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Simon Schama Moderates a Moderate History of Moderate Jews

‘The Story of the Jews’ is the most important TV documentary about Jewish history since Abba Eban’s famous ‘Heritage’ series

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Details from People of the Book: Diaspora, a painting by Ward Shelley, whose work can be seen at Pierogi Gallery in Brooklyn. The full painting can be seen here. (Courtesy of Ward Shelley)
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On March 25, PBS will begin showing the most important TV documentary about Jewish history since Abba Eban’s famous Heritage series aired in 1984. The Story of the Jews, created and hosted by historian Simon Schama, is a dramatic and lyrical introduction to the whole sweep of Jewish history, from its origins in biblical times down to the latest developments in the State of Israel. It appears with a companion book, the first of a planned two, which greatly expands on the story told by the television program: The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 B.C. to 1492 A.D. When the series first aired on the BBC in Britain last year, some 3 million people watched it—and since the country’s Jewish population is only about 250,000, that means that a substantial number of non-Jewish Britons were finding out, through Schama, about what Judaism actually means. When the program airs in America, with its much larger Jewish population, the same thing will likely happen on an even bigger scale.

Seldom does a scholar and teacher get the chance to teach such a crucial subject to such an enormous group of people; and seldom does a historical subject present so many difficulties. When I interviewed Schama recently in his office at Columbia University, he spoke modestly about the challenge of compressing 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of television: “It’s certainly true to say I was frightened to do it—I still am frightened to do it, having done it.” But in fact there is no one better qualified to make a documentary like The Story of the Jews than Schama, who is the author of many highly regarded books on modern European history—including the landmark study of the French Revolution, Citizens—and the creator of the hugely successful 15-part BBC series A History of Britain. Indeed, as he says in the first episode of The Story of the Jews, Jewish history was “the story that made me want to be a historian.”

The difficulties begin with what might seem like the simplest question of all: Where does the story of the Jews start? The answer is much more elusive than it might appear. Do you begin with Abraham, the father of the chosen people and the first recipient of God’s covenant? Or with Moses, the lawgiver, who first instituted the religion and practices of Judaism? Or with Saul and David, who gave the Jews political existence in the form of the Kingdom of Israel? Any one of these potential starting points implies a whole interpretation of what Jews and Judaism really are. The question is complicated by the fact that none of these people can be confidently said to have existed at all: They are mythic figures, not historical actors. Yet how can you begin to tell the story of the Jews without them?


detail from Ward Shelley, People of the Book

Recent attempts to write Jewish history for a general audience have taken a variety of approaches to cope with this difficulty. In his popular book A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson—not a historian but an English man of letters—starts gamely at the very start, with Abraham. More precisely, he starts with the city of Hebron, which certainly does exist, even if the tradition that Abraham is buried there is taken to be a myth. The fact that Jews continue to live in Hebron today allows Johnson to begin with an example of what he calls “Jewish obstinacy over 4,000 years.”

To Johnson, this is an admirable obstinacy, a kind of tenacity, which explains how Judaism managed to survive for so long under such adverse conditions. But the word itself also evokes a long history of Christian anti-Judaism, which saw the Jews’ clinging to their outmoded faith as a more mulish and reprehensible kind of obstinacy. Starting with Hebron also makes the case for Judaism as a faith inherently connected with the Land of Israel: The Cave of Machpelah, where the patriarchs were buried, was the first piece of land Abraham acquired in what was then still the land of Canaan.

There is, then, an implicit Zionist logic in Johnson’s rhetorical questions: “So, when the historian visits Hebron today, he asks himself; where are all those peoples which once held the place? Where are the Canaanites? Where are the Edomites? Where are the ancient Hellenes and the Romans, the Byzantines, the Franks, the Mamluks and the Ottomans? They have vanished into time, irrevocably. But the Jews are still in Hebron. … No race has maintained over so long a period so emotional an attachment to a particular corner of the earth’s surface.” Judaism, in this telling, is in its beginnings and its essence a territorial religion. There is even a contemporary political resonance to Johnson’s tale, which appeared in 1987, at a time when Hebron was (as it still is) a majority Arab city in the Palestinian Occupied Territories. Will not the Palestinians, too, the reader might wonder, vanish into time like the Edomites, while the Jews maintain their right of possession?

Far different is the approach taken by Norman F. Cantor in The Sacred Chain: The History of the Jews, which appeared in 1994. Cantor, an American Jew and an academic historian specializing in the Middle Ages, opens his story with an emphatic denial of the historical accuracy of the Bible. All of the early Bible stories, up to the era of the Davidic kingdom, constitute “one of the great masterpieces of imaginative fiction or artfully contrived historical myths of all time. From empirical evidence, it did not happen.” What was real, Cantor writes, was the fact that sometime in the first centuries BCE, the Jews established a unique historical identity, based on the belief in their own chosenness—“their moral fiber, their intelligence, their intense communal sensibility, their durability in the face of onslaught and exile.” God himself, in Cantor’s view, was a literary invention designed to explain and justify this Jewish uniqueness. From this way of starting the Jewish story, it is natural to conclude that Judaism is not so much a territorial religion, or even a religion at all, as a special culture and community—a view that nicely complements the way contemporary American Jews think about themselves.

And how does Schama begin The Story of the Jews? Not with tenacious Jews clinging to the Land of Israel, and not with exceptional Jews using religion to reinforce their chosenness. Rather, he starts with ordinary Jews in the Diaspora: the Israelite soldiers and workers who lived on the island of Elephantine, in Egypt, in the fifth century B.C.E. Egypt, of course, is the land that the Jews left in the Exodus, the place of slavery and superstition, which we revile every year at our Seders. But during the Babylonian and Persian occupations of the Land of Israel, many Israelites chose to go back to Egypt, often as soldiers in the pay of the occupying empire. At Elephantine, on the upper Nile, a colony of Jews was established whose papyrus records still survive today. What is most notable about this vanished world, Schama writes, is its human familiarity:

It is the suburban ordinariness of all this that seems, for a moment, absolutely wonderful, a somewhat Jewish history with no martyrs, no sages, no philosophical torment, the grumpy Almighty not much in evidence; a place of happy banality; much stuck into property disputes, dressing up, weddings and festivals … a place of unguents and alleys, throwing stones in the river and lingering under the palms; a time and a world altogether innocent of the romance of suffering.

Not least important, for Schama’s purposes, is the fact that the Jews of Elephantine did something that the Bible absolutely and repeatedly forbids: They built their own Temple, far from Jerusalem, where they offered up sacrifices to God. Thus we have, in this historically rather unimportant Jewish outpost, a potent combination of symbols and significances. Judaism, Elephantine tells us, has always been just as much at home in Diaspora as in Zion; it has been an affair of ordinary people, as well as of sages and martyrs; it has resisted religious authority and invented many modes of worshipping God. It has even, for long stretches anyway, enjoyed harmonious and mutually enriching relations with its gentile neighbors. The Elephantine papyri are, for Schama, a life-giving anti-Bible, not “the epic of the treaty-covenant with Israel” but “the quotidian record of the lives of the expat Judeans and Israelites with whom we can keep company as naturally … as if we were living in their neighborhood.”

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Simon Schama Moderates a Moderate History of Moderate Jews

‘The Story of the Jews’ is the most important TV documentary about Jewish history since Abba Eban’s famous ‘Heritage’ series