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Tuesday, 29 October 2013

The History of the Jews Unrolled

Simon.SchamaThe Internet is a wonderful thing, allowing me to view here in Israel BBC TV’s five-part series The Story of the Jews presented by Simon Schama, the respected historian and Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University.

I enjoyed the series enormously as Schama unrolled like a Torah scroll the 3,000-years-plus narrative of the Jewish People which was necessarily tailored to an overwhelmingly non-Jewish audience. His telling of the story began, not in Mesopotamia and with Abraham as might be expected, but with the Jews of Elephantine Island in the Nile delta. There, they had been stationed by the Persian Empire as its subjects to garrison its far border, because their warrior qualities – just like the modern IDF - drew admiration and respect.

Schama chronicles all Jewish wanderings, both geographically across the known world and chronologically down the centuries. But poured over this melange is the depressing constant of the People of the Book enduring murderous persecution, forced religious conversions, financial expropriation and exile both from the Land of Israel and innumerable places of exile.

The Story of the JewsThere is an accompanying two-volume book to the series and Volume 1 (421 pp plus index and bibliography) covers the period 1000 BCE to the Spanish Expulsion in 1492 CE. The second volume, continuing the story until the present day, will be published in September 2014.

Although I’ve read and appreciated other works by Schama, notably his excellent three-volume History of Britain, I did not care for the overly-chatty style in which this is written and would have preferred it to be given a ‘harder’ edge.

Curiously, he also makes some rather elementary mistakes. These include calculating the period between the Six Day (1967) and Yom Kippur (1973) wars, as seven years and his comment that Shabbat (Sabbath) observance rules do not occur in Deuteronomy when plainly it contains a repetition of the Decalogue (Ten Commandments) and specifically the Fourth Commandment. He also pluralises tallit (prayer shawl) in the Hebrew masculine form when it is in fact a feminine noun.

But perhaps I’m nit-picking on trivia as his grand overview and detailed narrative of the great sweep of Jewish history takes the reader on a roller-coaster ride through the ups and many downs of the Jewish Diaspora during three millennia. Logically, the Jewish People - a little desert tribe with its obstinate monotheistic religion - has no business surviving in a hostile world when its would-be annihilators - the Egyptians, Babylonians, Seleucid Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Cossacks, Iberian Holy Inquisition, Nazis, Communists et al have all passed into history. The Christian Church and Islam too have intermittently done their best to eliminate Judaism for 2,000 and 1,400 years respectively.

Yet, stubbornly it persists.

The author cites his sources meticulously and provides a helpful bibliography for further reading. Although not religious, he obviously feels the weight of Jewish history upon his own shoulders and sees himself, like most Jews, as just one link in an immensely long chain, binding a far distant past with an unforeseen and unknowable future. In the TV programme, Schama declares himself to be a Zionist, no small thing for a public figure to declare on air when Israel’s many foes have done their damndest to reduce the word for Jewish self-determination to an unutterable expletive. But who else should it be but a Jewish historian, who has studied, close-up and personally, Jewish treatment at the hands of the ‘civilised’ world?

The Story of the Jews – Volume 1 is published by the Bodley Head @ £14.99


B.FINKBrian’s review is the first in a series of guest posts I hope to publish on Alwayswriteagain. Anyone wishing to contribute a piece pertaining to the Arts, Politics, Judaism and Israel may contact me on


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