‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD,’ by Simon Schama

March 12

Simon Schama is a distinguished historian, probably still best known for “The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age.” But he has also published books about the French Revolution, landscape, Rembrandt, the slave trade, painting and the history of Britain (in three volumes). Besides teaching (currently at Columbia University), he has, according to his dust jacket biography, “written and presented forty television documentary films . . . on subjects that range from John Donne to Tolstoy.”

Given such a background, one might expect “The Story of the Jews” to be a superb work of popularization. It is and it isn’t. While parts of every chapter are fascinating, in general Schama goes on too long about everything. He is a loose and baggy writer, preferring to paraphrase rather than quote, and generally conveying the impression of what used to be called fatal facility. More precisely, his isn’t so much a continuous narrative as a series of close-ups on significant periods and aspects of Jewish history. Occasional indications in the text remind the reader that the book is linked to a five-hour television series.

This last point may explain something of Schama’s surprisingly uneven tone, at times droningly archaeological, at times breezily hip. In this latter mode, he regularly cracks wise, plays on stereotypes, and generally comes across as either vulgar or a pretty good Jewish comedian, or both. No doubt, this jokiness is meant to leaven the tragic seriousness of much of the story he has to tell. But still it seems out of place. Here’s an example, a paragraph addressing the question of Jewish suffering:

“How can God permit such a thing to happen to His People? That’s what we always ask when cinders smart the eyes and we begin to spit soot. What happened to the covenant, to the promises that we should prevail over those who seek to annihilate us? Back comes the answer, time after time. Read the fine print! See the bit about the Righteous? What’s been going on? Transgressions! Iniquities! Abominations, self-destructive malarkey, that’s what! Time for a proper clean-out! Didn’t you listen to the prophets? Don’t say you weren’t warned.”

Is this too cheeky? Perhaps to the most orthodox. To me, it’s energetic and funny, but also a little forced, a bit of a put-on. Tastes, of course, will differ.


’The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD’ by Simon Schama. (Ecco/Ecco)

In the first half of his book, Schama returns again and again to a basic argument: that throughout their history, the Jews had far more in common with their neighbors and the communities in which they lived than is commonly recognized. He emphasizes that being Jewish “did not carry with it the requirement of shutting out neighbouring cultures but, to some degree at least, living in their company.” It was, in short, “possible to be Jewish and Egyptian.” Or Jewish and Greek, Jewish and Roman, even Jewish and Arab. Porousness, crossover, coexistence predominated over exclusivity and separatism.

Throughout, Schama deliberately seeks to counter common misperceptions. He discusses synagogues filled with pictures, notes private homes decorated with pagan artwork, points up the similarities between Christian and Jewish rituals. There are even Jewish catacombs in Rome. Schama has little patience with “the romantic tradition of the wailing Hebrew — hair-tearing, breast-beating, the schreiyer in the ashes.” In these pages, “Jewish voices change their pitch from dirge to full-throated song more often than you would suppose.”

This isn’t, then, in any way a reverent work. Schama notes that there is no evidence that “Israelites ever exited Egypt” or “wandered in the Sinai wilderness for forty days much less forty years.” He reminds us that under the Roman vassal and sociopath Herod, Jerusalem enjoyed a great flowering of culture and scholarship. He writes that “the moment you know that Josephus is the first — and for many centuries, the only — truly Jewish historian is when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” The Roman imperial family, he explains, “had a love-hate thing about the Jews, starting with Titus himself who famously fell hard and deep for the older but devastatingly glamorous, Jewish, thrice-married sister of Agrippa II, Berenice (also said to be her brother’s lover), to the point where some of the horrified patriciate assumed he might marry her.”

Of course, Schama does summarize the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the siege of Masada that followed, and the alternate biblical history chronicled in the Qumran scrolls (starting with the conflict between the angelic Sons of Light and diabolical Sons of Darkness). He nonetheless points out the surprising mutualism between early Christianity and Judaism, sadly broken by the separatist teachings of Paul and the Hitlerian diatribes against the Jews pronounced by the influential church father John Chrysostom. He also stresses that the Talmud, which he likens to hypertext in its ever-branching commentary upon commentary, was “the product of a world — Persian Babylonia under the Sassanians — that was largely free of the acute fears and constant demonisation with which Jews in Christian lands were afflicted. No Jew was implicated in the death of the prophet Zoroaster.”

Similarly, in his chapter on Judaism and Islam, Schama emphasizes an early civilization of “Judaised Arabs and Arabic Jews.” (He titles this section “Muhammad and the Cohens of Arabia.”) He draws on the vast trove of documents — paper scraps really — in the Cairo Geniza of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, arguably the greatest surviving medieval archive. He describes the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars and reviews the careers of Jewish poets and powerful governors in Islamic Andalusia.

Perhaps the darkest chapter in this long book is “The Women of Ashkenaz,” which describes a series of murders and massacres in Europe during the time of the Crusades. When Peter the Hermit called for ridding the Holy Land of the unbelievers, it seemed logical to start the cleansing right at home. Kill the Jews and then seize their valuables to underwrite the liberation of Jerusalem. After all, didn’t the Jews kidnap Christians, especially little boys, and fatten them up for cannibalistic feasts or crucifixion during Purim or Passover? Even Chaucer records one such story, that of 9-year-old Hugh of Lincoln, in “The Prioress’s Tale.”

The persecution of the Jews reaches its apogee (or nadir) in 15th-century Majorca, Spain, and Portugal. After a long period of cultural harmony, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella — the ones who financed Columbus — began “the great erasure of Jewish life in Spain.” Jews were forced, under torture, to convert or die (though many “conversos” maintained, in secret, their original faith). Under the inquisitor Torquemada, these recalcitrant Christ-killers were burned alive as mass entertainment. “Days of auto-da-fé were declared feast days and holidays,” writes Schama, and “grandees, often including the king and queen, would attend these elaborate ceremonies, nibbling at holiday dainties, pomanders to their nose when the smell became disagreeable.”

This first volume of the two-part “Story of the Jews” ends at this point of butchery and hate. Shalom.

Dirda reviews books for Book World every Thursday.

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