Spreading six hours across three successive Wednesdays, this PBS documentary perhaps inevitably proves most engrossing in its second night, encompassing 20th century anti-Semitism, World War II and Jews that made a mark on the culture, from the Hollywood moguls to early comic-book creators such as Superman’s Jerry Seigel and Joe Shuster, whose secret-identity fantasy was seen as a metaphor for Jewish assimilation. Every racial and ethnic group has its own American story to tell, and David Grubin has chronicled this one with laudable (if somewhat arbitrary) substance.
The opening installment runs from the colonial era up through the 19th century, occasionally fumbling with the lack of historical footage (headless recreations of upper-crust dinners provide rather feeble visuals), while exploring the age-old question of Jewish intermarriage and absorption at the risk of their heritage.
Night two, by contrast, dives into territory that benefits from first-person accounts, from Jewish students being subjected to quotas in the Ivy League and other universities (Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg is among those interviewed regarding this “genteel anti-Semitism”) to the patriotic songs of Irving Berlin to showbiz moguls such as Louis B. Mayer, who “cast aside their Jewish past” and, in their pursuit of all-American values, fastidiously kept their own cultural themes out of the movies.
Comics reminisce about performing in New York’s Catskill Mountains, while the concluding section powerfully focuses on Jews sounding alarms and eventually lobbying for sanctuary for European Jews being decimated by Hitler’s final solution. Grubin’s third installment deals with the post-war period — from barriers to advancement falling to Jews’ activism within the civil-rights movement.
Narrated by Liev Schreiber — whose baritone has also found a welcome home in HBO docs — “The Jewish Americans” is perhaps inevitably episodic in nature. Yet even Jews that feel well-versed in their history will find tidbits they missed along the way — from baseball star Hank Greenberg, like Sandy Koufax after him, wrestling with whether to play on Jewish holidays in the midst of a pennant race to auto maker Henry Ford’s vicious anti-Semitism, which included a newspaper created solely to advance those views.
The Jewish experience is both symbolic of the U.S.’ immigrant history and in many ways unique, but Grubin has punctuated the six hours with enough intriguing elements so that to enjoy it, you don’t have to be Jewish. Besides, with primetime being at less than full strength thanks to the many writers, Jewish and otherwise, sidelined by the current strike, well, it couldn’t hurt.