Documentary Explores 350 Years of Jewish Immigration to America

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The Jewish Journey: America explores the times, circumstances and ramifications of three-and-a-half centuries' worth of Jews leaving their old lives to start new ones in America.

Trickles and waves, schooners and airplanes, conversos and refuseniks — since that first group of 23 Brazilian Jewish immigrants set foot on these shores after fleeing a Portuguese version of the Inquisition in 1654, America has been the lodestar for millions of Jews from around the globe.

That includes the family of Andrew Goldberg, the Emmy Award-winning producer-director whose new documentary, The Jewish Journey: America, which looks at 350 years of Jewish immigration to the United States in all its forms, debuts on WHYY-TV12 this week.

“I’ve traced my genealogy back, and they all come from Ukraine,” the 46-year-old Chicago native says. “My grandmother came over with her mother in steerage; her father was already here. They ran out of food, and my 5-year-old great uncle Al had to sneak upstairs and steal food” from the first-class passengers’ dining areas.

Despite a rich family tradition of Jewish involvement, including a great-grandfather who was a cantor famous for marrying 8,000 couples during his career, Goldberg had no real Jewish identity to speak of until he was in his early 20s, when his mother heard him downplaying his Jewishness. “She got very upset with me,” he recalls. “She said that as long as there are anti-Semites in the world, it is important to be Jewish and to stand up to anti-Semitism.”

Judging by Goldberg’s output as the founder and producer-director of Two Cats Productions, he took that advice to heart. In the past 13 years, he has made five Jewishly themed documentaries for PBS, including A Yiddish World Remembered, Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence and Jerusalem: Center of the World.

For his latest exploration into the relationship between Jews and the world surrounding them, Goldberg tackles the oft-covered ground of the immigrant journey to America. While there are many of the standard trappings to be expected in a documentary of this type — old family photos, talking heads and an evocative soundtrack — Goldberg brings a fresh narrative approach to much of his film.

While he acknowledges the existential impetus for exodus imparted by events like pogroms and virulent forms of anti-Semitism, Goldberg also devotes significant time to showing how economic incentives drove countless Jews to leave the only homes they ever knew to try their luck in the United States. He sets his film apart from other entries in the genre with a moving examination of the toll immigration took on those left behind, specifically the parents who sacrificed so much to give their children a chance for a new life in the New World. “What caught me the most,” he says, is when his interviewees “would talk about these parents who looked at their kids and knew they would never see them again. And these children took this outrageous risk to come here. Waving parents goodbye, the parents allowing them to do it … ” he trails off.

Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Jewish Journey: America is the section on those who emigrated from the Middle East over the past decades. By having immigrants like Cynthia Kaplan Shamash, a Queens dentist and member of the board of the World Organization of Jews From Iraq, describe the wrenching process of being left no choice but to flee the only home her family had known for generations, Goldberg opens a window into the seldom-seen world of these primarily Sephardic Jews.

Featuring Iranian Jews was a logical choice for Goldberg, as he had delved into their story as part of his 2012 documentary, The Iranian Americans. He also felt it was important to offer a Sephardic viewpoint to what is usually an overwhelmingly Ashkenazic story.

“When I produced films over the years,” he explains, “the Sephardim wanted to be more included. I always had it in the back of my mind to do a Mizrahi Jewish story.”

As a result of his dedication to give equal time to these often-overlooked aspects of the Jewish immigrant experience, those who watch The Jewish Journey: America on television or at a special viewing event at the National Museum of American Jewish History on March 1. (Goldberg says the museum is one of the documentary’s major donors) will see a work that adds another layer to the canon of Jewish immigrant overviews.

Goldberg says he has come to realize that his continued commitment to putting the Jewish experience onscreen is an integral part of simply being a good Jew. “We are here to make the world a little bit better. It’s like a really good job,” he says of Judaism. “It comes with great benefits, but you also have to work really hard. At the end of the day, the goal is to be of service in this world.”

 

The Jewish Journey: America

March 1 at 4:30 p.m.; March 3 at 10 p.m.

WHYY-TV12

Whyy.org/tv12

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