Book review: “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words – 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

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Book review: “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words – 1000 BC – 1492 AD” by Simon Schama

There is a lot that Simon Schama wants to say in The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words: 1000 BC–1492 AD, the first of a three-volume history.

And maybe there’s too much.

What I mean is that Schama, a noted historian who is Jewish, is may be too close to his subject.

British-born, Schama is an expert in art history, French history and British history, and has written wonderfully erudite and insightful books about such subjects as

  • the French Revolution (Citizens, 1989),
  • the interaction of landscape and culture (Landscape and Memory, 1995),
  • Rembrandt (Rembrandt’s Eyes, 1999),
  • the history of Britain (a three-volume set, 2000-2002), and
  • the slave trade (Rough Crossings, 2005).Here, though, the subject is clearly very personal to him — his people. There are a great deal of penetrating, eye-opening observations in this first volume of The Story of the Jews, and I’ll get to some of those in a bit.

 

Baroquely intricate and idiosyncratic

My problem is that these intriguing understandings of who the Jews have been and what they’ve done and what’s been done to them were often lost, for me, in a text that seemed increasingly to turn in on itself.

Schama isn’t the simplest writer as a historian. That’s one of his attractions. He goes at subjects at unexpected angles and sees them in a rich, complex context. His sentences and paragraphs are baroquely intricate and idiosyncratic.

The three volumes of The Story of the Jews are being published in conjunction with a 2013 BBC five-part television series. Those shows — perhaps because Schama’s words need to tie into the images that accompany them and perhaps because the audience is the general public — don’t bog down.

The medium of television forces him to keep things clean and clear, to avoid clutter, to cut out everything except the essentials.

But, in prose, Schama isn’t constrained in the same way.

The first book in the series covers a 2,500-year period. The second book, due in the fall, will look at four centuries of history. The third will examine the last 100 years or so, centering, of course, on the Holocaust.

That first book has only 421 pages of text which isn’t very many, especially since Schama’s ornate style goes into great detail on the subjects about which he chooses to write.

But that’s not the real problem.

 

Schama’s audience

For me, it was the audience for whom Schama was writing the book.

I quickly got the sense, as I read The Story of the Jews, that Schama was writing for his fellow Jews. That his goal was to explode the myths that he and they had been taught. To bring a richer, more nuanced sense of who they are and where they came from.

That’s a fine goal. However, as someone who isn’t Jewish and wasn’t taught the history that Schama is challenging, I felt disoriented.

It seemed that, as a reader, Schama was expecting me to know a lot more than I knew.

I would get a vague sense of why he was looking at, say, the Jewish community in the cosmopolitan Egyptian town of Elephantine around 475 BC — it seemed that he was wanting to prove that Jews weren’t as clannish as they had been taught they were — but I couldn’t be sure if my sense of Schama’s goal and meaning was accurate or simply misinformed.

At many points in the text, I yearned for Schama to step back and state in a few simple sentences what his point was, why all this convoluted stuff (interesting, certainly, and seemingly important) was, in fact, important.

I needed a framework.

And I came away thinking that Schama expected the reader to already have that framework which, to me, seemed to be a working knowledge of what had been taught to generations of Jews as their history.

So, often, I ended up confused.

 

Rich even though frustrating

Nonetheless, there was much of great value in The Story of the Jews, even if the sum of these insights didn’t add up for me in a way that felt satisfying. I wasn’t up to what Schama expected, I guess.

Here are some of his observations that made this book a rich if ultimately frustrating read for me:

Arguing for a complex view of Jewish history

But suppose there is another Jewish story altogether, one in which the line between the alien and the pure is much less hard and fast; in which being Jewish did not carry with it the requirement of shutting out neighboring cultures but, to some degree at least, living in their company, where it was possible to be Jewish and Egyptian, just as later it would be possible to be Jewish and Dutch or Jewish and American, possible 9not necessarily easy or simple) to live the one life in balance with the other, to be none the less Jewish for being the more Egyptian, Dutch, British, American.

 

The importance of words

Babylonian and Persian court rituals, often enacted before monumental statuary, were principally designed to astonish the eye. The performance assigned to Ezra was all about mouth and ear, about the living force of words, It established very early on, the Jewish philosophy of reading as unquiet. Jewish reading in the style of the Hebrew Bible, at the dawn of this people’s self-consciousness, is not done in silent solitude (the invention of monastic Christianity), nor is it done for the enrichment of the reflective conscience (though that is not entirely ruled out). Jewish reading is literally loud-mouthed: social, chatty, animated, declamatory, a demonstrative public performance meant to turn the reader from absorption to action; a reading that has necessary, immediate, human implications; reading that begs for argument, commentary, questioning, interruption and interpretation; reading that never ever shuts up. Jewish reading refuses to close the book on anything.

 

The Hebrew Bible

The many generations of Bible writers made their book not assuming the worst but preparing for its possibility. That, as any Jew will tell you, is a big difference; the difference, actually, between life and death. Much of the speaking Book is not a rehearsal for grief but a struggle against its inevitability; another big difference. It is the adversary, not the enabler, of fatalism.

 

The Jewish vision of the separation of Book and sword

The bulk of the Bible, from generation to generation, was written when the weaknesses of state power were most apparent. The portable scroll-book became the countervailing force to the sword. Once that happened, the idea that Jewish life was Jewish words, and they could and would endure beyond the vicissitudes of power, the loss of land, the subjection of people, took off into history. Since other monotheistic book faiths allied word and sword rather than divorced them, this would turn out to be a uniquely Jewish vision.

 

Why do bad things happen to the Jews?

How can God permit such a thing to happen to His People? That’s what we always ask when cinders smart the eyes and we begin to spit soot. What happened to the covenant, to the promises that we should prevail over those who seek to annihilate us? Back comes the answer, time after time. Read the fine print! See the bit about the Righteous? What’s been going on? Transgressions! Iniquities! Abominations, self-destructive malarkey, that’s what! Time for a proper clean-out! Didn’t you listen to the prophets? Don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

Islam and Judaism

Islam, then, was born in an urban Jewish crucible.

 

Commit suicide rather than convert to another faith?

No, no, no, choose life, Maimonides thought. It wasn’t that he disrespected the sacrifice of the martyrs, but the stupidity of absolute ideals, across all religions, he found alien and disrespectful of the injunction to save life clearly enjoined in the Torah.

 

After a massacre in 15th century Spain

Drawing on the resilience which was by now second nature to Jews, the community learned how to rebuild, repair, restore. Between the sudden nightmares it went on with its business, its studies, its work, settled down, even prospered.

 

Patrick T. Reardon

5.8.17

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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