Simon Schama's new book tells a sometimes dark history—but sounds a fundamentally optimistic noteby Sameer Rahim / January 25, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Simon Schama’s Lithuanian great-uncle worked for a travelling circus. The historian is a chip off the old block, a charismatic ringmaster who in this second volume of his story of the Jews marshals a large cast—traders, thinkers, doctors, boxers and more—while keeping the narrative plates spinning. Schama tells the amazing tales of the Jews who made their lives in London, Amsterdam, Venice, Istanbul and elsewhere. Periods of relative tolerance were punctuated with persecution by Christian or Muslim overlords. But this book is fundamentally optimistic and dark stories don’t dominate.
Predictably, there are strong chapters on Schama’s expert areas: the intellectual flourishing in the Dutch Republic, the French Revolution’s false promise of emancipation. But there are also wonderfully unexpected passages on Jews in China and India. The sheer variety of religious and cultural practice is remarkable, each community taking on the trappings and ideas of the country in which they had landed. Yet still, somehow, a shared memory persists—in some cases, generations after converting to Christianity, men would undergo adult circumcision to return to the old faith.
Just as fascinating are the accounts of the religious revivalists, like the 17th-century Shabbetai, who started a messianic movement in Ottoman Palestine. (“Truth be told, the big Messiah was a bit of a nebbish,” writes Schama.) More heroic was the German philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, who wanted to find a way for Jews to retain their religious identity while embracing modernity. (Schama’s not so taken with Spinoza’s rigorous rationalism.) But Jews weren’t all mystics or scholars: the 18th-century boxer Daniel Mendoza was a popular English hero. His fighting manual offers some advice on dealing with an opponent that sums up the experience of Schama’s subjects: “Keep moving. Keep him off balance. Walk don’t run. Keep moving.”