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January 3, 2008 By:
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Funny, they don't look Jewish.

Why, just because they're seamstresses, janitors, doctors, butchers, garbage people, scientists, crooks, movie stars, mathematicians, dentists, salespeople, authors, swindlers, saviors, your tired, your hungry, your poor ...

They're all that; they are, indeed "The Jewish Americans." And now they are also the focus of an epic epistle -- a TV love letter with some bittersweet kisses and a pinch of the cheeks -- that will sweep and kvell its way across the television landscape for the next three Wednesdays, beginning Jan. 9, at 9 p.m., on WHYY-TV12.

Six degrees of separation? Six hours of connection as producer David Grubin's masterwork of American menschen celebrates more than 350 years of a people's past and persistence in what passes as a blip of TV time.

He's got it all here -- as do PBS; Thirteen/New York; JTN Productions; and WETA/Greater Washington, co-creators of this splash of a series: "They Came to Stay/A World of Their Own," Jan. 9; "The Best of Times, the Worst of Times," Jan. 16; and "Home," Jan. 23, a triumphant triptych homing in on a history of hearth and hate that made mincemeat of the Melting Pot theory as Jewish Americans were on the bubble of their own historic actions.

That's some big matzah ball hanging out there: Examining such diverse dynamos and their devotion to the creation of a distinct profile -- as well as the anti-Semitism they faced with actions and art work probing their proboscis of a "Jewish profile" -- these are saints and sinners with portfolio.

So, what did Irving Berlin and Hank Greenberg have in common? They were both power hitters who could make a song and a swing soar.

Going for the fences -- and depicting accurately those biases and bases that fenced new Jewish Americans in and how the gates swung open to heaven for them, too -- Grubin grows a portrait that is at once comprehensive and conditional on the kindness of strangers -- and the concreteness of the Constitution.

There is no statute on liberty, he proves; this is no homogenized hegemony here, but rather a 2 cent plain with elaborate undercurrents; a cream soda foamy with the milk of human kindness and the occasional curdle of anti-Semitism.

And who better to draw the Jewish American image than a Jewish icon of incredible facility? A three-time Peabody Award winner, who has limned so many leading lights on screen, initially going from "RFK" to "LBJ" to "FDR" and, now, to "JA," Grubin has done all of them letter perfect (not to mention not giving short shrift to a terrific film on "Napoleon," and his three-hour "The Mysterious Human Heart," as well as "The Healing and the Mind of Bill Moyers").

He is the heart and brains behind this sensational six-hour accomplishment, a sextet and the city and countryside that courts and canvases history since Jews' arrival on these unsure shores in New Amsterdam, where no one gave a damn for their chances at first some 350 years ago.

To achieve such a landmark series, Grubin's got his own story to tell -- which may be one reason why the National Museum of American Jewish History here in Philadelphia has dubbed him its "official chief storyteller in the development of the new core exhibition of its new museum."

But Grubin is not mainlining the Philadelphia story here; his great achievement is in painting a panorama that goes from, at times, unsteady sea to shining sea. (And, yes, Jewish Americans can sail, too.)

"We need to talk" intergenerationally, says the producer/director/cinematographer whose choice of smoothie Liev Schreiber for narration is a soothing choice for a historic documentary that rocks and roars.

Cool-hand Leviticus? What we got here is a failure to communicate between the old and new Jew -- the dangerously disengaged dialogue where one generation can't hear what the other is saying?

"The Jewish Americans" doesn't give this conceit lip service; it opens the lines of communication with a wide embrace, an empathetic hug.

Today's Jew "has put a different face on what it means to be Jewish. They've grown up in prosperity; there was no discrimination" that they faced.

Grubin says that discretely, realizing, of course, that hatred of Jews is an historic mainstay albeit less a fear than it had once been.

But the Jewish generation that generates so much of the series' appeal is made up of "those who grew up in the '30s," airing the Jewish agenda of what Tom Brokaw might have called, had be been inclined to, "The Greatest Jewish Generation."

A New Comfort Zone
How times change. But the present benefits from the past, a conduit for a new Jewish comfort zone. "This new generation likes its Jewishness; they take it seriously. They are the less frightened Jew.

"They know about the Holocaust, but it's not as if they were there."

Where does this series fit into the here and now? Don't expect all the answers, answers Grubin. "I did not make this film to be the Jewish Hall of Fame," he says with a laugh.

Cooperstown for the Our Crowd core? It is not all Jews all the time, but, nevertheless, a nearly numbingly insightful number "who contributed to society," all comin' through the rye ... bread:

There she is ... Miss America: Bess Myerson, the erstwhile Miss New York City, who was the new face of Jewish beauty back in 1945 when she took the crown and the kuved in an Atlantic City of diving horses and steel piers.

Play it again, Sam ... okay, his name is Mandy Patinkin, not Sam, but he is a music man with a plan -- which includes singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" in a voice so angelic it would make a Yiddish kite soar.

And as far as parking it outside the ballpark, there's Greenberg, whose refusal to play on Yom Kippur resonates with the resin that would one day lie in the hands of a Sandy Koufax.

There are also the strikes -- the unions, the labor organizers -- and the strike threes to the heart in which some Jews were called out by a fast one at the knees. "There are some who may not have wanted us to tell all that we told; for instance, that Jews were also slave owners in the South," says Grubin. "And there were Jews who owned factories" who didn't factor in humanity when conjuring up working hours and conditions for their overburdened employees.

It is the good, the bad and the ugly -- and the primping, too. After all, Jews factored into the cosmetic industry as well. And would Hollywood have made a move on movies if not for the emigre moguls whose greatest fictions may have been the surnames they came up with to replace the Jewish ones they were born with?

So much to tell, so little time in this star (of David) spangled banner? "Six hours is a lot of television," muses a man who has made much of it during a stellar career. "We actually began with four hours, then expanded it."

Expansive is what Jewish scholars can be when discussing issues. And why is it "Jewish Americans" and not "American Jews"?

Anyone up for an argument?

Which is why Grubin greatly avoided putting two scholars in the same room at the same time. Their onscreen face time is informative, not a face-off. "Jews love to talk," says Grubin, inarguably, of a point well-taken.

And in next week's Part II, we'll see why.

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