With antisemitism on the rise in France, England and around the world, and Israel once again facing strong headwinds, it seems like a good time to turn to history in search of some perspective on current events.
Earlier this year, PBS aired a popular two-part series on Jewish history written and presented by historian Simon Schama. The account was based largely on his book The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD (ecco, 2013), published last year in Great Britain. The second volume – from 1492 to the present – is expected this fall.
Schama, a highly accomplished, award-winning historian, has written 16 books and 40 television documentaries, focusing mostly on art histories and histories of France, the Netherlands, Britain and the United States. He has also written a book about Israel and the Rothschilds.
In The Story of the Jews, he abandons the distance of an academic historian right at the start. This is the story of his people, not an abstract theoretical exercise of writing history. He is emotionally invested in this project and his passion spills out on every page.
It is also clear from the beginning that he is foremost a storyteller. With incredible details, Schama delights the reader with engaging vignettes about both ordinary and powerful people. He recreates pivotal moments in history by describing the events in the life of individuals, from Sheloman, a young Jewish mercenary in service of the Persian authorities in 475 BCE, to Abraham Zacuto, a talmudist and astronomer who put together the almanac used by Christopher Columbus in 1492.
His chatty approach to history occasionally drifts sideways, as if he just thought about something else he has to tell you. It is sometimes difficult to keep up with him, as he jumps across centuries, from country to country, commenting about historical figures without much of an introduction.
Yet, the story he tells is compelling. Schama wanders through numerous far-flung Jewish communities offering fascinating glimpses of their lives and surprising perspectives on Jewish worship, relations with non-Jews and violence against Jews.
More than is usually acknowledged, the Jewish community has lived in harmony with paganism, Christianity and Muslim societies. Yet the portrait of Jewish history, as he presents it, is not pretty.
Despite periods of well-being, sometimes stretching over hundreds of years, the story of the Jews is an account of a people caught in a Sisyphean cycle of settlement, prosperity, persecution and devastation, over and over again, beginning in Egypt in the 13th century BCE.
Schama delves deep into the brutal rhetoric and cruel fantasies that provoked the recurring waves of murder and expulsion. Over two millennia, the venom spread from Egypt to Palestine and throughout the empires of Persia, Greece, Rome and Constantinople, through the Near East and the Iberian peninsula.
He shines an especially bright light on the vile attacks by the disciples and followers of Jesus, who turned Jews into god-killers and child murderers. He writes about Jewish moneylenders, international traders, tax collectors and confidantes of royalty who were once in favor and then were not.
Schama begins his story in Elephantine, an island in the Nile. The Persians in 525 BCE found a thriving, well-established Jewish community in Elephantine, with a temple that had many similarities to the First Temple in Jerusalem that had been destroyed 61 years earlier.
Documents describing Elephantine provide the first hard evidence of daily life of Jews in antiquity. The Elephantine community was wiped out by the mid-fourth century BCE.
Again and again, Jewish communities were decimated. England expelled its Jews in 1290; France issued edicts expelling Jews in 1306 and again in 1394. Spain followed in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Schama identifies 29 towns under Christian rule across Europe that kicked out Jews between 1010 and 1540.
Many civilizations have thrived and then disappeared. But Judaism has always found a way to thrive and survive. Schama attributes the durability of Judaism to its devotion to words.
Judaism depends neither on its leaders, its places of worship nor its institutions. The Jewish people are the People of the Book; words are the invisible thread that binds Jews together over the millennia, Schama posits. And, according to his perspective, the Torah is the work of the religious and intellectual elite in the eighth to fifth century BCE, nearly 500 years after the Exodus was supposed to have happened.
Reverting to his role as academic, he notes that no evidence – archeological or otherwise – has turned up to substantiate the Exodus story. By his account, the Hebrew Bible is a picture of Israel’s imagined origins and ancestry that converges at some point with the reality of Jewish history.
The genius of the priests, prophets and writers, intellectual elites, was to make their writing sacred, in standardized Hebrew, as the exclusive carrier of YHWH’s law and historic vision, Schama writes. “Thus encoded and set down, the spoken (and memorized) scroll could and would outlive monuments and military forces of empires.”
The Hebrew Bible was fashioned to be the common possession of elite and ordinary people, he writes. The divinity was reflected in the words of the Torah, not in an image of a divine creature or a person. And the message of the Torah was not confined to a holy sanctuary. It is to be posted on the doorpost of every Jew and bound on the head and arms of all Jews as they prayed.
“No part of life, no dwelling or body, was to be free of the scroll-book … the Torah was compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and counsel…. The speaking scroll was designed to survive incineration … the people of YHWH could be broken and slaughtered, but their book would be indefatigable.”
In other words, survival depends on, as his subtitle says, “finding the words” for Torah study and the story of the Jews.
Media consultant Robert Matas, a former Globe and Mail journalist, still reads books. Simon Schama’s book is available at the Isaac Waldman Jewish Public Library. To reserve it, or any other, call 604-257-5181 or email [email protected]. To view the catalogue, visit jccgv.com and click on Isaac Waldman Library.