Airing in January on PBS: “The Jewish Americans” with DC Installments from WETA

I’ve just gotten through screening an excerpt reel of a 3-part mini series to be aired on Public Television stations in January about the Jewish American experience and its impact on American life. Night 2 is devoted to Culture. It’s a fascinating series and fills one with respect, pride and appreciation for our sojourn and contributions here in America as Jews. There are great appearances by cartoonist/playwright Jules Feiffer talking about the invention of “Superman” by two Cleveland Jewish boys (and I’m sure they’ll be working in Michael Chabon’s novelistic ode to that same class of Jewish cartoonists), playwright Tony Kushner riffing on identity (he alternates between describing himself as a “Gay-Jewish-American-Diasporic-Socialist” and a “Jewish-Socialist-Gay-Diasporic-American); Mandy Patinkin demonstrating Irving Berlin’s genius with its shtetl motifs embedded into American stardards, culminating, of course, in the holiday perennial “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas” which, the composer Jack Gordon points out, “took the Christianity out of Christmas,” as a rash of other Jewish composers moved to create other Christmas standards (like “Rudolf the Red Nose Reindeer”) while Aaron Bisman of J-Dubb Records (who appeared on the same panel with me at the “Schmooze” conference in New York last month) talks about the Matisyahu phenomenon.

While I have a CD of one of Matisyahu’s albums, I’m only now checking out his videos (if you can believe). Talk about being a late convert! That would be me, duly impressed by his skills, his voice, his presence on stage – as I watch for the first time, a mixed secular crowd getting into it all.

And so it goes, from chapter to chapter, fascinating profiles –and dare I confess to having the hots for 1945 Miss America, Bess Meyerson, 5’10, gorgeous brunette, and proud of her name (she refused to change it to “Bess Meredith” even though contest organizers urged her to do so) — I feel very excited to be stamped, shaped and surrounded by this undulating culture, dynamic, provocative, and very much an accurate reflection of the worlds we’ve come from as Jews (from all over the globe) and of the world we’re helping to define and give voice to as Americans.

The series, at its best moments, I imagine (since I’ve only viewed excerpts from the 3 nights and one of the chapters, about westward migration was, indeed, a bit of a snoozer), promises to be a real engine of rejuvination for me personally – as a programmer for Theater J – this gets us back to taking stock of our most profound cultural contributions and conflicts, both internal and external, and the dynamic byproduct of such interesting struggles. It’ll be recommended viewing, and I’ll be taking notes as well.

And also happy that WETA will be producing local complementary mini-segments; 5 minute add-ons to follow the presentation of each episode of “The Jewish Americans.” And this Monday, I’ll be interviewed for the mini-segment on Jewish American Culture to talk about the preponderance of Jews in theater in Washington and to focus a little attention on what we do at Theater J. Happy to be asked. Now gotta think of (only) a few choice things to say; staying on message; remembering to shave; trying to sound intelligent; stuff like that.