The renowned British Jewish historian Simon Schama produced an excellent BBC series last year on The Story of the Jews. This was given a passing mention in Brian Goldfarb’s guest post on London Jewish Book Week in 2013.
The series is now going to appear on the American PBS station, starting on 25th March, and the Tablet has a fascinating review of Schama’s work, calling it “the most important TV documentary on Jewish History since Abba Eban’s ‘Heritage'”and talks about the definition history of the Jews in general as a background to this production. (h/t Brian Goldfarb). Here are a few excerpts from the rather long article, but read it all:
Seldom does a scholar and teacher get the chance to teach such a crucial subject to such an enormous group of people; and seldom does a historical subject present so many difficulties. When I interviewed Schama recently in his office at Columbia University, he spoke modestly about the challenge of compressing 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of television: “It’s certainly true to say I was frightened to do it—I still am frightened to do it, having done it.” But in fact there is no one better qualified to make a documentary like The Story of the Jews than Schama, who is the author of many highly regarded books on modern European history—including the landmark study of the French Revolution, Citizens—and the creator of the hugely successful 15-part BBC series A History of Britain. Indeed, as he says in the first episode of The Story of the Jews, Jewish history was “the story that made me want to be a historian.”
The difficulties begin with what might seem like the simplest question of all: Where does the story of the Jews start? The answer is much more elusive than it might appear. Do you begin with Abraham, the father of the chosen people and the first recipient of God’s covenant? Or with Moses, the lawgiver, who first instituted the religion and practices of Judaism? Or with Saul and David, who gave the Jews political existence in the form of the Kingdom of Israel? Any one of these potential starting points implies a whole interpretation of what Jews and Judaism really are. The question is complicated by the fact that none of these people can be confidently said to have existed at all: They are mythic figures, not historical actors. Yet how can you begin to tell the story of the Jews without them?
And how does Schama begin The Story of the Jews? Not with tenacious Jews clinging to the Land of Israel, and not with exceptional Jews using religion to reinforce their chosenness. Rather, he starts with ordinary Jews in the Diaspora: the Israelite soldiers and workers who lived on the island of Elephantine, in Egypt, in the fifth century B.C.E. Egypt, of course, is the land that the Jews left in the Exodus, the place of slavery and superstition, which we revile every year at our Seders. But during the Babylonian and Persian occupations of the Land of Israel, many Israelites chose to go back to Egypt, often as soldiers in the pay of the occupying empire. At Elephantine, on the upper Nile, a colony of Jews was established whose papyrus records still survive today. What is most notable about this vanished world, Schama writes, is its human familiarity:
This is Schama’s expression of ahavat Yisrael, love of the Jewish people, and it is the essence of his warm and welcoming project. For Schama, making The Story of the Jews was an opportunity to broaden the public understanding of Judaism. Especially in Britain, he told me, there is a “great chasm of ignorance in the non-Jewish population, and in some of the Jewish population, about Jewish history and its complications. One of the problems is that it’s so overwhelmed by the Shoah and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” which leads to polarized reactions: “People are either polemically hysterical … or they’re treading on eggshells, or on the bones of Mauthausen or something. Either way it’s not good.”
Schama welcomes the viewer, especially the non-Jewish viewer, into Jewish history with his personal charisma and friendliness. As guide and narrator, Schama repeatedly emphasizes—sometimes with humor, sometimes with pathos—that he is a Jew and that this is his people’s story. Early in the first episode, we see the Schama family at their Passover Seder, talking about the meaning of the holiday, and reflecting on the passage from the Haggadah that rings so ominously through the festivity: “Behold, how in every generation they rise up against us to destroy us.” The Jews, one guest observes, suffer from “paranoia confirmed by history.”
Indeed, one of the signal achievements of The Story of the Jews is that it avoids putting the Holocaust at the center of that story. The five episodes proceed in chronological order: the ancient world, the medieval world, Western Europe and emancipation, Eastern Europe and the emigration to America, and finally the concluding hour focused on the birth and history of Israel. There is no episode devoted to the Holocaust, and as Schama told me, that was deliberate: “It was a decision neither to ignore” the subject, but also not to allow it to “dominate.” We see Schama making a pilgrimage to the Berlin Holocaust Museum, but there is none of the expected footage of skeletal prisoners or crematoria.
When the number “6 million” is mentioned in the series, it is not as the number of Holocaust victims, but as the population of the current State of Israel—a nice shift of emphasis from death to life. The program’s last episode is largely devoted to Israel, and Schama gives an even-handed but essentially pro-Zionist account of its improbable history, from the Balfour Declaration down to the Second Intifada. While acknowledging that the War of Independence was also the Palestinian Nakba, Schama declares forthrightly—while sitting in a table in a Viennese café once frequented by Theodor Herzl—that “I am a Zionist. I’m quite unapologetic about it.” (The fact that he needs to declare he is unapologetic, of course, says volumes about the current reputation of Zionism, especially in Europe.)
Schama’s case for Zionism has less to do with the historic attachment of the Jewish people to the Land of Israel than with the sheer existential necessity of a Jewish homeland in the face of European hatred. He shows us Israelis pausing for the memorial siren on Yom HaShoah, and describes them as “6 million defeats for the Nazis.” The story of Shmuel Ziegelboym—the Polish Jewish leader who committed suicide during World War II to protest the world’s indifference to the Holocaust—leads directly into his discussion of Zionism, as a premise leads to a conclusion.
If deciding on a beginning is one problem in the Jewish story, the ending presents another kind of challenge. The telling of any story has to have a conclusion, and that can hardly help implying that the story itself has ended. The present comes to seem like the conclusion to which Jewish history has been tending all along. But Schama’s last words remind us that this is not the case: “The story goes on,” he concludes. In fact, the current state of affairs for Jews is, historically speaking, highly anomalous. For thousands of years, the Jewish story took place mainly in a hostile Europe; today Europe is home to a small remnant, and the centers of Jewish life are America and Israel.
For thousands of years, too, the Land of Israel was the distant object of impotent longing; today, for the first time since 70 C.E., it is the home of an independent Jewish state. And for most of Jewish history, genuine assimilation to a non-Jewish society was simply not an option, short of conversion; while today, Jews have a unique chance to assimilate to American culture while still remaining Jewish. In some ways, then, this is the most hopeful era Jewish history has ever known, and that optimism is reflected in The Story of the Jews. Yet this hope emerged in the shadow of the worst tragedy in our whole history, the Holocaust, which renders it always a little fragile, a little doubtful. What wouldn’t we give to see the successor to Schama a hundred or a thousand years from now, to see how our own moment will figure in the ongoing and endlessly fascinating Jewish story.
Read the whole fascinating article. You might not agree with Schama’s point of view, or with the article’s author Adam Kirsch (I certainly didn’t), but you will nevertheless gain great insight into Jewish history from a slightly different angle.
BBC Watch covered the series when it appeared on the BBC last year, with videos of part I, and episodes 2-4). I also came across this very interesting interview of Simon Schama by Christiane Amanpour on CNN last year.
I would love to hear from my American readers what they think of this new series.