David Grubin’s epic documentary about Jewish life and accommodation in the United States begins and ends with scenes of the ship that brought 23 Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Brazil to safety in New Amsterdam. In between, over the six hours of "The Jewish Americans," are such staples of American-Jewish history as Congregation Shearith Israel in Manhattan, the immigrant experience on the Lower East Side and the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire.
But it’s more than New York City.
The documentary also includes segments on the historic Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., colonial life in Charleston, S.C., peddlers taking their wares and their Jewish practices out West, Judah Benjamin’s rise to power in the Confederacy, Leo Frank’s lynching in Georgia, and Louis Brandeis’ early assimilated years in Louisville, Ky.
The Jews in "The Jewish Americans" lived outside of the five boroughs here, outside of the Northeast, outside of urban areas, the documentary stresses.
"It was totally intentional," Grubin says. "I wanted to break away from the stereotype" that New York City, which quickly became this country’s biggest Jewish population center, was the only important location of Jewish life.
"Often, in New York, there is a tendency to overlook the fact that there are interesting Jewish communities all over America," he says. "Jews are in every state of the Union. They are woven into the geography as well as the history of America.
"I think it’s going to surprise people" in the Northeast, Grubin says. Take "Blazing Saddles." Mel Brooks’ portrayal of a Yiddish-speaking Indian chief "depends on the notion that you don’t imagine Jews in the West."
"The Jewish Americans" focuses attention on such little-known figures as Marcus Spiegel, an émigré soldier in the Union Army from Ohio who became an opponent of slavery before dying in the Civil War, and Anna Solomon, a 19th-century frontier woman who operated a successful store and hotel in Arizona before eventually moving to Los Angeles.
"Particularly in the 19th century," the role of Jews in spreading Judaism to far-flung parts of the country was "very powerful," Grubin says. "To maintain Judaism where there were very few Jews was a strong challenge — a lot of this had to become more personal." Often lacking rabbis or trained Jewish leaders, the isolated Jews in the South and the West had to make their own kosher food or round up their own minyan if they wanted Jewish life to continue.
New York City, of course, plays a major role in Grubin’s production. The Jewish Daily Forward and the Yiddish theater and Tin Pan Alley, cultural markers in the country’s Jewish life, are featured over the documentary’s six hours.
And there are many scenes of the Lower East Side, many immigrants’ early homes.
"We spent a good deal of time on the Lower East Side," Grubin says, "because the Lower East Side was so important."