The Power Of A Hyphen


The 2000-Year-Old Man tells a 350-year-old story — about Jews in the United States.

The now-classic comedy routine of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, a new PBS documentary suggests, delivers a serious moral message about Jewish identity, about Jewish self-confidence, and about how the act itself became a part of popular American culture.

In "The Jewish Americans," a three-part series spanning six hours that begins Wednesday on PBS, Reiner tells how he and Brooks, writers on Sid Caesar’s "Your Show of Shows" in the 1950s, developed their ad-lib routine about a kvetchy, two-millennia-old codger for a small circle of Jewish friends.

The 2000-Year-Old Man had a Yiddish accent, but for 10 years nobody knew it.

Reiner tells the documentary’s off-screen interviewer that he and Brooks, who had grown up in Jewish milieus in New York City, were afraid of making fun of a Yiddish accent in front of a non-Jewish audience. They "weren’t sure what the ‘goyim’ were going to think," says David Grubin, producer of the series.

Finally convinced that the 2000-Year-Old Man would have appeal in wider circles, Brooks and Reiner released their first album in 1961. It, and subsequent albums, became hits.

If they started their routine today, Reiner often says, they would have no doubts about making the 2000-Year-Old Man a public figure immediately.

That story, of self-doubt and self-assertion, "typifies" the arc of the documentary, Grubin says. "It’s not ‘the best hits of Jews in America.’ It’s how this tiny minority struggles to become part of the mainstream."

The series, produced by Grubin, a multiple Emmy- and Peabody-award winner, focuses on the challenges Jews faced in becoming part of American society while maintaining their distinct ethnic and religious identity. The programs, Grubin says, ask, "How do you negotiate being an American and being Jewish?"

The answer in Grubin’s documentary: Jews have slowly reached a balance, overcoming predictable problems like anti-Semitism, making a place for themselves in American society rarely attained by Jews anywhere.

A classic joke tells the same story:

Beryl, pious but poor, was applying for a job as shamesh of a shul in Pinsk. The interview was going well, until the president of the shul handed Beryl the shul bulletin, in Yiddish, to read. Embarrassed, Beryl admitted that he was illiterate.

"We can’t hire a shamesh who doesn’t know how to read," the shul president said.

With no other prospects in Pinsk, Beryl sailed to America. Like other immigrants, he became a peddler. He prospered. Quickly he was a business owner, then a magnate, then a multi-millionaire.

In a business meeting one day, one of Beryl’s employees handed him a report to read. "I don’t know how to read," Beryl told him.

The employee was amazed. "Do you know where you would be today if you knew how to read?" he asked.

"Of course," Beryl answered. "I’d be a shamesh in Pinsk."

The story of Jews in the United States is largely a story of success, the documentary asserts. Immigrants with few prospects in their native countries, like Beryl, found open opportunities here. The programs report both on the problems the early American Jews faced, like immigration and college admission quotas, "restricted" hotels and outright violence ("I wanted to tell this as honestly as I can," Grubin says.) and on the progress they made in becoming the cream of business leaders, politicians and entertainers (American Jews today exhibit "an enormous amount of confidence.")

Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., the documentary notes, was build in 1762 to be inconspicuous, to draw no attention to itself as a Jewish site. Also featured are more recent Jewish houses of worship built in this country, assertively Jewish.

Beginning with the arrival of 23 Jewish refugees from Recife, Brazil, in 1654, and ending with Matisyahu’s border-crossing reggae-singing-chasid performances, Grubin divides his fit-in-or-stand-out theme into dozens of small, symbolic stories. Pioneer Jews staying Jewish on the frontier. Hank Greenberg debating whether to play on the High Holy Days, during a baseball pennant chase. Southern Jews expressing their ambivalence to the civil rights movement. Jews in many fields, over many years, changing their names.

The documentary is the story of a hyphen — the hyphen in Jewish-American — and the balance between being a Jewish-American or an American Jew. Which is the noun, which the adjective? Are "Jew" and "American" separate words, and identities, or are they joined by a hyphen?

"The Jewish Americans" — no hyphen — offers many answers, but the consensus opinion is that identities that once battled each other now reinforce each other.

Hence, the popularity of the 2000-Year-Old Man, and the ubiquity of Yiddish in American culture.

Grubin says the success of the album is a prominent example of his documentary’s major thesis: that after decades of self-doubt and anti-Semitism and assimilation and accommodation, most Jews in this country today feel equally at home asserting their Jewish and their American identities.

From Haven To Home

America, says Hebrew Union College President David Ellenson in the documentary, has evolved from haven to home.

For earlier generations of immigrants, "The Jewish Americans" shows, the U.S. was a mixed blessing. "The Goldene Medina" or "The Treife Medina." A place paved with gold or a society with unkosher values.

According to everyone interviewed in the documentary, including Orthodox Jews, American Jewry has come to see America as a blessing.

That’s why Grubin ended his documentary with a segment about Matisyahu, dressed in a chasidic Jew’s conservative black garb, doing his riffs before young, hip, non-Jewish crowds. "That’s the whole story. Here is a guy who is as Jewish as you can be. But he is as American as you can be."

The documentary itself is a sign of change, Grubin says.

"You can actually tell this story now." Fifty years ago, the series would not have been made. Grubin, who works and lives in Manhattan, would not have considered the topic, and prominent Jews would not have agreed to be interviewed. "They wouldn’t stick their necks out."

Grubin did more than 100 interviews for the documentary, which he calls "an ensemble of voices.

"I’ve never interviewed so many people," he says.

The interviewees include regular people who had unique memories of such experiences as the Borscht Belt. The list reads largely like a 20th-Century Who’s Who of American Jewish life: Actor Fyvush Finkel, playwright Tony Kushner, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, author Julius Lester, leading feminist author Letty Pogrebin, University of Pennsylvania President Amy Gutmann, historian Jonathan Sarna and Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus.

"America is unique," Grubin says. "Nowhere [else] in the world is there this variety of Jewishness.

"I don’t look at this as a ‘Jewish story,’" Grubin adds. "I look at this as the quintessential American story," often told from a general, outsider’s perspective. "It’s the story of the American dream."

Or one group’s chase of the dream.

"This is the American story," says Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions and one of the documentary’s executive producers. "We are a country built on the hopes and dreams of immigrants who aspired to make their mark and struggled to keep their identities. It was true 350 years ago, and it remains true today."

Why Another Study Of U.S. Jews?

The story of American Jews has been thoroughly documented, in print and on film. Why is another study of the subject, especially a six-hour one, needed?

"There’s nothing like this in this medium," Grubin says. Previous documentaries about the topic were less comprehensive, less introspective, he says. "There’s never been a history of Jews in America this extensive on television."

Grubin, who had done previous documentaries on such subjects as art and medicine and poetry, was finishing a project for an under-construction museum about American Jewry in Philadelphia when he was approached about what became "The Jewish Americans" by PBS’ D.C. affiliate and the Jewish Television Network Productions company three years ago.

"My first reaction was ‘yes,’" he says. "I knew the material."

Funders for the $3.2 million production included the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and several private Jewish foundations.

"It started out as four hours." Grubin did more research, reviewing 10,000 photographs, obtaining 150 hours of archival film, conducting more than 200 hours of interviews.

"I said, ‘I can’t do this in four hours,’" he says. "I’m taking stories that are huge and complicated," editing them into a final product that is "focused and tight."

With narration by Liev Schreiber, excerpts from centuries-old letters and diaries, a musical score by Michael Bacon, reenactment of historical scenes by professional actors and interviews with descendants of several historical figures, "The Jewish Americans" has the feel of a Ken Burns documentary, with a tug more at the mind than at the heart.

"This isn’t a personal documentary," Grubin says, although the series reflects, in small part, his life, and in large part, his ethos. "You can’t help but find yourself in the narrative."

He grew up in Hillside, N.J., in "Philip Roth country," an eastern, urban, heavily Jewish environment in the shadow of New York City.

Three of his grandparents were immigrants, from Russia and Austria-Hungary. They spoke Yiddish at home, "but they wanted to leave the Old Country behind.

"They never wanted to talk about that world. They wanted to be American."

Grubin grew up secular.

His documentary includes secular Jewish life, haredi Jewish life, and the development of non-Orthodox denominations.

"There is more than one type of Jew. There are many ways to be Jewish in America," he says. "I feel respect for all the different ways of being Jewish."

Through three years of immersion in aspects of Jewish life, through meetings with "some wonderful rabbis," Grubin says he came to "feel more Jewish. I didn’t become more religious."

Playwright Alfred Uhry tells in the documentary how he has climbed "the Jew scale" of identity as he aged.

Grubin says he feels the same way. That is why he made "The Jewish Americans," he says.

In an earlier time, says Grubin, now at work on a documentary about J. Robert Oppenheimer, head of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb, he would have stuck to art and medicine and poetry.

In an earlier time, the 2000-Year-Old Man would have stayed in the living rooms of Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s friends.

In an earlier time, Beryl would be a shamesh in Pinsk.

"The Jewish Americans" will be shown on WNET-Channel 13 on Wednesdays Jan. 9, 16 and 23 at 9 p.m.