Leaving and arriving – and crossing the sea — is long part of the Jewish narrative. When the ancient Israelites left Egypt, the sea split and they crossed over. Many Jewish immigrants to America had to endure crossings over rough seas, often crowded into the underbelly of the ship, in steerage.
Andrew Goldberg’s new documentary, “The Jewish Journey: America,” which premieres this week on PBS, focuses on the lesser known aspects of the immigrant experience: why Jews left their Old Worlds for America, and how they got here. Goldberg covers five centuries, telling stories of Jews leaving Europe as well as the Moslem world.
The film is visually beautiful, with striking black-and-white photographs and archival footage, along with scholars and writers talking about history or their own family’s experience.
The Emmy Award-winning producer/director Goldberg tells The Jewish Week, “I just love history and I love personal stories.” He especially likes telling stories that tie in with struggle and transformation.”
“This is a place we haven’t explored before,” Goldberg, founder of Two Cats Productions, says.
Very often, generations of families were split by immigration. Rabbi Marc Angel comments, “My Grandmother Romey, used to tell us, when she left and she said good-bye to her parents, and she knew then she would never see them again. And the parents said, ‘You have to go to America, because there's no future for you here.’ And the parents knew they would never see their children again.”
Rabbi Angel, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Shearith Israel, adds, “Those people were made out of material that you don't see that anymore.”
Michael Stanislawski, a professor Jewish history at Columbia, comments, “To move to a place, to leave everything behind and move to a place where you don’t know your way around, you don’t know the language, you don’t know the culture, and you don’t have the moorings of traditional society.”
Other commentators, including historians Rebecca Kobrin and Hasia Diner, Rabbi Brad Hirschfield and journalist Joe Berger, speak of the hardships immigrants left behind and the new hardships they faced, and they speak of identity and religious life. The strength of the documentary is in the details, whether the conditions in steerage, or the cosmopolitan life of Cairo.
Martin Greenfield, a tailor who was born in Europe and survived the Holocaust, speaks with longing of the cakes his grandmother would make every morning.
Writers Andre Aciman and Lucette Lagnado describe their own families’ exodus from Egypt and entry into America. Lagnado speaks of “leaving and we would never, never come back again. And that’s what we did. And it was almost as if there was an erasure, an erasing of the life of the Jews of Egypt.”
Lagnado also addresses the disappointments of America, “The American dream was not supposed to be about the dissolution of the family,” she says.
Goldberg, who has made documentaries on the Armenian genocide and “A Yiddish World Remembered” among many others, was inspired in part by his own family story. He had often heard about how his great-grandparents “crossed a river” in escaping and lost their candlesticks into the river.
“I don’t cross rivers, I drive over them. And I don’t carry my candlesticks in a way they would drop into a river. It’s such a different world, different circumstances, different challenges.”
“The Jewish Journey: America” premieres on Tuesday, March 3 at 8 pm on PBS. Check local listings for repeated viewings.