The Jewish Journey: America traces Jewish immigration to America through the centuries. The one-hour documentary, the latest PBS commission from Emmy award-winning director Andrew Goldberg (A Yiddish World Remembered, The Armenian Genocide), premieres on March 16th at 7:30pm on KBTC. The film is narrated by Emmy Award-winning journalist Martha Teichner of CBS News.
Unlike other immigrant stories, Jewish-American history has been rooted in an ever-changing “Old Country” (South America, Europe, Russia, North Africa, and the Middle East to name a few). Interviews with top scholars in Jewish history, notable Jewish-American writers, and many immigrants themselves detail the varied stories of migration through the last five centuries, with a rarely explored look at the actual journeys to get here.
The Jewish Journey: America begins by exploring what it meant to be part of a tight-knit Jewish community in this diverse range of countries, and what prompted those families to leave their enclaves for America. Some left the warmth of multi-generational Eastern European shtetls or cities for the experience of life in a land with seemingly unending horizons. As the film explains, contrary to common belief, most of these Jewish families and those from Russia came not to escape pogroms but actually for economic opportunity. Others made the “Jewish Journey” from the Islamic World. In these lands many Jews had to leave when the politics and treatment of Jews changed with the creation of Israel in 1948, and for other political and economic reasons in the years and decades that followed. More recently, Persian Jews who left Iran in the late 1970s recall hiding their identity under the Ayatollah’s regime until they could escape.
Whatever the reason, these families and those who came in other waves made a leap of faith in search of the American Dream. For them, staying was not an option, yet leaving meant unimaginable heartbreak as parents said goodbye to children they knew they would never see again. As historians and first to fourth generation Americans relate in the film, the risk came with the hope that this trek by foot, train, boat or plane would be rewarded with a better life for themselves and future generations. Throughout the film, these stories are enhanced by incredible archival photographs and footage that put the viewer in the place of those brave men, women and so often children who made it to America whatever way they could.
Moving through the centuries, the film follows the trajectory of Jewish American life from the earliest arrivals in the mid-17th century through the impact of the Nazi regime in World War II, the creation of Israel, and the new challenges of 21st century assimilation. The current generation of American-born Jews now identify with their religion by choice as the culture has become mainstream and intermarriage more prevalent. Among those interviewed in the film are two American-born rabbis whose own “Jewish Journey” took them from an assimilated household with no real roots in the rituals of the religion back to a life of observance.
Holocaust survivor and master tailor Martin Greenfield, who was on the very last transport out of Auschwitz, offers one answer in the film as he quotes his father — “You survive, you honor us by living.” It is a statement that can be attributed to many groups who came to America, making The Jewish Journey: America unique in its details but universally understood by all of those who came from somewhere else.