Series on Jews in America is also his story

Email|Print| Text size + By Steven Rosenberg
Globe Staff / January 6, 2008

It's not easy for Jay Sanderson to return to Rainbow Terrace. In the 1960s, he was part of the only Jewish family in the Salem public housing project, and he was threatened and beaten up frequently because of his religion.

If anyone deserves to have a chip on his shoulder, it would be Sanderson. Yet, he used his tough upbringing to motivate himself and to find his own American Dream. That first led him to Syracuse University, and also gave him the confidence to hop in his car and drive to California after graduating from college in 1979.

"I left Salem to try to find a way to make the world a better place. I ended up in Los Angeles, and in Los Angeles, the way you make the world a better place is through television and film," said Sander son, now 50.

These days he schmoozes with stars such as Mandy Patinkin, and his biggest production is about to be aired. His six-hour miniseries, "The Jewish Americans," will premiere on PBS and run in two-hour segments for three consecutive Wednesdays beginning this week.

Sanderson, who runs a Jewish television production company, served as executive producer and raised $4 million for the miniseries. About $3 million came from private donations and foundation grants, and $1 million from PBS.

The series, directed by David Grubin and narrated by actor Liev Schreiber, traces American Jewish history back 354 years, to when the first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, which later became New York City.

The film ends with today's American Jews, who are no longer insulated from the general public and who have assimilated at a large rate.

Brandeis University professor Jonathan Sarna, actors Patinkin, Carl Reiner, and Sid Caesar, and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg help tell the story and add their own spin on their American Jewish experience.

Reiner discusses the evolution of Jewish comedy into mainstream America, and explains the "2000 Year Old Man" sketch that he created with Mel Brooks was originally performed at parties because they thought the humor was too Jewish for gentiles.

Other poignant moments include Bader Ginsburg's paean to Louis Brandeis, the first American Jew named to the Supreme Court, and Patinkin's praise of Irving Berlin, who grew up speaking Yiddish and went on to write "God Bless America" and "White Christmas."

Sanderson, who spent four years raising money for the production, said the film's story line is similar to his life experiences. "The great Jewish story is really that we came to this country as immigrants, as did every other group, and we had to fight and struggle to both become American and keep our own identity," he said.

On a recent day, Sanderson stood in front of his old stoop on Rainbow Terrace and looked at the small parking lot in front of the apartment complex. Large flakes of snow fell on his camelhair jacket and beret. After his father died 45 years ago, he moved from Chelsea to the complex with his mother and mentally retarded twin brother.

His mother now lives in another part of Salem, and his brother lives in a group home in Peabody.

Sanderson's next project is a documentary on genocide, and his film crew will interview victims and perpetrators throughout the world.

Also, over the last several months his production company's website,, has added additional programming and streaming video of Israeli news, documentaries, cooking shows, and music videos by a range of Jewish performers - Beastie Boys, David Lee Roth, and Matisyahu, as well as Adam Sandler's "The Chanukah Song."

Sanderson also plans to expand the religious content on the website.

For Yom Kippur, the site ran a live streaming video of a Kol Nidre service at a Los Angeles synagogue. The service drew 20,000 Internet visitors, and Sanderson said Jews are turning more and more to the Internet for their spiritual needs.

"We got an e-mail from an emergency room doctor in Brussels, Belgium, thanking us for allowing her to hear the melodies of Kol Nidre. So I think this is a time for richness and opportunity in the Jewish community," he said.

"The Jewish Americans" is scheduled to air 9-11 p.m. Jan. 9, 16, and 23 on PBS stations.

Steven Rosenberg can be reached at

Jay Sanderson, who spent four years raising money for the miniseries, said the story line is similar to his life experiences.


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