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The Jewish Americans - documentary DVD / art house DVD / experimental DVD review
THE JEWISH AMERICANS Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America rating: 4 1/2 stars
Narrator: Liev Schreiber
Director: David Grubin   Distributor: PBS Paramount
DVD release: 05 February 2008   Runtime: 360 min. (2 discs)
Format: Color, Dolby, DVD-Video, Widescreen, NTSC
DVD Features: Languages (Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo - English), Deleted scenes, Interview with director David Grubin

The Jewish Americans chronicles 350 years of Jewish history in the United States. Written and directed by Emmy Award winner David Grubin, this documentary takes us on a historical tour that begins with the first Jewish settlers to arrive 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. Although they participated in the American War of Independence, and later in large numbers in the Civil War (where they fought on both sides), 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, South Carolina, which was the first major Jewish settlement. Here large numbers of Jews prospered and participated in public life. They often called Charleston their Jerusalem and Palestine. Judah Benjamin, a Charleston native, attained the post of attorney general in the Confederacy; however his fall from grace is indicative of the fact that all was not well. The oldest synagogues, too, tell the same story. 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 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.

Toward the end of the 19th century and soon after with World War I, huge waves of immigration were soon to change the shape and structure of 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, and the 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 is an 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 Judaic 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 spiritual 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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reviewed by Shampa Chatterjee
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