Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews (Part One)

Simon Schama, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BCE to 1492) (Vintage 2014)

Some decades ago, I borrowed a book called The History of the Jews from a friend, and was disappointed to find that it was little more than a smoothing out of the Biblical stories. As far as its author was concerned, it seemed, you didn’t need to go past the Hebrew Bible (the ‘Old Testament’) to get the history up to the beginning of the current era.

Simon Schama’s book is the one I was hoping for back then. The Hebrew Bible, he writes, is not primarily history, but

the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry; it is the epic of the YHWH treaty-covenant with Israel, the single formless God moving through history, as well as the original treasure of its spiritual imagination.

(page 7)

Schama’s story doesn’t begin with Abraham leaving Ur, or even with Moses leading his people from Egypt. Schama isn’t confident that the exodus from Egypt even happened. It begins with the documented beginning of ordinary Jews, the earliest Jewish city that archaeologists have been able to reconstruct, on the island of Elephantine in Egypt, in the early 5th century BCE, hundreds of years after the Biblical account of the exodus. And although that city was a military outpost – Jewish soldiers employed by the Syrian empire – the book begins not with a battle or any grand scheme, but with a letter from a father to his soldier son.

Though the book’s title promises ‘The Story’, Schama insists from the beginning that there’s more than one story: the Biblical story and the archaeological story; Jerusalemite stories and stories of communities in exile; stories of those who integrate with their non-Jewish neighbours – Babylonian, Egyptian, Christian, Muslim – and of those who insist on rigorous separateness; stories of brilliant intellectual and spiritual achievement and stories of unimaginable horror (and this book ends in 1492).

I spent my first two decades in an intensely Catholic environment, so the account of Christianity’s transformation from a Jewish sect to a demonically anti-Jewish institution is particularly gripping to me. Cherie R Brown and Amy Leos-Urbel’s Anti-Semitism asserts that religion is not the cause of anti-semitism, but has been used as a tool to foment it. I think that makes sense, but reading how John Chrysostom, revered father of the church, preached vile slander and murderous injunctions against Jews (evidently thinking it was necessary because a lot of Christians in the 380s happily participated in Jewish festivals), tests the proposition. And my childhood image of St Francis preaching to the birds must now be accompanied by that of his Franciscan friars torturing and murdering men, women and children who refused to renounce Judaism, and many who had renounced it but continued to eat their customary food.

But the terrible history of humiliation and massacre is not the main story here. Again and again, Schama gives us stories of brilliant survival. The Talmud and the mishnah – tumultuous documents filled with wisdom, argument and disputation – grew in a state of exile. And before them, the Hebrew Bible itself was an extraordinary creation. A roll call of the people in this book who did great things would be very long: administrators, generals, poets – why haven’t I ever heard of Shmuel ibn Naghrela or Yehuda Halevi?

One small warning: I’m pretty knowledgable about Biblical stuff, have a smattering of mediaeval history, and some knowledge of current Judaic feasts. There were times when I found it hard to keep my bearings in the tumult of this story. So it may not a good place to start. If you don’t know who Moses is, or you’ve never heard of Purim, you might need something more straightforward, and move on to this when you’re ready.

Speaking with Paul Holdengräber at the 2019 Sydney Writers’ Festival, Simon Schama spoke of the heroism of the displaced. I don’t think the phrase occurs in this book, but it could have. His main subject at the SWF was the second volume of this story. You can hear that wonderfully entertaining conversation by clicking here, and my blog report on it here. He is now girding his loins for the third volume, which brings us through the twentieth century up to the present.

7 responses to “Simon Schama’s Story of the Jews (Part One)

  1. I have this series on DVD but haven’t had time to watch it yet. I’ve enjoyed other series that he’s done about civilisation:)

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  2. Jonathan: You may now be ready for Israeli Emeritus Professor of History, Tel Aviv – whose books explore the fact that the Jews are an invented people – Shlomo Sand! Google his name. I wonder if Simon Schama has foot-noted him at all. About to start Day 2 of the caminho português from São Miguel de Arcos…more on that separately – but intrigued to learn that some of the thousands of Jews who were booted out in 1492 by los Reyes Católicos – Fernando y Isabel came to Portugal. Welcomed – but advised that changing faith might help – possibilities of invasion by the Spanish etc – took new names, etc – most the names of trees it would seem according to our walking tour guide in Porto a week or so back – Pedro – hence Carvalho (oak) and Oliveiro (clearly “olive”) are indicators down to to-day of that historic expulsion era and ancestry.

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    • Thanks for the reference, Jim. I did google Shlomo Sand, who sounds a bit polemical for me at the moment. And Portugal can’t really claim the high ground in terms of Jews in the 1490s. In 1492 they welcomed people expelled from Spain. And then by 1497 King Manuel was set on eliminating Jews, either by expulsion or by forced conversion. Schama describes scenes of child removal alarmingly like those we hear from Australia’s Stolen Generations or contemporary USA, and mass detention in foreshadowings of concentration camps!

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  3. Hi… interesting post. The slice of Jewish life I have researched is about the Jewish anarchists of NYC. Much later in time obviously. Didn’t know about the Franciscan friars.

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  4. Our guide clearly had a particular perspective on his own nation’s history re the expulsion from 1492 Spain. On the other hand I might myself think that changing my set of beliefs for a new name and life itself a fair enough exchange to ensure the lives thus of my children. And I tend to believe that folk in those far off times were as much “testing the prevailing winds of change” pragmatists (or else staunch believers) as people to-day – some chose one way – others to remain “true” as we might put it. (Hardly the same thing though maybe slightly so – I answer as easily to “Gee-moo” when in Japan as to “Jim” in Australia.) But yes – as you point out – child removal as ugly then as now in Trump’s US or in “Abbullson” LNP OZ. History does indeed repeat. And we can thank Schama for pointing this out to us in this instance. Those Jews who left Spain for Turkey took their mid-late 15th century form of Spanish with them – known as Ladino. I might have mentioned to you elsewhere earlier that I sought out the Jewish Centre in Istanbul and found among the records display newspapers printed in Ladino earlier last century which, given my rusty but more-or-less serviceable Spanish I found I could make sense of! I had a classmate in a Cambridge Diploma class run via the British Council in Sydney nearly 40 years ago who told me her mother was a Ladino-speaker – ex-Turkey. It was the first inkling for me that the expulsion was no longer just an historical act from nearly 500 years earlier – but had consequences still playing out in contemporary times.

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  5. Hi Jim, I’m late responding to this – life is what happens when you’re away from the computer. The trouble with the Spanish (& Portuguese?) Inquisition is that when people changed their religion in that pragmatic way, the authorities didn’t believe them. Many of the so-called ‘conversos’ were burned: sometimes continuing to cook meat in oil rather than the lard that was preferred by Christians was enough to confirm the suspicion that a conversion wasn’t genuine.
    I didn’t know, or had forgotten, that Ladino found its way to Istanbul. You are a dependable source of interesting tidbits.

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