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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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This is Schama’s expression of ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, and it is the essence of his warm and welcoming project. For Schama, making The Story of the Jews was an opportunity to broaden the public understanding of Judaism. Especially in Britain, he told me, there is a “great chasm of ignorance in the non-Jewish population, and in some of the Jewish population, about Jewish history and its complications. One of the problems is that it’s so overwhelmed by the Shoah and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which leads to polarized reactions: “People are either polemically hysterical … or they’re treading on eggshells, or on the bones of Mauthausen or something. Either way it’s not good.”

Schama welcomes the viewer, especially the non-Jewish viewer, into Jewish history with his personal charisma and friendliness. As guide and narrator, Schama repeatedly emphasizes—sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos—that he is a Jew and that this is his people’s story. Early in the first episode, we see the Schama family at their Passover Seder, talking about the meaning of the holiday, and reflecting on the passage from the Haggadah that rings so ominously through the festivity: “Behold, how in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” The Jews, one guest observes, suffer from “paranoia confirmed by history.”

The Story of the Jews does not scant those dark passages of Jewish history. Much of the second episode is devoted to the harrowing experiences of the Jews in medieval Christian Europe—including, pointedly, in Britain, where Schama visits the shrine of “Little Hugh of Lincoln,” a child supposedly murdered by local Jews in the 13th century. (Today, Schama notes, the shrine includes a sign regretting long history of anti-Jewish violence spurred by blood libels like Hugh’s.) That episode culminates in the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which Schama dramatizes by reading a contemporary register of Ferdinand and Isabella’s decree.

detail from Ward Shelley, People of the Book

Yet that is not the end of the episode. Instead, Schama moves from Spain to Venice, where a community of Jews found asylum after the expulsion. They were confined to the quarter called the ghetto—thus giving the world a new word in the vocabulary of exclusion—but even there, they managed to build a synagogue of extraordinary elegance and spaciousness. Standing in that synagogue five centuries later, Schama feels the pull of “irrational memory”—“I feel I’ve been here before,” he says. It is especially important to him as a proof that, when they could, the Jews gave expression to a longing for beauty and splendor equal to that of any other civilization.

In fact, the importance of art in Jewish culture is one of the major themes of The Story of the Jews. We are used to thinking of Judaism as a religion without icons—doesn’t the second commandment forbid the making of graven images? And the poverty and transience of Jewish life in many places made the building of palaces and grand synagogues impossible: There is no Jewish Notre Dame. This would seem to present a serious challenge for a documentarian, since so much of what constitutes Jewish civilization is words and ideas, rather than images and objects.

Schama does pay homage to the centrality of words in Judaism—the very title The Story of the Jews acknowledges it. The credit sequence of the TV series shows, through animation, the Hebrew letters getting up off of a Torah scroll and turning into rudimentary human figures, who march together in little groups—a quite literal evocation of Schama’s sense that words are what kept the Jewish people in being over the centuries. “We told our story to survive—we are our story,” he says emphatically in the first episode. Yet the dictates of the TV genre, and Schama’s own method as a historian—one of his areas of expertise is European art history—lead him to emphasize what can be seen over what can be heard or read. The Story of the Jews has comparatively little to say about Judaism as a religious doctrine, about Jewish laws and practices and texts. (At least, the TV version doesn’t—the accompanying book makes more room for complex subjects like the Mishnah and Maimonides.)

What it does show, sumptuously, is Jewish visual culture, something that sounds at first like an oxymoron. In fact, however, early synagogues, built at just the same time and in some of the same places where the Talmud was being compiled, are full of lavish mosaics, representing biblical figures, the Zodiac, even a god-like Sun. In the book, Schama writes about the greatest surviving example, the synagogue at Dura Europos in Syria; unfortunately, he wasn’t able to film there. But he does show other impressive Jewish structures: the mosaic floors of the synagogue of Sepphoris; the palace of the Tobiads, a Hellenistic Jewish dynasty, in present-day Jordan; the Jewish catacombs underneath Rome, with their carved symbols. These make a remarkable contrast to the deserts, ruins, and archeological sites of places like Elephantine or Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The ascetic Judaism of the Essenes of Qumran is no more quintessentially Jewish, Schama argues, than the beauty-loving Judaism that produced the medieval illuminated Haggadot.

detail from Ward Shelley, People of the Book

The emphasis on beauty is part of Schama’s rejection of what the historian Salo Baron long ago called “the lachrymose conception of Jewish history.” Many periods of that history have ended with catastrophe, Schama acknowledges, but the epochs of splendor and achievement are no less real than those of exile and persecution. The expulsion from Spain in 1492 does not negate the achievements of Shmuel HaNagid, Yehuda Halevi, and Maimonides. Likewise, in his third episode, Schama dwells on the extraordinary promise that the Enlightenment held out to Western European Jews, especially in Germany, and the equally extraordinary achievements of Jews like Moses Mendelssohn, his grandson the composer Felix Mendelssohn, and the opera composer Giacomo Meyerbeer (born Jacob Beer). When Schama pages through a first edition of Moses Mendelssohn’s pioneering translation of the Bible into German, using Hebrew characters, he could treat it as a horribly ironic prelude to the Holocaust; but he refuses the temptation, preferring to see it as a product of “linguistic and cultural optimism.”

Indeed, one of the signal achievements of The Story of the Jews is that it avoids putting the Holocaust at the center of that story. The five episodes proceed in chronological order: the ancient world, the medieval world, Western Europe and emancipation, Eastern Europe and the emigration to America, and finally the concluding hour focused on the birth and history of Israel. There is no episode devoted to the Holocaust, and as Schama told me, that was deliberate: “It was a decision neither to ignore” the subject, but also not to allow it to “dominate.” We see Schama making a pilgrimage to the Berlin Holocaust Museum, but there is none of the expected footage of skeletal prisoners or crematoria.

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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