|Directed by:||Amram Nowak||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1997||Running Time:||58 mins.|
|More Info:||Oscar nominated director||Category:||America|
Watch the Trailer:
About the Film:
If there were one period in history that most defined the cultural course for Jews in America, it was the mid-1800’s. Part II of They Came For Good examines the people and personalities who shaped this critical time, from the creators of the Orthodox and Reform movements to the Ashkenazi entrepreneurs who crossed the Atlantic ocean and Midwestern prairie to create new American identities.
“Somehow,” marvels the film’s narrator, “these traditionally urban dwellers dug roots and adapted to lives which their forefathers in Europe, and perhaps they themselves, could not have imagined.”
At the close of Part I of the documentary, which focused on the contributions of Sephardic Jews in early America, the idea of an American Jew was still nebulous. In 1820, most took a subdued approach to demonstrating their Jewishness. They were a shadow of a population, numbering less than 3,000 nationwide — a minority in a nation of minorities. In the years that followed, however, a massive influx of immigrant Ashkenazi Jewry from Europe arrived to cause a spiritual and economic sea change.
The larger effect of these Jews on America’s entrepreneurial commerce and apparel industries is a recurring theme throughout the period covered by the film. Whether it is the thousands of mostly-Jewish peddlers selling their goods on the back roads of the South, or those who run the general stores that will one day grow into nationwide chains like Macy’s, Sears, Gimbel’s, Sterns and Filene’s, Jews were major purveyors of commercial good in this country and, thus, major contributors to popular culture.
While the stories of Jewish economic pioneers are told through a wonderful variety of rare archives and expert insights, dramatic reenactments bring to life the two towering spiritual figures of the period. The morally stalwart Isaac Leeser speaks of the importance of Jews adhering to the decorum and propriety of Orthodoxy, while, in contrast, the flamboyantly self-assured Isaac Mayer Wise espouses populist Reform ideals aimed at narrowing the gap between Judaism and Protestantism.
They Came For Good depicts its subjects in a warts-and-all fashion, providing for more enlightening, if not always flattering, character portraits. The approach is especially compelling in the case of a man like Judah B. Benjamin, who broke from both his country and his faith in the pursuit of political advancement during the American Civil War. His bizarre attempt to enlist southern slaves to fight for the Confederacy is recounted along with his notable success as an expatriate lawyer in England after the war.
Beyond simply relating early American Jews’ accomplishments, the film objectively breaks down the difficult question of how none-practicing Jews like Benjamin stack up in the American pantheon with those who kept the faith. Historian Henry Feingold tells us, for example, that Benjamin, regardless of his betrayal of his era’s American Jewish community, definitely had at least one qualification universal to Jews of his day: “If suffering like a Jew, if suffering the slander that Benjamin did suffer during the Civil War makes one Jewish,” opines Feingold, “then certainly Benjamin was Jewish. He suffered like a Jew. He underwent a Jewish experience.”
They Came For Good, however, is ultimately not a tale of suffering. It is one of Jewish perseverance and triumph, a reminder of those people whose business acumen and religious ideals continue to influence all Americans to this very day.