The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1,000 BC-1492 AD
Story of the Jews, The: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD by Simon Schama. (Ecco, 512 pp. $39.99)
Almost 30 years ago in the preface to The Embarrassment of Riches (Vintage Books), his sumptuous chronicle of the Dutch golden age, Simon Schama wrote that “all history tends towards autobiographical confession.” Now Schama ranges across lands and times and languages to confess through his own people, in The Story of the Jews.
Schama tells us that his father was obsessed by British and Jewish history. Demonstrating the wisdom of Jung’s axiom that the greatest influence on children is the unlived lives of their parents, the son has written the absorbing multivolume A History of Britain (Hyperion) and now this first of two books on Jewish history.
The personal thread throughout the narrative is one of its most engaging features. There is something at stake in this retelling; it is never bloodless. Here are the Jews for whom nothing human is alien—housewives and papermakers, scholars and sufferers, rakes and magnates, physicians and artists.
Jewish history is a history of words, as Schama reminds us, and his easy eloquence and gentle wit fill each page. Dhimmi are “the tolerated benighted.” We know Josephus is the first Jewish historian “when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.” Most histories of the Jewish people are indifferently written; this is in the gripping and preternaturally fluent British tradition of historians like A.J.P. Taylor and Hugh Trevor-Roper.
Schama celebrates the artistry of Judaism, from the floors of ancient synagogues to the pageantry of a modern service. Too often in Jewish history people have elevated Moses but not Bezalel, as if no Jew thought imagistically until Chagall sprung
from the head of modernity. Schama traces the long engagement of Jews with the world. He notes the “glowing, brilliant” frescoes of ancient synagogues, where “If you were a Jewish father or mother in Dura-Europas and you were with your children in that synagogue, there would be much to tell them, pointing this way and that at the painting.”
Schama has an eye for the quirky but vital, for example, noting the underground cisterns of Jerusalem that drained sacramental blood but permitted clean drinking water: “So much classical history can be written in its plumbing.” The observation reverses Joyce’s Ulysses denigrating Rome in contrast to the Jews:
What was their civilisation? Vast, I allow: but vile. Cloacae: sewers. The Jews in the wilderness and on the mountaintop said: It is meet to be here. Let us build an altar to Jehovah. The Roman…brought to every new shore on which he set his foot…only his cloacal obsession. He gazed about him in his toga and he said: It is meet to be here. Let us construct a watercloset.
Two great themes that thread through Schama’s history are the inevitable ravages of anti-Semitism and the intertwined question of boundaries between Jews and other cultures. His passages on the Crusades and the Inquisition are moving and use primary sources to great effect. The reader feels the quickening sense of a man recounting the sufferings of his kin.
While encapsulating the Talmud in a few well-crafted pages, I would have wished for more reflection of its uniqueness and how central it proved in shaping the Jewish people.
One does not know Judaism, of course, if Judaism is all one knows, and Schama’s wide knowledge serves to allow us a glimpse of just how multivalent, complicated and ever shifting was Jewish identity through the centuries. His passages on the boundary questions and the complex personalities that result, from Josephus to Yehuda Halevy, glitter.
Reflecting on the longevity of the Jews, historian Alexander Marx used to say that everything that happened in Judaism after 1492 was journalism. Having completed the “history” portion, Schama will now take up the task of writing about a much more heavily documented period, from 1492 to the present. We should look forward to the second volume with eager anticipation.
There are mission-driven histories of the Jews, religious retellings, microstudies and textbooks, but The Story of the Jews is unique: ardent, elegant, personal and deeply erudite; a book that, like confession itself, is good for the soul.
David J. Wolpe’s newest book is David: The Divided Heart (Jewish Lives) (Yale University Press).