Why "Jewish Americans" and not "American Jews"? That’s the question director David Grubin has been asked many times about the title of his most recent PBS documentary, "The Jewish Americans."
His answer, in an interview last week at Temple Emanu-El in Closter: "We say African-Americans and Latino-Americans, so the title is in keeping with that tradition."
Grubin, who moderated a panel discussion there based on the film, added, "It also affirms the idea that Jews have been changed by being in America."
The documentary tells how a minority became part of mainstream America, and the title, in Grubin’s view, captures the struggle of how Jews hold on to their identity.
The debate about what Jews would like to be called Jewish Americans or American Jews appears at the beginning of the multi-part documentary.
What made the Jewish immigrant experience different from that of others, said Grubin, is that Jews came to stay because they had nothing to go back to. Other immigrants, on the contrary, had some place to return, and they made money here and then went back home, he said.
He made the documentary not only for Jews but for all Americans, he said, and tried to explain in it that Jews are a "very complicated minority, because they are not only a religious group, but also a cultural, ethnic, and historical group."
The documentary, shown in January on PBS, follows Jewish life in America from the 17th century to the present. It has a companion book, "The Jewish Americans: Three Centuries of Jewish Life In America," by Beth Wenger (Doubleday, $’6.40).
Grubin has produced more than 100 films about history, art, poetry, and science, as well as biographies of four American presidents. He has won awards as a writer, a director, and a cinematographer, including an Emmy.
Explaining to the approximately 100 people that attended the panel how he made the film, Grubin said he originally planned it for four hours, but found so much material that he had to extend it to six.
He shot 150 hours of film, had access to ’50 archives, found some 10,000 photographs, and interviewed more than 100 people.
"Jews like to talk," he said smiling.
The panel included Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary; Shuly Rubin Schwartz, author of "The Rabbi’s Wife: The Rebbetzin in American Jewish Life" and dean of the Albert A. List College of Jewish Studies at JTS; and Rabbi Alan Silverstein of Cong. Agudath Israel in Caldwell.
Schwartz, opening the panel, said that one aspect that stands out in "The Jewish Americans" is that the range of opportunities to be involved in Jewish life is "enormous."
"Each Jew has the possibility to choose from so many options and try to find his or her place in the American Jewish landscape," she said. Although this is fulfilling, she added, it is also scary, because it involves choice, which means "we can opt out or opt in."
Silverstein, on the other hand, said that the "single one most important issue" in America has been the separation between Church and State, which has enabled religion to thrive. There has been a breakdown in religious leadership in England, Italy, and Israel but "we see its great strength in America. Jews have benefited tremendously and we should try very hard to preserve that."
Speaking about Jewish identity, Eisen said that young Jews are traumatized by the Holocaust and Jewish history and, despite how positive things are for Jews in America, some Jews expect to see anti-Semitism here in their lifetimes.
Today, he said, "you had better give people a good reason to be Jewish [and] we can’t simply say it is because our grandparents were Jews or because we lost too many people in the Holocaust."
Young Jews, he added, "aren’t sure about this tribal thing and, in fact, are upset by it. Some kids see [being urged] to marry another Jew as racist."
He said that he, like most people at the gathering, wants to have children and grandchildren who are Jewish, but he wouldn’t be disappointed if they end up living in another country and don’t have the liberties and privileges that America offers.
The panel followed JTS’s ‘008 New Jersey regional dinner, in which community leaders Jack and Lynne Hendler of Closter and Rabbi Joel Roth of Englewood, professor of Talmud and Jewish law at the seminary, were honored.
The Hendlers received the Erich Holzer Community Service Award. Roth, an expert on Jewish law, received the Rabbi Louis Finkelstein Rabbinic Leadership Award, named for a former chancellor of the seminary.