many cases, they were also the bosses, trying to ensure their corporation’s success and often taking advantage of an immigrant population in need of work, any work, under any conditions.
But for a pop culture hound like me, the highlight of this film (a production of JTN Productions; WETA Washington, D.C.; and David Grubin Productions, Inc. in association with Thirteen/WNET New York) was watching the development of the Yiddish theater, the history of Irving Berlin, and the role that Jews–and the Borscht Belt–played in creating sketch and standup comedy. The sheer scope of the contributions of Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks alone deserves its own documentary, and to listen to Caesar and Reiner talk about the Jewishness of their acts–first hidden, then emergent–is to be aware of the extent of their impact on today’s comedy and by extension, popular culture. But equally edifying was a segment about the involvement and subsequent scaling-back in involvement for Jews in the civil rights movement, and another part illustrating the legal contributions of Louis Brandeis (via the testimony of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Plus, an interview with Matisyahu about his spiritual and musical development provides a deeper biography than I’ve ever seen before. (Many clips from the film, as well as educational resources for teachers, are available online here.)
The series airs on three nights:
January 9: “They Came to Stay”/”A World of Their Own”
January 16: “The Best of Times, The Worst of Times”
January 23: “Home”
To find out when to watch, see here. Or ask your TiVo. It knows.

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