PBS documentary traces 350 years of Jewish migration

“You survive, you honor us by living,” Martin Greenfield’s father told him.
February 18, 2015

“You survive, you honor us by living,” Martin Greenfield’s father told him. Greenfield, now a New York master tailor, recalled the words after his liberation from the Buchenwald concentration camp.

The quote could be taken as the theme of “The Jewish Journey: America,” a PBS documentary that tracks the migrations over 3 1/2 centuries of Jews fleeing the Latin American Inquisition, czarist Russia, Nazi Germany and Islamic nations.

Although many Jews came to America seeking refuge from persecution by authorities in those and other countries, millions more came for economic reasons — to build better lives for themselves and their children in the New World.

The one-hour program, which opens with a majestic rendition of “America the Beautiful,” is produced, directed and written by Andrew Goldberg, who has become the semi-official Jewish chronicler for PBS, with such previous productions as “The Yiddish World Remembered,” “Anti-Semitism in the 21st Century: The Resurgence” and “Jerusalem: Center of the World.”

The first Jews to arrive in the future United States, in 1654, were 23 Sephardim fleeing the Portuguese-imposed Inquisition in Brazil. They settled in New Amsterdam, which would later become New York.

More would come to the U.S. after failed revolutions in Germany and other European countries in the 1840s, and then later by gold rush fortune seekers. Yet by the 1870s, Jews in the United States numbered no more than 200,000.

The number skyrocketed to more than 4.2 million by 1927, spurred by a massive influx of 1.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe, predominantly Russia, between 1880 and 1910.

The film also speaks to the Jewish penchant for founding communities, then splitting and re-forming into even more separate groups — some 17,500 Jewish organizations existed in the U.S. in 1927.

The mass immigration from the czarist Pale of Settlement gives the film an opening, drawing upon on various archives, to illustrate the lives of poor Jews — the wealthy ones mostly stayed put — both in the shtetl in the old country, and then in New York’s crowded Lower East Side.

Often overlooked in the triumphant rendition of the American dream is the emotional price depicted in the film that was paid by emigrants as they separated from the families and traditions that had bound them together for generations.

Although the new immigrants went through hard times in the New World, they usually wrote glowing letters of their success to the folks they’d left behind, which triggered even more immigration.

With the post-World War I recession and fear of the communist revolution in Russia came growing xenophobia, culminating in the Immigration Act of 1924, which narrowed the once wide-open entrance to the United States, especially to applicants from Eastern and Southern Europe.

A small but steady trickle of Jews arrived after World War II from displaced-persons camps. More came after establishment of the State of Israel, fleeing hostility to Jews in Islamic countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

Another wave arrived after the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, followed by Soviet Jews in the 1990s.

Integration of these new immigrants was rarely easy. In an illuminating interview, New York Rabbi Marc Angel recalled the dual pressure from his grandfather to strive for success in the new country, but to also retain the Jewish traditions.

Yet, Angel concluded, the real miracle was that after so many generations in America, Jews have remained Jews.

Producer-director Goldberg, who founded and heads Two Cats Productions, ascribes much of his interest in Jewish-themed films to his own heritage but says there are other reasons, as well.

“For one, PBS likes our work, and also there is a community that is willing to fund such documentaries,” he said.

It should be noted that only about one-third of Goldberg’s productions focus on Jewish themes, and his interests extend to many other areas. Now in the pipeline are a documentary on animal cruelty and another on the interpretation of classical music.

“The Jewish Journey: America” airs March 5 at 8 p.m. on KVCR and March 18 at 7:30 p.m. on KOCE (PBS SoCal). The program will be repeated in subsequent weeks. 

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