Grubin Gives History Lesson with 'The Jewish Americans'

The Jewish Americans, a new documentary series on PBS, extensively explores the history of Jews in America. David Grubin, the director of the series, explains the thinking behind the film and why he feels the story should be told.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, In Your Ear. Some performers tell us what they're listening to when they aren't singing themselves.

But first, in 1654, 23 Jews fleeing the inquisition arrived on the shores of the Dutch colony called New Amsterdam, now New York City. And so begins the saga of Jews in America. Last week, PBS launched the first of a three-part series of documentaries called "The Jewish Americans." The series continues tonight.

The creator of the series is David Grubin. He produced, directed and wrote it. And he joins me now in the studio.

Welcome.

Mr. DAVID GRUBIN (Director, "The Jewish Americans"): It's great to be here.

MARTIN: What got you started on this?

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, this is such a complex and such a rich, difficult story that I never imagined doing it. I never did. And somebody came to me from WETA and JTN, which is a production company out in L.A., and they said, would you try it? I didn't have the chutzpah to dream it up. I had the chutzpah to say yes.

MARTIN: And as you point out, the history of the Jewish people in America is an enormous topic, and you - I don't know how you arrived at six hours. You could have certainly gone on for many more. How did you decide what to leave in and what to leave out?

Mr. GRUBIN: I did not want it to be a hit parade of the great Jews who've contributed to American culture. I was searching for a theme. And the theme that I found most interesting was how Jews have embraced America, and yet at the same time, they've had to try to hold on to their identity as Jews. And that tension interested me. That became the theme, and that allowed me to make my decisions.

MARTIN: Can you just tell me a little bit about who those first 23 people were?

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, you know, they've been lost to history. No one knows now who they are. There's no descendants, and yet they are the first settlement. There were Jews who came before individually, but they were the first settlement.

MARTIN: Wait, wait, wait. If you don't know who they are, how do we know there were 23?

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, there are records that these 23 Jews arrived, Peter Stuyvesant said, hey, we don't want Jews here. But he also said we don't want Lutherans. I mean, he didn't want Quakers. He didn't - he wanted a homogenous society. And these 23 Jews said, wait a minute. We want to be here. This was New Amsterdam. They wrote back to Holland, and in Holland were the - was the Dutch West India Company, which controlled this colony. There were Jews on the board of that colony, and this company told Peter Stuyvesant - they were his boss. They said, hey, these Jews should stay here. They're good for the economy. And much as to the chagrin of Peter Stuyvesant, they stayed.

MARTIN: So let's fast forward to the Civil War. And in the series we learn that there were American Jews with important roles on both sides during the war -some 7,000 fought for the Union, and some 3,000 fought for the Confederacy. I love the story of the two men you focused on who are on opposite sides. One was a Colonel Marcus Spiegel, who fought in the Union Army, and I want to play a short clip about him.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Jewish Americans")

Unidentified Man #1: My dear beloved wife, Marcus wrote Caroline. On Saturday afternoon, the regiment was forced to advance under a furious fire of grape and canister shot. It was perfectly awful. How horrible was that field strewn with dead. I feel serious, but proud. And if anything does happen to me, I am only offering a small sacrifice for my beloved country.

MARTIN: That's a beautiful and heartbreaking story, and I won't go into all of it here, but why did you pick Colonel Spiegel?

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, Spiegel was a German immigrant. He came to this country with nothing, and he rose up - he became a - you know, first, he was a peddler, and then he did well and he had his own store, and he was doing very well. But he volunteered because the country meant so much to him, because he had opportunities here. He became a colonel. How could a German Jew, if he'd stayed over there, how could he had been a colonel?

When he first enlists, he enlists to fight for the Union, not because he has any feeling for the plight of the black people in the South. He doesn't care at all about slaves. He doesn't know anything about that. But by the time the war is over, he's met slaves and he - his whole goal shifts. By the end, he's fighting not only to keep the Union together, he's fighting for African-Americans, too, to free the slaves.

MARTIN: And I'm not going to give it away in case this is a story that you do not know. But he - a relative of his goes on to play an important role in the life of American commerce, and that would be…

Mr. GRUBIN: The Spiegel Company - the Spiegel Catalog Company. I could give it away.

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. GRUBIN: So just…

MARTIN: It's your film. You can give it away.

Mr. GRUBIN: Yeah. I'll give it away. But Marcus Spiegel dies in the war, but his brother goes on to found the Spiegel Catalog Company, which was one of the early catalogs. The Spiegel Catalog Company was kind of like the peddler, selling to all of the farm families out in the Midwest, and it did extremely well.

MARTIN: Who doesn't know the Spiegel Catalog? I had no idea that it dated back to the end of the Civil War. Judah Benjamin, right hand man of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. How on Earth did that happen?

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, here's the thing: most people think of Jews as sort of, you know, Northern liberals, most of them live in New York. They don't even realize that Jews lived in the South and Jews are a part of America. They were Southerners. They had slaves.

MARTIN: Oh, come on. If you saw "Driving Miss Daisy," we saw that. We know that.

Mr. GRUBIN: Well, I tell you. That's a story Jews weren't happy to tell. When you think of the Passover Seder, you think of the Haggadah, what is the Passover Seder about? It's about celebrating freedom from slavery. How could Southern Jews be sitting around the table, celebrating freedom from slavery and they're being served by slaves? Somebody in our film reflects on that. So it's a little difficult to understand, but yet here's Judah Benjamin. He had a plantation, and he had slaves.

Most Jews did not have plantations. They didn't live in the country, they lived in the cities. But they had slaves like other Southerners. Judah Benjamin was a loyal Southerner. He was a very good speaker, and he was devoted to the South. He was a senator. He actually had been nominated to the Supreme Court, the first Jew ever to be nominated. He turned it down, and he went on to become the right-hand man of Jefferson Davis - attorney general, secretary of state, secretary of war.

MARTIN: And, of course, he - this I insist you leave as a surprise, because he goes on to survive the Civil War and has another whole chapter in his life, which is quite fascinating.

We're going to move on to the major period of Jewish immigration to America, began, of course, in the late 19th century, and that's where we learn about the major Jewish role in the building of the labor union movement, and a very moving section about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911. I want to play a short clip from that.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Jewish Americans")

Unidentified Man #1: A storm of fire tore through the elevators and stairs to the floors above, the (unintelligible) reported. There where knots of horrified girls who stood in despair.

(Soundbite of explosion)

Unidentified Man #2: The disaster was on the ninth floor. The fire escape was not designed for hundreds of panicked people. It tore away from the wall, and two dozen people were spilled to their deaths.

MARTIN: Of course, being from New York myself, I feel like I grew up knowing about this. But I'm not sure that's the case for everybody. Tells us, again, why this was such an important event?

Mr. GRUBIN: It was the worst industrial disaster that the country had ever experienced. It was horrible. Over 140 women and some men died, too, in this fire, and it was tragic.

MARTIN: And the people who survived - awful injuries, awful injuries. And it led to major reforms, major labor reforms.

Mr. GRUBIN: Right. It galvanized the union and it galvanized the reformers, and those reforms eventually found their way into the Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal legislation.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with David Grubin. He's the producer, writer and director of "The Jewish Americans," a documentary series that's continuing on PBS.

Part two then focuses a lot on the cultural impact of the Jewish Americans, on American entertainment. Talk a little bit about that.

Mr. GRUBIN: We call part two The Best of Times, The Worst of Times. It was the worst of times because anti-Semitism was horrible in the early 20th century and on through the '20s and '30s - Father Coughlin spewing hate on the radio in a way you can't - you can't do that today. I mean, it would be unbelievable to say the kind of anti-Semitic things he said.

Henry Ford, another great hater. Here is a man who was a secular saint at the time, and he hated Jews, and he had a whole newspaper devoted to it. All that we tell, but within that context of this terrible anti-Semitism, Jews had their own world. It was almost a parallel universe. They couldn't get into colleges because there were quotas. They made their own colleges, the city college, for example. They formed their own hospitals. They formed their own communities. And they went into what were marginal economic enterprises at the time - the movies. And, you know, the Hollywood moguls, most of them were Jewish. The men who created our idea of Hollywood were mostly Jews.

MARTIN: I think that it might be surprise to a lot of people that the presence of Jews in all these industries arose because they were shut out of so many others.

Mr. GRUBIN: Right. They had to take their advantages where they could find them.

MARTIN: And, of course, part three covers the post-World War II era up to the present, and, of course, we're skipping around, you know, wildly, like - you know, what can we do?

Mr. GRUBIN: Why not?

MARTIN: But one of the most important stories of that era was the alliance forged between the Jews and African-Americans in the civil rights movement, which changed and remains complicated.

Mr. GRUBIN: Yeah. That is a story we spend more time on than any other. It's a very moving and complicated story, because it begins with great hope: Jews standing alongside African-Americans. Of all white people that made alliances with African-Americans, the Jews were far in a much higher proportion than any other ethnic group. Jews going down South, most of the lawyers, more than 50 percent of them - they were Jews. The freedom writers - who were with the white people that went? Something like 70, 75 percent were Jews.

We interviewed James Farmer. He spoke to that. Quite incredible. Great alliance. African-Americans, at a certain point, say, hey. Wait a minute. We need to have control of our movement our self. We need to do it on our own. And Jews understood, but they were heartbroken - heartbroken. And that's part of the story we tell. There's a tragic split between African-Americans and Jews in Brooklyn in 1968, when Jewish teachers go out on strike and the African-American community which controls the schools feel, wait a minute. We need to have our own - get control of our schools. We need to be able to appoint principals. Jews disagree, and it's tragic because both - you feel both sides are right. You feel both sides are wrong. You feel anti-Semitism comes out of the black community. Racial hatred on the Jewish. It's a terrible story. And the tensions between African-Americans and Jews never - it never quite goes away after that.

MARTIN: Are you at all concerned that because you're committed to - you know, and Reverend Jackson says if you're going to tell it, tell it all - that your mission here is to tell the range of stories. I mean, you talk about Jewish mobsters, you know?

Mr. GRUBIN: Right.

MARTIN: You talked about all of these things. Is there going to be any lingering concern about how the community is presented?

Mr. GRUBIN: I think that we can tell our story today. Jews can tell their story in a way they never could before because they have confidence and they have pride that 50 years ago, you couldn't have told this story. Jews were very afraid of what everybody else would think of them. They didn't want to tell the side of their story which could be negative. I can understand that.

Today, we can tell all sides. We can say that the - in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire where hundreds died, that factory was owned by two Jews. Okay, these guys were guys that came and they worked their way up through the sweat shops. So a lot of the factories were owned by Jews.

We can tell that side of the story. And I have tremendous confidence in - that the Jewish community today will appreciate that because that is what the way the Old Testament tells the story of Jews. They're not - the heroes in the Old Testament are all imperfect. They're not perfect people. They're all flawed. We can tell it straight today.

MARTIN: David Grubin is the writer, director and producer of "The Jewish Americans," a three-part series that continues on Wednesday on PBS stations around the country. You'll want to check your local listings for that.

David Grubin, thank you so much for coming in.

Mr. GRUBIN: Thank you.

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