The Jews of New York on PBS: Try Not to Miss It the Next Time Around!

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Jewish immigrants and their descendants have helped make New York City what it is today. If you did not know that already, then “The Jews of New York” on PBS will open your eyes to the numerous cultural, social, and economic contributions this multi-faceted ethnic community has made to the city. The documentary first aired on January 20, 2008, and I was fortunate enough to watch its encore presentation on Sunday night (March 2nd) at 6:30 P.M. on WNET/Channel 13.

It begins with a short history of Emma Lazarus, the famous Jewish American poet and Native New Yorker whose famous sonnet “The New Colossus” is engraved on the base of the Statue of Liberty. As a descendant of Sephardic Jews from Portugal, she was initially unsure of the influx of newer, uneducated Jewish immigrants from Russia and other parts of Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. According to Tovah Feldshuh, the narrator of “The Jews of New York,” Lazarus was inspired to defend them when she read Anti-Semitic criticism of the oppressed newcomers in a well-known newspaper. Incensed that they were blamed for being victims of the vicious Russian pogroms in the 1880s, she was inspired to write these famous lines, which have become an integral part of U.S. history:

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

It is this unity, despite obvious social, cultural, and economic differences, that the documentary uses to depict the enduring strength and enterprising nature of the Jewish American community in New York City in the 20th and 21st centuries.

The profiles reflected in “The Jews of New York” portray varying religious points of view, ranging from the secular to the conservative. The surviving daughters of Russ and Daughters, an iconic Jewish food shop in the Lower East Side, admits that their father’s insistence on keeping the store open on Saturdays angered their mother. While Former Mayor Ed Koch admits that he is secular Jew, Hasidic Rabbi Chaskel Besser stresses his devotion to the Talmud over his successes in the New York City’s diamond district and the real estate business. Undaunted by Anti-Semitism and economic troubles, each interviewee shares their personal struggles and triumphs with an ease and openness that Jews and non-Jews can relate to. 

The necessity of Jewish hospitals like Mount Sinai, Beth Israel, and Montefiore Medical Center is also explored in “The Jews of New York.” Dr. Arthur Aufses, who served as Chief of Surgery at Mount Sinai for twenty-one years, discusses his struggles as a young medical student and resident during an era when Jewish people were denied admission into many medical schools and hospitals in the U.S. He admits becoming emotional during his first day at Mount Sinai, because in his words, “I knew I had come home.”

Descendants of Jacob Schiff discuss his financial successes as head of the investment banking firm, Kuhn, Loeb & Co. and his philanthropic contributions to Jews and non-Jews in New York City. As a German Jew who immigrated to the U.S. in the late 19th century, Schiff’s initial concern about the rapid growth of Russian Jewish immigrants to the U.S. gave way to his determination to help them. I am impressed to see that his family members are still involved with the Henry Street Settlement, the 92nd Street Y, and the New York Zoological Society, the direct results of Schiff’s generosity.   

“The Jews of New York” would not be complete without mentioning “Fiddler on the Roof.” Sheldon Harnick and Joseph Stein, the songwriter and playwright of the great Jewish American musical, reminisce about their inspiration and determination to make the production a success. Unafraid to introduce the story of a struggling Russian Jewish family in the early 20th  century to Jewish and non-Jewish audiences, “Fiddler on the Roof” opened in 1964 and went on to become one of the most popular musicals in Broadway history. It is entertaining to see and hear Koch, Besser, and other people profiled in the PBS documentary singing along to the famous song, “If I Was a Rich Man,” which demonstrates the musical’s enduring and universal appeal. 

I highly recommend this slice of New York City’s Jewish life and history. “The Jews of New York” airs again on Thursday, March 6th at 10:00 P.M. (Eastern Time) on WNET/Channel 13.


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