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Film / The Jewish Americans

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"They wanted to maintain their identity as Jews. They wanted to be fully accepted as Americans."
- Narration

The Jewish Americans is a 2008 PBS documentary miniseries covering 350 years in the lives of Jews living in America, beginning with the arrival of the first 23 Jewish refugees in New Amsterdam (now New York) in 1654 and ending in the present day.

The central themes in this documentary are the struggles of American Jews to live in a country that often did not accept them, as well as the tug of war American Jews faced between assimilating into American culture and holding onto their Jewish heritage.


The documentary is divided into four parts: "They Came to Stay", "A World of Their Own", "The Best of Times, The Worst of Times", and "Home". It was written and directed by David Grubin, narrated by Liev Schreiber, with many interviews of Jewish Americans interspersed throughout.

Tropes applying to this documentary are:

  • Adult Fear: As this documentary follows the history of American Jews, it mentions many hardships and tragedies they faced.
    • Fleeing your home and coming to a strange and unwelcoming land because people in your birth country are trying to force you to abandon your religion or are trying to outright kill you.
    • Watching your brother bleed out and die in your arms.
    • Being murdered by an angry mob for a crime you didn't commit.
    • Being trapped on the ninth story of a burning building, with the only choices being to stay and die by burning or jump and die from the impact of the fall.
    • A major world power trying very hard to murder every single member of your race, including you and your entire family.
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  • All Jews Are Ashkenazi: Averted. Jews who came to America came from many different places, and most of the Jews mentioned consider themselves simply American Jews.
  • Badass Israeli: When Israel was at war with its neighbors during its early years, many American Jews volunteered to fight for Israel. Many more, while staying in America, still provided financial support and military supplies to Israel to help keep it afloat.
  • Category Traitor: Abigail Frank disowned their children for marrying gentiles. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris are more justified example, as the horrible conditions in the factory they owned resulted in a fire that killed hundreds of workers (many of whom were poor Jews).
  • Dying Declaration of Love: Before Leo Frank is murdered, he asks them to return his wedding ring to his wife. Downplayed in that she was his wife, and thus probably already knew that he loved her.
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  • Even Evil Has Standards: When Leo Frank was about to be lynched, he asked his lynchers to give his wedding ring to his wife. They actually did this, instead of simply keeping the ring or pawning it off.
  • The Exile: After the Civil War, Judah P. Benjamin fled to Britain to avoid being tried for siding with the Confederacy. There he became a judge.
  • False Rape Accusation: Leo Frank was convicted of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, and was sentenced to death. His sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, but he was soon after lynched by an angry mob.
  • Final Solution: The Holocaust is mentioned in this documentary. It horrified many Jews overseas, and after it ended the American Jews were the largest Jewish Community in the world as a result of so many European Jews being murdered.
  • Funny Foreigner: Jewish Comedians are mentioned in this documentary.
  • Greedy Jew: Inverted in that many American Jews mentioned were extremely charitable and philanthropic. Subverted with Southern Aristocratic Jews (who owned slaves) and with Max Blanck and Isaac Harris in that while these Jews were indeed greedy and willing to cause suffering in pursuit of wealth, their greed had nothing to do with their Judaism. Parodied by Jewish Comedians mentioned in the documentary, who often make fun of this trope.
  • Informed Judaism: A lot of the Jews mentioned were atheists.
  • Immigrant Patriotism: All the Jews mentioned were proud to be American Citizens; some notable examples include Louis Brandeis (the first Jew to be a Supreme Court Justice), Irving Berlin (wrote "God Bless America"), and the American Jews who served in the American Military during the America's major wars. Deconstructed in that many moved away from their Jewish roots in an attempt to assimilate and in that American Jews were often rewarded for their patriotism with discrimination. Reconstructed in that many found ways to hold onto their heritage while still remaining American, in that they saw good in America despite being discriminated against, and in that they were able to win their rights over the generations.
  • Irony: One of the people interviewed described how Aristocratic American Jews living in the Antebellum South were slave owners just like Southern Aristocratic Gentiles. He points out the Irony of these Jews celebrating passover (a holiday about Jews being freed from slavery in Egypt) while being served the food by their own slaves.
  • Jewish and Nerdy: Some of the American Jews mentioned are indeed nerdy, most notably Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the two authors of the Superman comics). Though this is also inverted in that American Jews are mentioned as doing some decidedly unnerdy things, most notably Hank Greenberg who was a baseball player for the Detroit Tigers and was very much a Jewish Jock.
  • Jewish Holidays: These are mentioned at several points. Notably, Hank Greenberg missed a major baseball game to celebrate Yom Kippur.
  • Loophole Abuse: When Hank Greenberg considered skipping baseball to attend Synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, he decided to play baseball on the former after a local rabbi found a citation in the talmund noting that the children of jerusalem played in the street on holidays. Greenberg still abstained from playing on Yom Kippur though.
  • Miscarriage of Justice: Leo Frank was sentenced to life imprisonment for a crime that he probably didn't commit, and was soon after lynched by an angry mob.
  • Proud Merchant Race: Many Jews mentioned were merchants, businessmen, and craftsmen.
  • Proud Scholar Race Guy: Many American Jews mentioned were Educators and Legal Officials.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: American Jews fought in the American War of Independence, the American Civil War, World War One, and World War Two. Many American Jews also volunteered to fight for Israel during its birth pangs. One Jewish Immigrant even rebelled against the Prussian King before coming to America.
  • Rags to Riches: Many American Jews came to America with nothing and rose to wealth and prominence, and even those who were poor their whole lives had children who became wealthy. It is repeatedly stated that America was often the only place in the world where this was possible for a Jew.
  • RealMenLoveYahweh: Played with. Some American Jews held to their faith and took it seriously. Others became atheists or neglected the customs of their faith.
  • Retirony: Marcus Spiegel dies in his brother's arms after being mortally wounded in battle one year before the war ended. Right before stating that he died, the narrator stated that he looked forward to going home and opening a war with his brother.
  • Screw the Rules, I Have Money!: Averted. Joseph Seligman, despite being extremely wealthy and influential, was still a Jew and therefore was still banned from staying at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Many Jews immigrated to America to escape from mistreatment they faced in Europe.
  • Shiksa Goddess: There are a couple instances mentioned of Jews marrying gentiles. Deconstructed in that this on occasion put a strain on their relationships with their parents, and in fact Abigail Franks even disowned her daughter for marrying a christian boy.
  • Slavery Is a Special Kind of Evil: Marcus Spiegel, who fought for the Union in the Civil War, at first only fought to preserve the Union. However, after seeing slavery for himself while in the Confederacy, he began to oppose it.
  • War Refugees: Many Jews who immigrated to America were running from persecution. Whether it be The Inquisition, the Eastern European Pogroms, or even The Holocaust.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Many American Jews immigrated from Europe and therefore spoke Yiddish. Their children as a result picked up Yiddish as a second language even while speaking English as their first.
  • You Have to Have Jews: Justified, considering this is a documentary about American Jews. Also enforced in the beginning (the first Jews to arrive on the continent were permitted to stay in New Amsterdam because the colonial officials thought they would be integral to the welfare of the colony), and unsuccessfully defied throughout the documentary by Americans who tried to discriminate against Jewish Americans by terrorizing them and treating them as second class citizens.

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