Book review: The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE-1492 CE, By Simon Schama

Must a Jewish history stress suffering? Marc Saperstein argues against excess fatalism

Upon first encountering, in 1988, Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, I was in awe of the depth of scholarship, the integration of historical and fine-art analysis, the power of the elegantly crafted sentences. The following year, Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution revealed a similar mastery of a period 150 years later, with a totally different theme. It seemed astounding that a historian could produce two such diverse and impressive books in less than two years.

The Story of the Jews presents even greater challenges. The 2500-year time-span in this first volume encompasses Jews living in four civilisations: the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic and Roman world, medieval Christianity, and Islam. The relevant languages of the primary sources include - in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic - ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian, Latin and Arabic. Archaeological material is critical for the first part of the book. In this age of specialisation, writing authoritatively about such diverse material is a daunting task rarely undertaken by scholars.

Ideally, the different periods and contexts would be presented in their own integrity, with some element of continuity binding them - beyond the obvious motif of Jewish survival despite all the obstacles. Yet the book reveals a surprising lack of consistency. The writing style ranges from high seriousness to Woody Allen. Readers will certainly appreciate many examples of Schama's elegant exposition and vivid narrative. But all too frequently the elevated tone that would seem to be required by the material is undercut. Colloquial expressions are rampant, including Yiddish or Hebrew terms, suggesting an intended in-group readership: "even tougher goyishe boatmen of the rough waters"; "literary excess and sumptuous schmeckerei"; Maimonides was "a king of the kvetch".

Hyperbole abounds: Hasdai ibn Shaprut "spoke every tongue imaginable"; Maimonides was "the world's most famous champion of even-tempered moderation"; "For everyone, it was always about Jerusalem." Occasionally we encounter allusion to internal Jewish jokes: "The moment you know that Josephus is the first… truly Jewish historian is when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action."

The documentation of sources is haphazard. Sections of the book provide standard academic annotation, but others are surprisingly incomplete. Biblical verses, Talmudic passages, quotations from Maimonides' classic Code of Jewish Law (inaccurately characterised as "his great reworking of the Mishnah") are often not properly identified. There are far too many passages where the reader is given no clue about the source for quotations or statements being made, and far too many passages in which reliance on the work of another scholar is evident but without adequate acknowledgment.

Most important is the thematic inconsistency. Schama announces that his story commences with "the documented beginning of ordinary Jews". This important emphasis is exemplified with material based on papyrus records from Elephantine and Alexandria, funeral inscriptions, archaeological excavations at Dura-Europos and synagogues of the Galilee, and the vast documentary collection of the Cairo Geniza. Yet elsewhere the emphasis on the "ordinary Jew" seems to have disappeared, replaced by extensive discussions of a familiar pantheon - Herod and Josephus, Hasdai ibn Shaprut, Samuel ibn Nagrela, Judah Halevi, Maimonides, Nahmanides - and their roles as major cultural figures and leaders of their Jewish communities.

Other major figures and works - Saadia Gaon, Rashi, Judah "the Pious", Levi ben Gershom, Sefer Hasidim, the Zohar, the Tosafot, indeed entire regions of major significance: Abbasid Baghdad with its Exilarchs and Talmudic academies, Italy, southern France, Poland - are mentioned in single sentences, if at all. And important recent scholarly work on "ordinary Jews" in medieval Christian Europe - women as mothers and child-rearers, archival documents revealing Jews and Gentiles quarreling about economic transactions - is neglected.

A second significant conceptual issue is whether to present co-existence or conflict with the surrounding culture, the host government and population, as the norm. Schama presents impressive models of Jewish co-existence with Gentile neighbors based on a sustainable integration of Jewish loyalties with values and practices of the surrounding civilisation. Yet much of the book suggests that such models were doomed to collapse, and that conflict, persecution, Jewish suffering was normative throughout the ages.

Schama properly repudiates the tendency "to read backwards, to reinforce the anachronistic impression that the Jewish story is clouded with tragic foreknowledge from the start... That would be to endorse the romantic tradition of the wailing Hebrew - hair-tearing, breast beating, the schreiyer in the ashes." Yet he seems unable to resist the readings he rejects.

In the final chapter, describing a mid-15th-century Spanish Christian text calling for an Inquisition and expulsion of the Jews from Spain, he writes, "All of which appears as though the death knell had already sounded for the Jews of Spain. But - just as in Germany half a millennium later - an anciently settled Jewish population, inured to some hardships and much hostile screaming, can shut its ears to the clamour." Schama proceeds to explain why it was not obvious to Spanish Jews that the expulsion was imminent or inevitable. But why the gratuitous analogy and condemnation of German Jews?

The profusion of heart-rending stories of oppression, often removed from historical contexts, suggests that the model of unabated persecution and martyrdom, with medieval precedents for the Nazi horrors, outweighs the models of co-existence emphasised elsewhere. The 20 dates selected in the Timeline between 1000CE and 1500CE - three neutral, 17 pertaining to persecution, none for any Jewish achievement - confirm this message.

Schama's new book is not really "The Story of the Jews". Much of it is indeed a recounting of stories, newly adorned in a distinctive narrative style. But what Schama has presented is not "the story", but many stories, often in tension with each other, and not of "the Jews", but of selected Jews, and selected communities. It will undoubtedly serve as a popular table book. As a source of authoritative historical information about Jews during this long period, readers will need to turn to the works so helpfully listed and described in the fine up-to-date bibliography.

Marc Saperstein is Professor of Jewish Studies at King's College London, and Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College.

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