Tuesday, February 19, 2008

This piece was first published in Curled Up with a Good Book.

This documentary which runs in three episodes chronicles 350 years of Jewish history in the United States. Emmy award winner director-writer David Grubin takes us on a historical tour that begins with the first Jewish settlers that arrived in this country in 1654. Over the centuries, fresh waves of immigration followed and as Jews assimilated into their new country they had to do a constant balancing act between their national and Jewish identities. And although they participated in the American war of Independence, and later in large numbers in the Civil War (where they fought both as Union and Confederate soldiers), it would take more than a century for them to establish their identity as "Jewish Americans".

Grubin takes us into the early 19th century in Charleston, S.C., which was the first major Jewish settlement. It was here that large numbers of Jews prospered and participated in public life, promptly them to call Charleston their Jerusalem and Palestine. We are told the story of Judah Benjamin, a Charleston native, who attained the post of attorney general in the confederacy. However his fall from grace and escape to Great Britain also indicates that all was not well. The oldest synagogues reiterate the same tale. Newport’s Touro synagogue, one of the oldest existing synagogues in America resembles a typical colonial building. This, says, architect James Polshek meant "You should be like everybody else on the outside and express your Judaism, your faith, on the inside."

Although America had no official religion and citizens had the right to practice their own religion, the states states had the power to prevent Jews from voting or holding public office. In Maryland it required a special piece of legislation the "Jew Bill" to change the status. Even as late as the early decades of the 20th century, discrimination against Jews remained rampant. As Supreme Court Justice Ruth Ginsburg reminisces, "Many publics places had the signs that read Dogs and Jews not allowed."

Toward the end of the 19th century and soon after with World War I, huge waves of immigration was soon to change the structure and attitude within the Jewish community. Yiddish newspapers such as Forward (Forverts), literature, films and theatre flourished drawing attention to contemporary topics such as immigration, assimilation, economic welfare, rights of workers and women. From then on Jewish identity was also linked to social movements in America, of which the alliance with the Civil Rights movement gained great prominence.

In the past few decades, the rise of Zionism in America ("Palestine and extension of the American dream") and the 80s movement to support the Jews in USSR, show that American society is open to Jews and Jewish problems. Yet many Jewish Americans wonder about how their future generations will perceive their heritage and identity. As Hassidic rapper Matisyahu who tries to find his Judaec roots through music says, "We don't have that same struggle, it is a different struggle now. And the struggle here is fighting a silent death, a spritual sleep, to try to waken up."

A fascinating story of Jewish struggle, this is ultimately a chronicle of immigrant experience too. An experience that has shaped generations in America and eventually made this nation into a melting point of various cultures from all over the world.


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