Navigate to Arts & Letters section

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

Adam Kirsch
March 20, 2014
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)
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)

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?


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.”

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.

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.

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.

In the fourth episode, when Schama does visit a Holocaust site—a Lithuanian village, not unlike the one his ancestors came from—he observes, “But this wasn’t a place that sat passively waiting for its destruction.” Instead, in a kind of rhetorical rescue maneuver, Schama sutures the story of Eastern European Jewry to that of American Jewry, as if the former were not destroyed but translated into the latter. Ashkenazi culture “didn’t get pulverized by the hammer of history,” he says, “it merely changed its address.” In fact, both things are true, but Schama knows that the Holocaust is already at the center of his audience’s understanding of Jewish history. Especially in Britain, it was important to tell other Jewish stories, like that of Jewish Daily Forward, with its proud Lower East Side headquarters, and the career of Yip Harburg, the songwriter of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime,” whom Schama uses as an emblem of American Jewish achievement and creativity.

When the number “6 million” is mentioned in the series, it is not as the number of Holocaust victims, but as the population of the current State of Israel—a nice shift of emphasis from death to life. The program’s last episode is largely devoted to Israel, and Schama gives an even-handed but essentially pro-Zionist account of its improbable history, from the Balfour Declaration down to the Second Intifada. While acknowledging that the War of Independence was also the Palestinian Nakba, Schama declares forthrightly—while sitting in a table in a Viennese café once frequented by Theodor Herzl—that “I am a Zionist. I’m quite unapologetic about it.” (The fact that he needs to declare he is unapologetic, of course, says volumes about the current reputation of Zionism, especially in Europe.)

Schama’s case for Zionism has less to do with the historic attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel than with the sheer existential necessity of a Jewish homeland in the face of European hatred. He shows us Israelis pausing for the memorial siren on Yom HaShoah, and describes them as “6 million defeats for the Nazis.” The story of Shmuel Ziegelboym—the Polish Jewish leader who committed suicide during World War II to protest the world’s indifference to the Holocaust—leads directly into his discussion of Zionism, as a premise leads to a conclusion.

At the same time, Schama makes clear that he is a liberal and a believer in a two-state solution. Standing in front of a section of the separation wall, he acknowledges its necessity for saving Israeli lives, yet deplores it as a contradiction of the outward-looking Judaism he has spent the whole series celebrating. Schama interviews a Palestinian refugee from the 1948 war, who explains that he constantly reminds his children of what they have lost: “They will never forget,” the man promises. And when he films an American-born settler in the West Bank—a Jew who, in calm and articulate tones, explains why the proper borders of Israel are those of the Kingdom of Solomon and says he sees no problem with Jews ruling millions of disenfranchised Arabs—Schama goes out of his way to repudiate the man’s views.

If deciding on a beginning is one problem in the Jewish story, the ending presents another kind of challenge. The telling of any story has to have a conclusion, and that can hardly help implying that the story itself has ended. The present comes to seem like the conclusion to which Jewish history has been tending all along. But Schama’s last words remind us that this is not the case: “The story goes on,” he concludes. In fact, the current state of affairs for Jews is, historically speaking, highly anomalous. For thousands of years, the Jewish story took place mainly in a hostile Europe; today Europe is home to a small remnant, and the centers of Jewish life are America and Israel.

For thousands of years, too, the Land of Israel was the distant object of impotent longing; today, for the first time since 70 C.E., it is the home of an independent Jewish state. And for most of Jewish history, genuine assimilation to a non-Jewish society was simply not an option, short of conversion; while today, Jews have a unique chance to assimilate to American culture while still remaining Jewish. In some ways, then, this is the most hopeful era Jewish history has ever known, and that optimism is reflected in The Story of the Jews. Yet this hope emerged in the shadow of the worst tragedy in our whole history, the Holocaust, which renders it always a little fragile, a little doubtful. What wouldn’t we give to see the successor to Schama a hundred or a thousand years from now, to see how our own moment will figure in the ongoing and endlessly fascinating Jewish story.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.