Telling Jewish Tales

by Katie Zavadski

J.P. O’Malley reviews Simon Schama’s book, The Story of the Jews, a tie-in to a BBC and PBS series of the same name:

Reading Schama’s heart-wrenching tales of suffering bought home an important point: the horrors of Nazism didn’t spring up in isolation. It also made me think of Marx’s observation that “history repeats itself, first time as tragedy, second time as farce.”

This epic historical narrative is one that has already been widely covered in recent decades by writers such as Stan Mack and Paul Johnson. But Schama’s prose has a melancholic music that you rarely find in historical writing. It’s this ability to empathize with his narrative, rather than just coldly regurgitating the facts, that makes Schama one of the finest historians of his generation.

Michael Hiltzik finds the book at times struggles to separate myth from history:

Schama attempts to finesse the uncertainties of the historic record by reporting on the present-day archaeological investigations that strive to fill in its blank spots or perhaps reinterpret the discoveries of earlier generations of archaeologists. This is a fascinating story, yet it feels misplaced in this volume, especially because the conclusion one draws from Schama’s extended description of the excavations at Khirbet Qeyafah, an ancient fortress a few miles west of Jerusalem, is that the history of the Jews of its time (about 1000 BCE or earlier) is still being prised from beneath the dust deposited by the succeeding millenniums.

Schama is on firmer ground as he moves forward to the Christian era. Here a dark story grows darker, shadowed by a conflict that began, Schama writes, as a “family quarrel. That, of course, did not prevent it from going lethal, early; perhaps it guaranteed it.”

Schama talked to Ray Suarez about why he chose to write the book now:

When the BBC said, “We would actually like to do ‘The Story of the Jews,’“ I thought, “How many years have you got left? You can’t not do this.” Partly because Jewish history for people who are not Jewish tends to be so overwhelmingly dominated by the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And those are not incidental historical events — they still rightly exercise the world. But they, in some ways, kind of close off the accessibility of Jewish history, which is such a rich and complicated and not always horribly tearful story, as one might imagine. So, I thought, “Well, here’s the possibility in Europe, and I think even a possibility in the United States, to provide a point of access — for non-Jews as well as Jews — to actually enter this story, which has had such a profound impact on the world.”

Adam Kirsch jumps to the five-part BBC series:

The Story of the Jews does not scant those dark passages of Jewish history. Much of the second episode is devoted to the harrowing experiences of the Jews in medieval Christian Europe—including, pointedly, in Britain, where Schama visits the shrine of “Little Hugh of Lincoln,” a child supposedly murdered by local Jews in the 13th century. (Today, Schama notes, the shrine includes a sign regretting long history of anti-Jewish violence spurred by blood libels like Hugh’s.) That episode culminates in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which Schama dramatizes by reading a contemporary register of Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree.

Yet that is not the end of the episode. Instead, Schama moves from Spain to Venice, where a community of Jews found asylum after the expulsion. They were confined to the quarter called the ghetto—thus giving the world a new word in the vocabulary of exclusion—but even there, they managed to build a synagogue of extraordinary elegance and spaciousness. Standing in that synagogue five centuries later, Schama feels the pull of “irrational memory”—“I feel I’ve been here before,” he says. It is especially important to him as a proof that, when they could, the Jews gave expression to a longing for beauty and splendor equal to that of any other civilization.

(Video: Trailer for The Story of the Jews, which premieres in the US on PBS on March 25th)