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Documentary director/producer David Grubin has won three Emmys and three Peabody Awards for TV films on subjects as diverse as Bobby Kennedy, Abe Lincoln, Marie Antoinette, Sigmund Freud, degenerate art and Texas. But he says his latest project, an ambitious opus encompassing 350 years and millions of lives, is his most personal to date.

"The Jewish Americans," a six-hour series premiering tonight on PBS, and continuing on Wednesdays through Jan. 23, explores the many paths that have brought Jews to America and the many more paths they've embarked upon after reaching its shores, often while enduring persecution.

"I am not a religious Jew, and in making the film, I saw my place in its narrative," Grubin says. "There are a lot of ways of being Jewish. People say, 'I am a Christian because I go to church; how can you be a Jew if you don't go to synagogue?'

"But there's a whole history within our people, a tradition of rational skepticism, of questioning. There are many imperfect and flawed and complex people who are a part of this religion, which is a religion of gratitude, not a religion of sin. Traditionally we've been the outsider, looking at the mainstream slightly askew. I found my place in the narrative that way. Making this film is an expression of my Jewishness."

More than anything, Grubin says, "The Jewish Americans" looks at the myriad ways Jews have assimilated into this country while maintaining their sense of identity.

"This film is about how America changed Jews, not just about how Jews changed America," he says. "What caught my attention was both the way Jews tried to be part of American life and how some resisted assimilating because they wanted to hold on to their heritage. Jews' sense of identity is important to them. I want you to see the effect of being Jewish: How is your religion changed by coming to America?"

The film, narrated by Liev Schreiber, includes interviews with nine rabbis, numerous historians, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, playwright Tony Kushner and celebrities such as Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner and Mandy Patinkin. Grubin interviewed more than 100 people, sifted through archives unearthing 10,000 photographs and 150 hours of footage -- and what began as a four-hour project quickly expanded to six.

One thing that struck Grubin was how Jewish performers used to conceal their background. He was amazed to hear from Reiner that despite working with largely Jewish casts and writing staffs, he avoided dropping Yiddish comedy into scripts, and that he and Mel Brooks initially felt that no one outside their circle of Jewish friends would get the humor of their beloved character, the 2,000-year-old Man.

"We were very Jewish (on 'Your Show of Shows'), no question about it," Reiner says. "Sid was Jewish. I was Jewish. Howie Morris was Jewish. Imogene Coca wasn't. The writers were mainly Jewish. But we wrote American. We didn't call these characters Jewish names. ... I never thought of myself as performing as a Jew or being a Jewish actor on those."

That that's no longer an issue is testament to Jewish progress in America, Grubin says, as is the fact that he can also explore the dark side of Jewish behavior in the country's history.

"It's important that people know Jews are Americans, that they live in the South, that they had slaves and fought on both sides of the Civil War," Grubin notes. "And while I knew that Jews were exploited on New York's Lower East Side in sweatshops, what I didn't realize until working on this was how many of those sweatshops were owned by Jews. But why not? Jews are Americans. People weren't comfortable talking about it. There wasn't that kind of confidence even 50 years ago to tell that kind of story, warts and all.

"Jews today are capable of having their whole story told," Grubin continues. "We don't have to worry about what people will think of us. Jews are not perfect; they're flawed people. That really is the kind of history I'm trying to do -- to tell the story honestly and from all sides."

And while some corners are already grousing about omissions (prominent contemporary Jewish authors are given short shrift, for example), Grubin responds, "Some people might say, 'Why didn't you do my favorite comedians or sports stars?' That's not the point of the series. This is not an encyclopedia. I'm not doing a greatest-hits list. That was never my intention. I was interested in chasing ideas and themes."

David Kronke, (818) 713-3638


>What: Six-hour documentary miniseries on Jews assimilating - and maintaining their sense of identity - in America.

>Where: KCET (Channel 28).

>When: 9 p.m. Wednesday through Jan. 23.
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Title Annotation:LA.COM
Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 2008

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