076: Conversation With the Filmmaker Behind “The Jewish Americans”

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ODAY’S Conversation is so timely that you can jump from this interview directly to the fascinating first part of filmmaker David Grubin’s “The Jewish Americans” mini-series tonight from 9-to-11 p.m. on the PBS network. Parts 2 and 3 will air January 16 and 23.
    As always, check local TV listings for air times — and for repeat broadcasts, if you miss a part.
    PLUS, in this case, PBS is offering more than just a companion book for the series. The entire 6-hour program will be released on DVD as soon as the nationwide broadcast ends.
    I’ve previewed the series and you can CLICK HERE — or click on the DVD cover — to jump to our bookstore, read our review — and order a copy if you wish through Amazon.

    Producer-Director-Writer David Grubin already has racked up three Emmies for past PBS productions in the 1980s and 1990s — and he may very well be headed for a fourth Emmy for “The Jewish Americans.”
    The series weaves stories of Jewish men and women through strands of American history from colonial times to today. I’ve been covering religion in America for more than two decades — and there are some clips in this 6-hour documentary that I’ve never seen before in earlier films.
    But what’s most intriguing about this series is the way that Grubin’s mind worked in pulling the threads together and making intriguing spiritual connections along the way.
    Here’s my Conversation With David Grubin (normally we use first names in publishing these interviews, but today — for clarity — we’ll dispense with “David” and “David” and we’ll use last names):

    CRUMM: For me, the single most fascinating moment in the series came in Part 2, when you started to focus on Superman.
    Cartoonist Jules Feiffer comes on the screen and starts talking about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster creating the Superman character in the 1930s. Feiffer says: “€œSuperman was the little nerdy Jewish boy saying, ‘€˜You don’t know who I really am!’€™ to the beautiful girl, the Lois Lane. If you knew who I really am! … The real inner me is so much bigger and better.”
    And suddenly, right in the middle of this long documentary you see these connections between Jewish heroes like the baseball star Hank Greenberg and Bess Myerson (below) becoming Miss America –€“ and the hopes and dreams of, really, so many millions of immigrants who have come to this country, right?
    They are all saying: You see me, now, as a stereotype –€“ but if you ONLY knew me for who I really am!
    GRUBIN: Yes. Superman, in a way, is a perfect story for us. What Jules Feiffer says is that Superman is really the Jewish boy’€™s integrationist dream. This is Jews who came here wanting so much to become Americans.
    And, really, that is the key to understanding this whole film. Singling out that example, you see one approach to this for Jews. In the 1930s, Jews were not accepted yet, so there was this fantasy of dreaming: Look, I am so American that I am Superman.
    It works nicely as part of our central theme.
    CRUMM: I think that theme resonates with millions of people, not just Jewish viewers. There is this dynamic throughout our history of people coming here because we supposedly welcome diversity, but then having to figure out what that means in each era. Sometimes Americans did not actually welcome diversity. Sometimes the newcomers worked too hard to assimilate. There are all kinds of pressures and hopes here that, I think, will resonate with so many immigrant groups.

    GRUBIN: If you saw that in the series then you got what we were trying to say.
    That is why Superman became a hero for everybody. He wasn’t just a Jewish hero. This story has to do with every minority group who comes here.
    I could have made this film about one triumphant figure after another. But I wasn’t really interested in making ‘The Best Hits of the Jews.’ What I wanted to tell was the story about how Jews changed America — but also how America changed Jews.
    CRUMM: In the series, you touch on so many major historical points from colonial times to today. And, along with the way, we meet not only heroes, but also some of the hateful figures: Father Coughlin’€™s radio broadcasts in the 1930s are here; Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic newspaper articles are here; and we hear about other people who showed a hateful face toward Jewish Americans.
    Talk a little bit about why you included those figures. They are part of the history — but what do these figures represent today for Jewish Americans? In other words, is what they did back then just a chapter in a history book — or is it somehow still relevant to American life?

    GRUBIN: It’s a very very important question, because these people — the Fords and the Coughlins and people like that could not exist today in the way they did in those earlier eras. And that says something important about how far we’ve come.
    There will always be haters, but you can’t get on the public airwaves today and spew that kind of hate — or you’ll be taken off right away.
    Henry Ford was revered and he was on the news all the time. You couldn’t be an anti-Semite like he was and still be looked up to across the country like he was back then.
    CRUMM: We should add here that we’re talking about these people in a particular historical context. The rest of the Ford story, for example, is that the later Ford family, Ford-related foundations and even the Ford-employees interfaith network today — they are noted for their strong support of religious diversity.
    GRUBIN: Yes, of course. We’re talking about Henry Ford’s actions in an earlier era. But the point is that such behavior couldn’t go on today and have the person remain so widely respected across the country as Ford was in his time.

    That’s why we have Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg in the series telling the story about what happened to Justice Louis Brandeis.
    CRUMM: He was appointed by President Wilson and became the first Jewish Supreme Court justice. But, your documentary points out that he was treated terribly, and in a public way, by another justice at the time.
    GRUBIN: We have Justice Ginsberg tell us what happened to Brandeis, because we need to see how far we’ve come as a people. We need to know that this is part of our history, that this is what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
    Can this happen again? Sure.
    We want people to ask: Is this happening now with other immigrant groups?
    Right now, as a country, we’re talking about whether we’re going to keep accepting people who are different. That is the challenge of our country. The Jewish story is a quintessential American story.
    I think for young people today there’s a different feeling about hearing the anti-Semitic stories of the past. My parents lived through this and I lived through this. I’m 63. I grew up with parents who lived in some real fear of this.
    My father was a doctor and there was a quota system in medical schools. Somehow, he managed to get into medical school but it wasn’t easy.
    Young people don’t have the same attitude when they hear these stories, today. Young people today won’t accept stereotypes. When stereotypes arise, they just throw it right back at you.
    We’ve come a long way. People have a confidence today that my parents’ generation didn’t have. My parents would shudder at some of the things we’re showing in this film. It’s important for people to remember all of this.

    CRUMM: For the title of the second of the three parts, you actually use Charles Dickens’ line, “The Best of Times; The Worst of Times,” to describe the turbulence of the mid-20th-Century for Jews. I like that because it reminds viewers that we could use that line in almost any era to describe various groups and various situations we face, right? You’re saying, it seems to me, that so many of these issues you’re describing are timeless and affect so many groups, not only Jews.
    GRUBIN: Yes. I really worked hard to make the film resonate today. It speaks to how the interviews were planned for this. I tried to choose people who could connect aspects of the past to our world today. So, we’ve got Tony Kushner talking about why Yiddish theater was so important.
    We have Dear Abby talking to us. I wanted to connect the history with today.

    CRUMM: As you look back in this way, is it tempting to judge people in the earlier eras? For example, you talk about all the stars in Hollywood who got rid of their Jewish names. Issur Danielovitch Demsky became Kirk Douglas; Emanuel Goldberg became Edward G. Robinson; Betty Joan Perske became Lauren Bacall (at right); Bernard Schwartz became Tony Curtis.
     How do you look back on the choices they made?
     GRUBIN: In terms of the stars, they felt that to be successful, this is what they had to do. From the point of view of a kid growing up and going to the movies, we hear from the writer Alfred Uhry, who has won an Oscar, a Pulitzer, a Tony award, talking to us. He says, for him, it would have been great, growing up, to go to the movies and know that some of these stars were Jewish heroes.
    People knew that Hank Greenberg and Bess Myerson were Jewish and they were heroes at the time.
    I don’t want to blame people in Hollywood for choices they made.
    But Alfred Uhry (who wrote “Driving Miss Daisy”) says it did stun him later to learn that some of the stars he enjoyed were Jewish. Growing up, he felt that the only way to really be part of America was not to be Jewish.
    That was sad. But it also shows how far we’ve come. It is exciting to see that America really is a more tolerant place than it once was.

    CRUMM: You point this out in a number of ways in the series. I was fascinated when you talked about Louis B. Mayer, the co-founder of MGM studios, that he and the other early movie moguls actually kept Jewish themes out of their movies, believing that these stories wouldn’t sell.
    Now, we’ve got this really amazing six-hour documentary on the PBS network and it’s soon to be released on DVD, too. That’s really a rebuff to Mayer, right? Times have changed.
    GRUBIN: Yes. This series couldn’t have been made even 20 years ago, because Jews themselves wouldn’t have had the confidence to tell their story in this way. The film itself becomes a testament to what we’ve been talking about today.

    PBS has its own Web Page for “The Jewish Americans,” which includes a video trailer for the series that you can see by clicking on the link near the top of their page.

    THINK ABOUT FORMING a ReadTheSpirit discussion circle in the new year! Click Here to read our earlier “how-to-form-a-circle” story.

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