Book Review // The Story of the Jews

By | May 22, 2014

The Genial Time Traveler

By Dara Horn


Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD
Simon Schama
2014, pp. 496, $39.99

The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who died in 2009, famously declared that history was “the faith of fallen Jews.” Yerushalmi had trained under the preeminent 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Baron, whose epic (and unfinished) 18-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews was celebrated for its paradigm-shifting rejection of the “lachrymose” view of Jewish history. Despite a life lived in the shadow of Jewish history’s most lachrymose moment—both his parents were murdered in the Holocaust—Baron insisted that Jewish history was defined not by dying but by living, by the astonishing creativity and vitality of an ever-changing Jewish culture.

But his student Yerushalmi was convinced that the time for monumental Jewish histories had passed, if it had ever existed. Instead, Yerushalmi’s most powerful work was a slim volume called Zakhor (Remember), a beautifully devastating critique of Jewish history-writing as being at odds with Judaism itself. Judaism, Yerushalmi claimed, was and still is a culture of memory rather than history, animated by several deep beliefs: that time repeats, that “divine providence is…an active causal factor in Jewish history,” and “the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history.” The “faith of fallen Jews” is the modern Jewish historian’s ongoing faith in that uniqueness, even without its accompanying faith in God. “I live,” Yerushalmi wrote, “within the ironic awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past.”

Simon Schama appears to be blissfully unaware of this paradox. A British Jew and renowned historian who earned fame for his work on modern Europe, Schama strolls blithely into Jewish history’s historian-eating jaws of death with his very own two-volume, The Story of the Jews (the first volume just published, the second due out later this year), and a PBS series to match. Somehow he manages to suggest that no one has ever done this before.

It is important to appreciate Schama’s achievement in The Story of the Jews, and to separate that achievement from the underlying problem with the project itself. For the book is indeed a great accomplishment. In The Story of the Jews, Schama has taken a culture that has a famously high bar for entry (ask any convert—or any “fallen” Jew, for that matter) and has turned it into something that plays remarkably well on PBS. When one considers the “lachrymose” elements of Jewish history, this is no small feat. The BBC version was viewed by three million people in a country with a Jewish population in the low six figures. Such statistics attest to the wide appeal of Schama’s storytelling, which he sustains, for the most part, by shifting his focus away from the lachrymose parts as best he can—or at least starting out that way.

In order to do this, he has to tell a Jewish story that is high on quirk. Instead of beginning the Jewish story with Abraham or Moses, or even the importance of those legendary figures despite their dubious historicity—or with the Israelite kingdoms, whose archaeological evidence he later probes quite deeply—he opens his book on Egypt’s Elephantine Island, where a 5th-century BCE letter arrives from “a father and mother…worrying about their son.” Elephantine, an outpost of the Persian empire in the 7th-5th century BCE, was a garrison city with many Jewish mercenary soldiers and their families living “side by side” with non-Jewish Egyptians, even building their own temple (yes, while the Jerusalem temple still stood) across the street from an Egyptian shrine. Elephantine happens to be hugely documented, thanks to the discovery of a massive ancient Jewish archive there. Schama goes to great lengths to tell us how normal and familiar Jewish-Egyptian relations there were—until they weren’t, in the year 410 BCE, to the tune of a razed temple and violent riots. But let’s focus on when they were, Schama insists, at least at first. And then he does it again, describing how Jews built fabulous Greek-style homes to outdo their Hellenistic neighbors, how Arab Jewish clans dominated pre-Muslim Arabia, how Jews excelled in medicine in medieval Egypt, how Jews decorated their haggadot in medieval Germany with illuminated art inspired by church icons, and how Jews wrote Arabic-inspired poetry in medieval Spain—all of which was great, until it wasn’t. These set pieces are so wide-ranging that it would be impossible for even the best-read person not to learn something from this impressive book.

But perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern here among these few examples. The Story of the Jews, at its heart, is not the story of the Jews—or, if it is, one must accept a rather lowly view of Jews as a kind of negative space that only exists when abutted by other cultures. This is a profoundly excellent book that should be called The Story of the Jews Interacting with Non-Jews. But it isn’t. It’s called The Story of the Jews, not just in its title but in its entire ethos. That is the source of its mass appeal, and also its most disturbing paradox.

The Story of the Jews does not tell the story of Jewish civilization—the gradual development of the revolutionary idea of a monotheistic covenant, the immense complexity of an ever-evolving law and theology, the creation of an astonishingly versatile literary and liturgical tradition in a dead language, or even the shifting ideals of family and ritual and community. That isn’t to say that a Jewish history should focus exclusively on these developments, or even that such developments mattered to all or even most Jews at any given point. But a Jewish history ought to at least acknowledge that this complex web of ideas is at the core of how Jews have traditionally understood themselves, whether through their connection to these ideas or their distance from them. Schama is marvelous on biblical history (or lack thereof): His chapters on the complexities of the Hebrew Bible’s compilation and the checkered history of ancient Jewish life are among the many pleasures of this deeply wonderful book. But despite Schama’s assertion that Judaism is all about “words” (the first volume’s subtitle is “Finding the Words”), and despite a few lovely pages that vividly describe the Mishnah and the Talmud for readers who have never heard of either, Schama shows little concern with explaining just what those words were or what they meant.

Instead he is concerned with what people are wearing. Many pages in this book are devoted to descriptions of fashion, decor, food and gossipy accounts of who-married-whose-slave-girl, all of which will certainly capture many readers’ imaginations. We are told what colors Jewish men’s vests were in medieval Cairo, what kind of mosaics decorated homes in Roman Palestine, and what Jewish women in 11th-century England could expect from their husbands in bed. One long description of a Hellenized Jewish home concludes with the borscht-belty phrase, “This was chapter one in the long history of Jewish shopping.”

“Bottom-up” history, which Salo Baron himself popularized in a Jewish context, is meant to feel refreshing, an antidote to the great-men-fighting-great-wars (or in the Jewish version, great-men-writing-great-Torah-scholarship) histories of old. But 40 years ago, the great 20th-century Jewish historian Shelomo Dov Goitein had already published his five-volume A Mediterranean Society, a fashion, business and food-filled gala of medieval Jews based on the repository of documents in the Cairo Genizah. More recently, many Jewish historians have taken this tack to extremes (David Biale’s 2002 Cultures of the Jews, to which Schama owes a large debt, is just one example). There is, of course, great value to such history, making us feel that these long-dead people were “just like us.” But one senses that Schama has also made a tactical decision to play up the ordinary and play down the extraordinary, to be coy about the rather important points at which Jews differed from their non-Jewish neighbors in ways that went far deeper than the style of their clothes.

Behind that coyness, one finds the book’s real unexpected element: rage. Each of Schama’s episodes of lovely coexistence inevitably ends, of course. In describing these lachrymose moments, the genial Schama suddenly rises in anger, and his fury shatters the armchair historian façade. “The timing of Judeophobic attacks has always been the same,” Schama writes, describing a 3rd-century pogrom in the city of Antioch. “A city or a country or a state goes into crisis; trouble, strife, want and panic have already crossed the threshold; still more hideous things are knocking on the door. Quick; blame the Devil-people; stick it to the Jews.” In his discussion of Christian history in particular, he is irrepressible on the Judeophobia that, he forcefully argues, was embedded in Christianity almost from the start. After a litany of gruesome 11th-century Church-driven torture and murder scenes, Schama himself points out the obvious: “Jewish history is certainly not all ‘lachrymose.’ Yet it is the glaring, relentless evidence…which tells us that it has not all been honeycakes and wine, either.” By the end of Volume One, which concludes with the 1492 expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Schama’s history is rightly saturated with blood and tears.

The depth of these tragedies weighs on Schama—not merely the litany of massacres, but the contemporary tragic need to appeal to a non-Jewish audience by emphasizing the honeycakes and wine at the expense of not only the lamentations, but more vitally the content of the Torah that inspired the Jews to endure those countless catastrophes that they could have avoided by converting to other faiths. The book ends on a painfully ironic note, with the story of a Jewish mapmaker whose work guided Columbus to the New World while the mapmaker endured expulsion from Spain. Quoting a Psalm, Schama concludes, “The ends of the earth must be where the words rested…Yes, that surely was it.”

As I read, I found myself strangely haunted by a comment Schama made in an interview with The Jewish Daily Forward. While filming the TV episode about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain, Schama confessed, “There I am, like a pathetic, typical Jew, on the point of almost f–king crying my eyes out standing on the road to Cordoba.”

Much psychoanalysis—Freud features prominently in the PBS series—could be extracted from this single quote, including Schama’s suggestion that he resembles (but presumably isn’t?) a “pathetic, typical Jew” (is a typical Jew pathetic? or is a pathetic Jew typical?) while crying his eyes out over the exile of the Jews from Spain. In the book, Schama writes at length about his father, a proud British Jew of Sephardic ancestry. The chapter on the Spanish expulsion is entitled “Exile from Exile.” And here Schama’s tears, and his apologies for them, begin to make a deep kind of sense that have nothing to do with scholarly history. The anguished fear of exile even from exile, the horrifying possibility of being the last of the last, feels very familiar to many diaspora Jews today—along with Jews of nearly every generation. If there is one thing we share with Jews of the past, it is the belief that our generation could easily be the last, and that no one in the future will even know what we have lost.

All history books, fact or fiction, are really about the times in which they are written, not about the times they supposedly describe. The Story of the Jews illustrates Yerushalmi’s faith of fallen Jews, a desperate reliance on history in place of belief. But it also shows that that faith is still faith, a commitment deeper than mere history can reach. Near the book’s beginning, Schama describes an ancient inscription of the Levite blessing, and then recalls its recitation in his synagogue as a child. Its “amen,” in his mind, echoes back in time—“and not ten years on from the end of the annihilating war I somehow feel safe.” It’s a sense of trust that many will find in this beautiful if troubled work, as time continues repeating, to the ends of the earth.

Dara Horn’s most recent novel is A Guide for the Perplexed.

Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD
Simon Schama
2014, pp. 496, $39.99


3 thoughts on “Book Review // The Story of the Jews

  1. Dan Frimm says:

    It is useful, if sad, to note that Simon Schama, while poignantly and persistently a defender of Jews is, of course, intermarried to a brilliant vivacious Columbia University professor of genetics he met in Cambridge. His daughter is Chloe, married to a non-Jew, clearly ends the chain of his family’s Jewish identity, and his son’s affiliations are to me unknown. So with that back drop, that context, one must interpret Simon Schama’s perspective on Jewish history.

    1. henry gottlieb says:

      And this in your opinion ruins the book ????????

      We jews have been exchanging genes with strangers for all for centuries… Moses married, heaven help me, the daughter of a high priest… two of our tribes are descended from an egyptian woman and the rest of the clan married uncles aunts and cossacks, at least for seven minutes …….

      get down to earth, judaism has always been an evolving creed……..

      1. hana blume says:

        You missed Dan Frimm’s point: a book about Jewish history has to do with continuity. And yet, in Schama’s own life, it seems that continuity will end. Pointing out the non-Jews who became a part of Jewish history misses the point that those non-Jews became Jews. And what’s all the about uncles? No point at all

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