It's striking that "The Jewish Americans," the new documentary series on PBS, comes at a time when immigration is a subject of broad anxiety and political debate. The tale of the Jews in America is, in many ways, the tale of every immigrant group, past and present: the story of a group of people that stands apart from the norm, struggles over how much to blend in, and leaves an indelible stamp on the culture as a whole.
As such, "The Jewish Americans" is comprehensive, almost to a fault; its six-hour length might discourage the casual viewer and speak only to the already-immersed. That's a shame, because writer/director David Grubin is making precisely the opposite point: that the Jewish experience is universally relevant, since it has informed so many of the institutions we think of as quintessentially American.
With a smooth, warm-voiced narration by Liev Schreiber, the series traces the history of Jews in America since the Colonial days. It dabbles in sociology, history, and culture, dwelling on themes that still resonate and cause tension in American Jewish life today: the tug-of-war between assimilation and cultural identification, the consternation over intermarriage. Early on, we hear of Abigail Franks, a wealthy Colonial Jew, who blended seamlessly into Christian upper-class society but disowned a daughter who married outside the faith.
Hers is one of many personal stories Grubin tells, using the standard tools of TV documentary: archival footage, primary sources, and talking-head interviews with historians, players, and bystanders. Some of the most stirring live voices come from the likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who recounts Supreme Court history with a slow, quiet intensity.
Playwright Tony Kushner talks about the ways that Yiddish theater on New York's Lower East Side informed his approach to plays on themes that range far beyond the Jewish experience itself. Comedian Jerry Stiller talks about playing the Catskills with his Irish wife, Anne Meara, and muses, with other comedians, about the way early-20th-century Jews pioneered the art form of stand-up comedy.
Indeed, the most fascinating segments aren't sociological so much as cultural. The series does a decent job not just of playing the timeworn who's-Jewish parlor game, but pulling the roots of Jewishness from secular stuff. (Superman as a Jewish-kid allegory, sprung from the minds of two teenagers from Cleveland? Who knew?)
In a segment about Sid Caesar's "Your Show of Shows," writer-comedian Carl Reiner explained that Yiddish words wound their way into the sketches because Yiddish is a silly-sounding language: "If you didn't know it was German or Jewish, sccchhhhpritzed is a funny word." And in a lengthy meditation on Irving Berlin - born Israel Baline - Mandy Patinkin sings out an explanation of why Berlin's enduring "Blue Skies" is, at its core, a Yiddish song.
But like other Jewish artists, Berlin also pitched a secularized, American message: He celebrated Christmas with his family and wrote the song "White Christmas," while other Jews penned "The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire)" and "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." ("Irving Berlin took the Christ out of Christmas," one commentator declares. "It could be 'White Passover' if you want.")
The tension between those two ideals is fascinating stuff on its own, so it's a bit jarring to see it alternate with more perfunctory, straightforward history. The series' first hours, for instance, dwell a bit too long on the state of American Jewishness before the massive 20th-century wave of Eastern European immigrants. The final installment jumps a bit too quickly from the social excess of the American bar mitzvah to the trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
And the mishmash of subjects sometimes makes chronology feel jumbled. In next week's installment, you might wonder if Grubin will ever meander his way to the Holocaust. (When he finally does, he handles it nicely, offering the Jewish-American perspective through the eyes of Henry Morgenthau Jr., FDR's largely assimilated secretary of the treasury.)
The effect is more like a college survey than a cohesive meditation on a theme. "The Jewish Americans" does tell it all - but some parts are more illuminating than the whole.