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Home Vision Entertainment presents
Heritage: Civilization and the Jews (1984, 1998)

"It is in connection with this series of campaigns that an arresting entry suddenly appears in the annals of Egypt: a single, terse, remarkably unprophetic line on a commemorative column, erected by a pharaoh named Merneptah. 'Israel,' it says, 'is laid waste; his seed is destroyed.' It is about 1220 BCE. This is the first known written record of a people we might identify as Jews."
- Abba Eban, narrator

Review By: debi lee mandel  
Published: November 13, 2001

Stars: Abba Eban
Director: Alan Rosenthal

Manufacturer: DVDL
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (verbal descriptions and visual images of violence)
Run Time: 08h:43m:29s
Release Date: October 30, 2001
UPC: 037429160329
Genre: documentary

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A A+A-A- A+

DVD Review

I grew up right across the water from Rockaway, where Woody Allen's Radio Days takes place, about 25 years later in Brighton Beach. Our neighborhood was predominantly Jewish, and although I was young, my memories are steeped with the culture and societal aspects of my given faith.

But I did not grow up in a religious household. Although we observed the High Holy Days and various celebrations throughout the years, I often feel I have more "Jewishness" than Judaism in my blood. My memories are rich with the traditions and culture of this ancient religion, but I have much to learn.

Heritage: Civilization and the Jews is the new resource for understanding the evolution of human culture in this digital age, clocking in over 5,000 years of history in just about 9 hours. With an emphasis on the origins of civilization and its sweeping reach into the history of human experience, Judaism and the fundamental principles of western religion are brought into comprehensive perspective. The history of the Jews is one indelibly written into the transformation of western culture, encompassing classical philosophy and traditions, at once deeply connected—and outside of—modern society.

Each episode ends with an inobtrusive summation by Eban and glimpses ahead to next without indulgence or lecture; each new entry begins where he stood at end of the last as he extracts highlights of the previous and hints of what is to come. Having written the 1984 book, the Ambassador knows his subject, visibly shares a great enthusiasm for the project and brings vitality and wisdom to his well-conceived narrative. This is not a documentary of talking heads; indeed, there are surprisingly few. Through the various devices of the format—voiceovers, narration and readings; a wealth of archival and contemporary footage and photography; slow pans over art and artifacts, scrolls and carved writings, etc.—we absorb the detailed basics as well as the vast picture of the role the Jewish people and their monotheistic belief structure have taken in forming the world as we know it today. This program serves to enlighten by dismissing most conjecture and biblical influence, choosing, rather, to focus on data gathered from archaeological and historical sources. This brings the religion and its people into a whole new realm: out of the romantic mythologies and into the broad light cast by the informational demands of today's world.

Enough cannot be said for the unique perspective on human history presented in this series. It seems as if no stone in the quarry of human kind is left unturned from the Middle- and Near-East to the West. Here are the stories rarely discussed: the great age of Islam in which Jews and Arabs constructed great cities together which, later, would strengthen again in the relative peace of the Ottoman Empire; the misguided origins of anti-Semitism and the series of perilous roles a continually displaced people served in the modernization of the "Old World"—from Morocco and Egypt in the south to Germany and The Netherlands in the north; from Russia, the Ukraine and Poland in the east to England and Spain in the west—as well as finely-detailed accounts of ancient and recent pogroms, all thereby humanizing experiences that are sometimes beyond human comprehension.

"May should be abolished. May hurts. There should be only 11 months in a year. May should be set aside for eons - for 6 million years - to cleanse the earth."
- uncredited Auschwitz inmate, writing about the month of her mother's death there

Even its presentation of the Holocaust seems inimitably singular and new, with more emphasis on the series of events leading up to "the final solution"—and its aftermath—than this act of mass murder itself. It also discusses the uprisings, revolts and other, mostly futile attempts to fight back. With less than 60 minutes devoted to this subject, care is taken to remember the suffering of other demographic groups, as well as the "righteous people": those non-Jews who risked their lives to thwart this juggernaut of death. Having already absorbed 7 hours (and by the early 20th century, close to 5,000 years) of historical premise, one comes to this all-too-familiar tragedy with an inescapably new perspective.

"But the Nazis attacked far more than the communities of one small European ethnic minority, and the significance of the destruction of those communities is of a moment greater than the limits of Jewish history."

Heritage: Civilization and the Jews is dazzling in its scope, both in its audio/visual content as well as its educational weight. It presents a universal ethic that persists in the culture of Jews and non-Jews alike; a deeper more resonant comprehension of the philosophical foundation of our essential human existence. It is at once a history of religions, of economic and academic progressions; a chronology of historical and cultural events and a story of perseverance—not just that of world Jewry, but of human ability. It does not condemn as it names perpetrators and states facts; rather, it strives to impart its gathered knowledge into our persistent collective memory. Exquisitely detailed, this stunning and revealing documentary raises as many questions as it answers. Anyone who completes the full 9 hours could apply for college credit.

"For my father, being a Jew was not a choice; it was part of a framework - an existential fact of his being. For his child - living in this pluralistic American society, Jewishness was something I had to achieve."
- Rabbi David Hartman

If you are like me, the bulk of your knowledge about Judaism and its people, quite shamefully, comes from Hollywood. Even then, most films depict the Jews who were history's Christians-to-be: Ben-Hur, Barabbas, The Robe, The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus Christ Superstar and so on. If your understanding of this obstinate and indefatigable people is drawn from the stories told in The Ten Commandments, Fiddler on the Roof, Exodus, and The Diary of Anne Frank, this is an unparalleled and virtually limitless resource, an indispensable tool that broadens one's perspective on the evolution of western civilization. With the addition of the supplemental DVD library (disc 4), this set becomes a landmark achievement, forging the way for the educational aspects this brave new medium.

To view episode summaries, use the following links:
Disc One
Disc Two
Disc Three
For information on Disc Four, see below.

Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A+


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The quality of the original source material is as varied as it gets. Rare footage, even of the poorest quality was used if it served to show a new perspective. Composed from contemporary reels filmed specifically for the documentary (c. mid-1980s) to archived footage to home movies of shtetls made by visitors of the era, even the most distressed images show remarkably little or no signs of the digital process. While some eighty-percent of the visual information is obviously marked and discolored by age, bit rates stay mainly in the 9-10bps range; I believe everything that could be done was, short of the Herculean task of attempting to restore what is most likely unrecoverable.

Image Transfer Grade: A-


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The DD mono audio transfer has been given the same attention the accompanying video received. While the score has a few themes I feel are overly dramatic at times, the processed audio is clean and without major flaws. Levels are even and dialogue is distinctly audible at all times. Mr. Eban's accent never detracts from the viewer's comprehension. A large and daunting job, well done.

Audio Transfer Grade: A-


Disc Extras

Full Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 67 cues and remote access
Packaging: other
Picture Disc
4 Discs
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Interactive maps; excerpts from Encyclopedia Judaica
  2. A complete DVD-ROM support library
Extras Review: The additional material collected for this set is beyond what might be considered "extras." The documentary itself is just the beginning.

Discs 1-3

Episodes are divided three to a disc, with five to ten chapters per episode. My one complaint about this entire set is the general navigation experience. There is no choice for playing the three segments in succession, and it is not possible to go directly to the next without first returning to the main menu. The first episode of each of the three feature discs begins with non-skippable credits in the usual PBS style (:50s).

Each of the three main discs has a different motion montage created from clips of its 3 episodes, with the program's theme music looped over them. The visual elements are consistent with the box and cover design, as well as that of the interface on the bonus disc—one more example of the care and attention given this release.

There is a beautifully designed Atlas section available from each of the three main menus, navigated via a timeline. The topographical maps display the various areas discussed in that particular disc's content, with excellent but brief notes referencing events covered in the episodes. These contain only a small part of the vault of information found in the Atlas on the bonus disc. Each disc also has an Articles section that displays several informative text screens pertaining to the subject matter; again, this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Disc 4: Heritage Interactive

The hearty supplements on the first three discs are fleshed out on the bonus disc included in this set, which contains supplemental materials above and beyond one's wildest expectations. It plays as a CD-ROM would, in the DVD drive of your (non-Apple) computer, and runs similar to an encyclopedia application. Once installed, an amazing, labyrinthine world awaits your interactive commands.

The entire program is presented here again, but in a whole new way. There are captions detailing locations, most of the vast film footage, artwork and readings. Text accompanies the video as it plays, imparting even more than the information-packed narration. Already wildly impressed with the main presentation, this was an extraordinary and stunning discovery for me. And—there's more. Choosing "Explore this Topic" links to Historical Documents, containing related articles and essays graphically onscreen, with names of people, places and events that hot link to a built-in version of the Concise Judaica compendium. Amazing. They also include links to suggestions for further reading on the given subject matter. Some sections play like other CD-ROM style applications, with audio-enhanced slideshows. In an example I discovered, I was able to read about the Ottoman Empire and view a brief multimedia summary. Another took me to a section about bringing Sesame Street to Israel in an attempt to teach tolerance and acceptance to Palestinian and Israeli children, "Felafel is the Same in Any Language."

The Atlas section is a wonder to behold. The design elements are rich and the interactivity seems boundless. There is a timeline representing the documentary's expanse of 5000 years, and the professional topographical maps here let you compare the progress of civilization around the world through the centuries. Substantial image-rich summaries are available that describe and define various events of the period and area of focus. For example, I chose 1840-1858 and zoomed in on Great Britain, then picked "Political Rights." I was presented with summaries, visuals and articles, relevant to the subject matter and the time.

These DVD-ROM (PC Only, unfortunately) materials add up to:
Over 650 translated and annotated historical documents
541 map views with over 2,250 explanatory essays
33 expert scholar advisors/ consultants from 21 universities and academic institutions
Over 3,600 encyclopedia articles
Over 4,000 captions for 9 hours of original video
Over 100 interactive multimedia presentations containing over 800 historical images
Built-in help documentation
Fully word- and category- searchable index of over 7,000 multimedia elements
A hefty, searchable index

The already high educational value of the set takes a quantum leap here: This bonus disc is worth the weight of the boxed set in gold.

Extras Grade: A+


Final Comments

"Together with the Jews, the image of man was destroyed. We have all the reasons in the world to despair, to give up on man, to give up on culture, on civilization, on language—and even on God—but we won't permit it to happen."
Elie Wiesel

Home Vision Entertainment presents WNET's nine-hour, award-winning documentary, Heritage: Civilization and the Jews in a 4-disc set with more supplemental materials than the contents of a small town library. Dense, intelligent, and masterfully informative, this is a hallmark for educational materials in our digitally civilized era. With the availability of this monumental series, perhaps we will remember never to forget that the will to continue is fundamental to us all.


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