All this really happened

Simon Schama’s history of the Jews excels at bringing the past to life—even if he fails to capture the richness of Jewish culture in medieval Europe
September 18, 2013
Illuminated vellum manuscript showing scenes from Exodus (from the Brother Haggadah, Catalonia c.1370s). (© British Library/Robana via Getty Images)

The Story Of The Jews: Finding The Words 1000 BCE-1492 CEby Simon Schama (Bodley Head, £25)

Simon Schama may be the finest living practitioner in English of haute vulgarisation, and The Story of the Jews displays the enlivening virtues of that mode of writing, as well as some of its limitations. The subtitle and the announced time span are a little misleading. This particular story of the Jews really begins in the early 5th century BCE, and Schama makes only scant reference to the first 500 years of biblical history.

“Finding the words”—the notion of cultural memory and values made permanent in a book, or later, many books—is proposed as the thematic thread that ties the large story together. Schama plausibly begins this story with the institution of the public reading of the Torah by Ezra the Scribe, the intellectual leader of the exiled Judeans who returned to Zion in the middle of the 5th century BCE. Schama then pursues this theme somewhat intermittently. He is a historian whose eye is constantly drawn to the engaging detail, and such details, building a momentum of their own, often lead him away from the idea of the centrality of the written word. At one point the magnetic tug of things interesting in and of themselves pulls him into a whole chapter, rather tangential to the larger story, on the archaeological effort to recover the world of the Bible, with most of the attention devoted to its odd and colourful 19th-century devotees.

The Story of the Jews may offer little that will be new for specialists in Jewish history, but it does provide many salutary correctives to misconceptions about the subject that the general reader may have. Thus, Schama begins his narrative in 475 BCE, with a vivid evocation of the Jewish mercenary soldiers garrisoned on the Egyptian island of Elephantine, not only plying a trade supposedly alien to the Jews but also offering sacrifices in their temple at a time when many still claimed exclusive cultic privileges for Jerusalem. (The temple in Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Babylonians when they conquered Judea in 586 BCE, but in the decades before that conquest the newly composed Book of Deuteronomy had insisted that Jerusalem was the one and only place where sacrifices could be offered, and this new doctrine had gained wide acceptance.) Schama goes on to show how interlocked the Jews of late antiquity were with Hellenistic and Roman culture, including even the Maccabees, often imagined as fierce xenophobes. He provides telling illustrations of the legal, economic, and social power exercised by Jewish women in medieval Christian Europe.

The breadth of scholarship Schama has mastered in order to cover Jewish experience over two millennia and three continents is impressive, and the conclusions he proposes on disputed issues are judicious. There are factual errors from time to time, though these do not compromise the larger argument. (For instance, the Elohist, one of the four sources of the Torah, does not “hail God as ‘El’” but rather as Elohim, these being two distinct Hebrew terms. “Pour out thy wrath on the heathen” does not appear in the Yom Kippur service but in the Haggadah, the text for the Passover seder. Schama’s transliteration of Hebrew terms is sometimes shaky, occasionally even ungrammatical.)

The great strength of The Story of the Jews is Schama’s flair for bringing to life the historical experience of Jews in these different times and places. His style is breezy and often colloquial. Occasionally, he works too hard to achieve the effect of liveliness. It may be more misleading than helpful to call the Elephantine soldiers “expats,” a designation better suited to Gertrude Stein in Paris or Robert Graves in Majorca. Do we need to have a Victorian-era explorer of Egypt “sporting a prophetic Whitman/Marx beard” when one of these three terms would have sufficed? The bustling characterisation of Shmuel Hanagid, the great Hebrew poet of 11th-century Granada, goes entirely off the rails in its effort to be stylistically energetic: “an unapologetically outsized ego, a hand-pumping, back-slapping, rib-whacking, hairily muscular personality.” Though Hanagid had a lofty sense of his own importance (as well he might, having become vizier of Granada and commander of its armies), he was a brooding introspective poet, repeatedly spooked by thoughts of mortality—death is a presence even amidst the exuberance of his wine poems—and he would be the last person to slap a back or whack a rib.

Such moments of excess, however, are no more than the defects of a virtue. Schama’s most appealing quality is his novelistic gift—he has written one novel—for evoking the look and feel of historical events. I do not mean to suggest that he invents things, only that he imaginatively builds from the documented facts memorable images of the historical experience. Here, for example, is how he conjures up Nehemiah overseeing the rebuilding of the razed city of Jerusalem shortly after 444 BCE:

“He sits upright in his saddle as the horse picks a careful way through the shattered stones. Through the Dung Gate goes Nehemiah, the stars over his head, the Judaean summer night pleasingly cool… on past the Water Gate, on to Siloam and the brook of Kidron, skirting the heaps of trash and the meandering line of ruin, on until his horse has no more room amid the rubble to trot or even to walk.”

Again, consider these two brief sentences that begin a section entitled “Smoke” in the penultimate chapter: “It takes a while to reduce parchment, vellum and ink to ash. Unlike paper, which embraces the fire, animal skins resist their destruction, smouldering as they curl and shrivel, surrendering to the incineration only after releasing beads of vestigial oil locked within the dermis.” We at once see the process of burning with remarkable sharpness, but what is going on? The next sentence explains: we are at the Place de Grève in Paris on a June night in 1242, and what is being burned are copies of the Talmud—24 cartloads of them—condemned for blasphemy by a jury of the University of Paris. The concreteness of the language makes us understand the outrageousness of the act.

A sense of outrage, in fact, rather than the primacy of words, proves to be the focus of much of the second half of the book, entirely dominating the final three chapters. Though Schama registers with approval the famous objection by Salo Baron (1895-1989), the eminent historian of the Jews, to “the lachrymose view” of Jewish history, that is what takes over his own story in its later phases. I suspect that this may not have been entirely intentional but that as he examined the historical accounts, wrath kindled within him, impelling him to convey in agonising detail what time after time was perpetrated on the Jews, to some degree, by Muslims but especially by Christians.

The result of Schama’s concern with this suffering is that he neglects some of the richest elements of Jewish history from 1096, the year of the first crusade, to 1492, when the Jews were violently expelled from Spain. The Hasidei Ashkenaz, the intensely mystical group of ascetic pietists who flourished in the Rhineland in the 12th and 13th centuries, do not appear in these pages. The Kabbalah, the mystical movement that created an immensely influential theosophical system articulated in the Zohar, the Book of Splendour, composed in late 13th-century Spain, is referred to in passing but is not part of the narrative. Schama also omits the fascinating movement of Hebrew poetry in Italy that began in the 14th century. These works built on the precedents of Hebrew poetry composed in Spain but rapidly absorbed Italian influences, producing sonnets, sestinas and Dantesque narratives. The folkways and popular culture of late medieval Jewry are not discussed.

Instead, Schama tells a riveting—and deeply disturbing—story, solidly buttressed by contemporaneous reports, of how Jews were repeatedly accused of infanticide, desecration of the host, ghastly blood rituals, trafficking with the devil, and a whole litany of other obscenities, and in town after town were subjected to torture, stabbing, dismemberment, burning alive and murderous bludgeonings. Then, of course, there were the forced conversions, the mass kidnappings of Jewish children or their murder before their parents’ eyes, and the coercion that compelled many Jews to take their own lives. As Schama observes more than once, the Nazis had ample precedents in the preceding millennium of European history.

All this really happened, and Schama’s aptness as a writer makes us see the anguish of it all. It is, of course, only one aspect, however horrific and prevalent, of the dizzyingly variegated historical experience of the Jews, and Schama does argue for the variegation, even if it slips away from him in the last third of the book. A historical report that covers so much time and so much geographical and cultural space cannot deal with everything. If The Story of the Jews ends up, despite itself, tilted along the dire bias of persecution, it handles the chosen materials with impressive power. It seems enough that a popular history is able to convey a wealth of historical actualities in a way that makes them virtually present for its readers.

Any history of the Jews is obliged to adopt a perspective that dictates what to include and what to exclude. There are at least a dozen, perhaps many more, such books in English, each understandably reflecting the interests and concerns of its author. Salo Baron’s protest against the lachrymose view was written in 1928, before the Nazi horrors were imaginable. Not long after the war, he began a multi-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews, which, as its title suggests, focused on the lives of the Jews, not their destruction. Recent historiographical developments have by and large followed Baron’s precedent, though of course there also is an immense scholarly literature on the Nazi genocide. There has been considerable interest among recent historians in the everyday lives and practices of different Jewish communities, from specialised studies such as Sylvie-Anne Goldberg’s Crossing the Jabbok, an inquiry into the burial practices of the Jews of 16th-century Prague, to The Cultures of the Jews: A New History, a large volume edited by David Biale, incorporating the work of many scholars, which provides a rich overview of the varieties of Jewish life in different times and places from the Bible to the modern era.

Against this background of scholarly activity, Schama’s narrative may strike some as out of step with the times. But it seems to me that the emphasis he has chosen, or perhaps that has chosen him, is an understandable one. We live in the aftermath of the most unspeakable atrocities perpetrated on the Jewish people in its 3000-year history. A writer sifting through the historical materials may readily see an abundance of ghastly forerunners to the Nazi horrors and may be drawn to highlight them for contemporary readers. This is a grim service for a historian to perform, but it is a necessary one.