|Directed by:||David Vinik||Rating:||TV-14|
|Release Date:||2005||Running Time:||58 mins|
|More Info:||About "The Eternal Light" Series||Category:||America|
A bright beacon in the stormy seas of national radio and television, “The Eternal Light” series made Jewish learning an exciting weekly event for five decades of Americans. The award-winning documentary The Eternal Light: A Historical Retrospective examines the evolution and legacy of this groundbreaking series.
“The programs I remember from those days were about Jewish adventures, Jewish heroes, Jews doing things in the public world, whether it was the Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto or Louis Brandeis,” recalls longtime fan, prominent attorney Robert Rifkind. “It stood for the proposition that Judaism was relevant to the world we lived in.”
Originally conceived by Jewish Theological Seminary president Louis Finkelstein as a forum for explaining American Judaism to the larger public, “The Eternal Light” never limited itself to the viewpoint of Conservative Judaism. Rather, from the time of its debut on NBC radio in the early 1940’s (and subsequent 1951 expansion to television), original producer Milton Krents and writers like Morton Wishengrad strove to represent a broad cross-section of Jews. The resulting programs were known for tackling moral and ethical issues without being preachy.
The show was also known for the creative ways in which it tackled its often-weighty subject matter. “The genius of Krents and Wishengrad and Finkelstein was that they decided to use drama to convey their message,” explains Rabbi Michael Greenbaum, current Vice-Chancellor of JTS, “to take the more abstruse concepts and ideas of Jewish tradition and to present them in a way that would be easily understood by the uninformed Jew or non-Jew.”
Because of budgetary constraints, the show’s dramatic reenactments often employed a minimalist theater-style approach, putting an emphasis on quality scripts and performances over flashy production values. Among the many notable actors involved in “The Eternal Light” productions were Joseph Wiseman, Raymond Massey, Alan Arkin, Gene Wilder and the documentary’s narrator, Marion Seldes. Throughout the film we are treated to a visual sampling of the rich variety of dramas found within the program’s 2000-episode run. The most stirring among them is “The Battle of the Warsaw Ghetto,” which first aired only a few months after the real-life 1943 uprising.
By the mid-1950’s, “The Eternal Light” was being seen and heard by upwards of 6 million people a week. Beyond drama, the program was the place to catch up with the movers and shapers of American Jewish culture, including interviews with writers Chaim Potok and James Michener; concerts by Theodore Bikel and Isaac Stern; powerful commentaries from Elie Wiesel; and vigorous theological discussions with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
In fact, the documentary features the only televised interview with Heschel in existence. The 1972 interview with NBC correspondent Carl Stern include musings on the meaning of life that could just as easily be referring to “The Eternal Light’s” overall message in its pioneering approach to subjects like racial equality and labor rights.
“Life is a challenge,” Heschel tells Stern. “The greatness of life is experienced in facing that challenge, rather than in just having satisfaction.”
By pushing social and religious boundaries, “The Eternal Light” series earned both Peabody and Emmy awards over its time on the air. But this documentary, which itself earned a 2007 New York Emmy for Best Religious Programming, is really about the people behind those accolades. Even now, twenty years after the program’s final episode, their long-time effort at Jewish cultural illumination continues to shine.