The good thing about attempting any sort of history of the Jewish people is that one never lacks for material. Their story stretches back more than 3,000 years, has been acted out on six continents and may be said to be so tightly interwoven with the story of western civilization that we cannot talk about one without talking about the other.
"Heritage: Civilization and the Jews," which begins the first of nine one-hour episodes tonight on public television (Channel 26 at 9), acknowledges the interconnection of Jewish history and western civilization from the outset. Western morality is suffused with the laws and rules first formulated and codified by the Jews. The words of the Jewish prophets, standing apart from the state and criticizing it, were a stern reminder of laws and standards beyond those of mortals temporarily in power. Judaism lies at the core of the West's other two great religions -- Christianity and Islam.
The apparent aim of the producers of the series has been to put the Jews into context at all times in their history, showing the relevance of the events of the time to the Jews and vice versa.
The emergence of the Jewish people (not a race and not just a religion, as narrator Abba Eban points out) alongside ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, the rise of the Jewish empire such as it was, the reasons for its fall, the development of the Jewish religion in the exile of Babylon, the emergence of Christianity as a Jewish sect and then a separate religion, the migration of Jews to North Africa and then behind conquering Arab armies into Europe, the role of Jews in the rise of European civilization, the spectacularly symbiotic experience of Jews in America alongside the tensions that developed in Europe, culminating in the Holocaust and the creation of modern Israel, are laid out in the series.
As history it is fascinating. As television, the series has brilliant and stunning moments. Television expertly done has the ability to transport the viewer in time and place, and from time to time, the series does that. Despite the essentially static nature of the first parts of the series, when the early history of the Jews is covered, the producers do manage at moments, with skillful editing and good writing, to convey not only drama but suspense. The problem with doing a history of a people more than 3,000 years old, however, is that we don't have a lot of film clips from the Mosaic period. Showing camel caravans in the desert, Arabs threshing grain by hand and plowing fields with oxen helps fill the screen, but there's only so much of that one can watch before the eye -- and mind -- starts to wander.
As narrator, Eban, the Israeli author, statesman and member of the Knesset, serves as a kind of Jewish Alistair Cooke in guiding the audience along its journey. Eban is nothing if not literate and even eloquent as a speaker. He has developed something of a matinee idol's reputation on the lecture circuit in this country. On television, however, he is a curiously wooden figure, attempting with half-hearted movements of the arm to put some life into what he is saying when he periodically appears on camera in one of the many locations used to illustrate the story. As for wit or humor, another of the Jewish contributions to western civilization, expect no chuckles, much less a good belly laugh.
On the other hand, the temptation to make this production a schmaltzy, self-indulgent exercise aimed at a narrow audience has been resisted. The series is serious, intelligent and sophisticated. Eban brings to the series an authoritative voice, a reassurance that what we are hearing here is not some slick version made easy for a mass audience. But watching "Civilization and the Jews" isn't like taking medicine, either. The series may not be quite the monument that Jacob Bronowski's "The Ascent of Man" or Sir Kenneth Clark's "Civilisation" were on public television, but it is certainly worthy of the tradition.