The Sto­ry of the Jews: Find­ing the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

Simon Schama
  • Review
By – February 24, 2014

In this first of two vol­umes, Simon Schama soft­ens his immense eru­di­tion in a voice that is often con­ver­sa­tion­al and per­son­al, leav­ened at times by an iron­ic off-hand­ed­ness. For instance, in a dis­cus­sion of how Hel­lenis­tic cul­ture and its mate­r­i­al goods influ­enced Jew­ish lifestyles, he writes, This was chap­ter one in the long his­to­ry of Jew­ish shopping.” 

Sto­ry of the Jews is com­posed of dis­crete his­tor­i­cal episodes in Jew­ish his­to­ry (it is not a con­tin­u­ous nar­ra­tive) that often rely on sto­ries of indi­vid­u­als that Schama has gleaned from the schol­ar­ly lit­er­a­ture. He shares arcane details, bio­graph­i­cal sketch­es, and excur­sions into schol­ar­ly inves­ti­ga­tions. He traces, for ex­ample, the his­to­ry of the extra­or­di­nary water tun­nel, briefly referred to in 2 Kings 20 and 2 Chron­i­cles 2, that King Hezeki­ah had ordered dug through lime­stone to divert water from the spring of Gihon at Siloam to a reser­voir in Jerusalem. Shama devotes thir­ty pages to describ­ing the six­teen-year-old boy who dis­cov­ered the tun­nel in 1880, his par­ents, his teacher, details about the ardu­ous dif­fi­cul­ties in deci­pher­ing the inscrip­tion found on the tun­nel, and much more. 

In car­ry­ing the sto­ry through to 1492 and the vile­ness of the Span­ish Inqui­si­tion, Schama first dis­cuss­es at length the split between Ju­daism and Chris­tian­i­ty, the enmi­ty that had its ori­gins in Paul mov­ing the heart of Chris­t­ian the­ol­o­gy from Christ’s life to his death [that] made the impli­ca­tion of the Jews in his killing not just unavoid­able but cen­tral to the new teach­ing” and the well-known account of Con­stan­tine in the ear­ly fourth cen­tu­ry CE ce­menting the enmi­ty that con­tin­ues today. Let us have … noth­ing in com­mon with the Jews who are our ene­mies,” Con­stan­tine wrote in a let­ter to John Chrysos­tom. Let us stu­dious­ly avoid all con­tact with their evil ways … for how can they enter­tain right views on any point hav­ing com­passed the death of the Lord.” 

In the last third of Vol­ume I, Schama exam­ines the rise and fall of Sephardic Jew­ry through well-known bril­liant fig­ures of the so-called Hebrew Gold­en Age — among them, Shmuel ibn Negra­ha­la (Samuel Hanagid), Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Yehu­dah Hale­vi, Nah­manides, Mai­monides — and the inva­sions of Spain by the bar­bar­ic and bru­tal North African Berbers, fol­lowed soon after by Catholic per­se­cu­tions and autos-da-fé. In Schama’s telling, the sto­ries and their details are still heart­break­ing. No his­to­ri­an, cer­tain­ly not this one,” he writes, can recov­er the hor­ror, dis­may, fear and pathet­ic agony of the Jews who heard the implaca­ble death sen­tence now imposed on com­mu­ni­ties which had seemed their Jerusalems in Spain.’” 

The Sto­ry of the Jews breaks no new ground as far as Jew­ish his­to­ry goes, but draw­ing on bib­li­cal and archae­o­log­i­cal schol­ar­ship of the last half cen­tu­ry, Schama gives us his sin­gu­lar per­spec­tive on how Jew­ish inter­pre­ta­tion and writ­ing have been the means through which Jew­ish iden­ti­ty — per­haps iden­ti­ties — have come into being. The great Jew­ish texts are not closed affairs, he implies, but con­tin­ue to require our con­tin­u­ing interpretation.

Relat­ed content:

Mer­rill Lef­fler has pub­lished three col­lec­tions of poet­ry, most recent­ly Mark the Music. A physi­cist by train­ing, he worked in the NASA sound­ing rock­et pro­gram, taught Eng­lish at the U. S. Naval Acad­e­my, and was senior sci­ence writer at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mary­land Sea Grant Pro­gram, focus­ing on Chesa­peake Bay research.

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