Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Jewish Americans (*******7/10)

Paramount is releasing The Jewish Americans, a PBS documentary, on February 5th (this coming Tuesday). Like most PBS documentaries, it is very long, very methodical, and extremely informative. It is six hours of information, which is just about enough time to cover 350 years of Jewish history in America. The two-disc set even has space for a few DVD extras, which are not terribly enticing, especially after sitting through the other six hours. It tells the history of Jewish people in many ways, and of course much attention is paid to anti-semitism. One of the most amazing things I learned in watching the film was that it was the mob hanging (following the wrongful conviction) of a Jewish man named Leo Frank that spurred the resurrection of the KKK. I must admit, I have rarely thought of the Jews in the same context as I have thought of black people, in terms of racism throughout history. Of course, the holocaust is the most horrific event perhaps in the history of mankind, but when I have considered Jewish people in North America, their battle against racism did not seem to me to be on a level with that of the black people. It's stories like the one of Leo Frank that make us realize that the difference is not so great.

That attitude changed for me a few years ago when I watched an excellent documentary, The Life And Times of Hank Greenberg. (I highly recommend picking this one up - it's available to order at stores that sell movies for like 6 bucks.) I have always been very excited to learn about the history of baseball, and as a child I used to take out the giant book of baseball from the library once a month and marvel over the stats put up by the likes of Jimmie Foxx, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Hack Wilson and of course, Hank Greenberg. 183 RBIs in a season! 58 home runs! Of course, with the advent of the steroid era in baseball, those numbers no longer seem astronomical, but I was a child before the steroids. When I watched that documentary, the idea that he was comparable to Jackie Robinson in any way was ridiculous to me. In fact, I wasn't even aware that Hank Greenberg was Jewish. But in many ways, he broke a barrier in baseball much the same way Robinson did. The crowds and the other players taunted him and berated him and showered him with anti-semitic vitriol.

And "The Jewish Americans" talks about Greenberg too. The fact that he sat out a game on Yom Kippur, something that was considered heresy by the baseball fanatics, drew all kids of ire from the anti-semites. The fact that he returned the next day to hit two home runs and win the pennant for the Tigers made him a hero to Jewish Americans everywhere. Other Jewish heroes touched upon include Irving Berlin, Kirk Douglas, Edward G. Robinson, and countless others. Modern Jewish celebrities make appearances - the best one is Jerry Stiller (father Costanza on Seinfeld), and the worst one is Liev Schrieber, who really drones on and on about yay America. Skip his segment. The Jewish Americans is an impressively researched, gigantic achievement for PBS, and it's something well worth watching for anyone interested in history. Not just Jewish history, but the history of immigration, racism, popular culture, and the United States. But be warned. It IS six hours long.

No comments:

Post a Comment