Chicago Tribune

Documentary tells story of Jewish survival
Thursday, June 5, 2008

Why you should watch. Producers say this is a departure from recent films, like David Grubin's "The Jewish Americans," which may have placed greater emphasis on culture or religion. The key word here is "survival," and how Jews, at every turn through their long and rich history, were sustained by an unshakable cultural identity as much as by the Torah and Talmud.

What it's about. Everything! And I do mean everything: Four millennia of history crammed into 60 minutes. It begins at the beginning - with Abraham, the 12 tribes, the escape from Egypt, the Ten Commandments, wandering in the desert for 40 years, revolt of the Maccabees, Roman rule and the destruction of the first Temple, then the second. Josephus covered much of this history in 30 volumes - by the end of the first century - but "The Jewish People: A History of Survival" covers much of this in about 10 minutes. Numerous experts offer insights into various canons of Jewish law and relevance to Jewish culture; Elie Wiesel - as always - has a line that will stick. Of the second temple, says he, "All people celebrate victories [but] the Jewish people remember defeats.... We observe the laws of mourning as if it happened yesterday." Or this, from Fran Liebowitz, on her dedication to the Talmud: "It's portable. You can take it on a plane and you don't have to check it. That's why the Jewish people have survived - they believe in books." The last two millennia fly by, with topics like the Diaspora, Pale of Settlement, Holocaust, and - finally - Israel covered.

Bottom line. This works. "A History of Survival," foremost, is beautifully produced and visually arresting. Non-Jews will find this "Cliff Notes" version informative, though Jews - especially observant ones - know all this chapter and verse; some may howl at omissions, or at the abbreviated and understated observations. Explains host, Martha Teichner (of CBS News): "The treatment of the Jews in the Second World War overshadowed everything...." Oh, really? Nevertheless, this rush of history still manages to feel like a particularly careful and thoughtful one.