The Weekend’s Viewing: Simon Schama’s story was as much an investigation into identity as it was the beginning of a difficult history

The Story of the Jews, Sun, BBC2 // Rebuilding the World Trade Center, Sun, Channel 4

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The Independent Culture

There was one mildly Woody Allen-ish moment  in the first of Simon Schama’s excellent five-part series, The Story of the Jews. Sitting at a Passover meal, the historian and his friends contemplated a passage from the Haggadah in which it is stated that every generation will be prey to those who “seek to destroy us”. Schama wondered whether this was a pessimism built into the Jewish mind-set. Was Jewish culture always expecting the worst? A small, slightly  bemused moment of reflection, until a dinner guest stepped in: “The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.” It was a joke, but there was a rueful truth to it.

Schama promptly took us back to the beginning, to the roots of historical persecution and possibly even the pessimism that has, ironically, led the world’s Jews to suffer yet survive some 3,000 years later. Schama’s story was as much an investigation into identity, as it was the beginning of a difficult history, from the conversion of the Israelites to Hellenistic “soft power” and Roman oppression. Jewishness, Schama stressed, was not about Judaism alone. This can be true of  any religious identity, but Schama suggested that there was something unique about the diversity within Jewishness, spanning cultures, races, languages and national boundaries.

He began not with the ancient Israelites but with Sigmund Freud. On fleeing Nazism in Vienna, he became absorbed  in the question of Jewish identity, despite being “godless”. Freud, in fact, offered the most uplifting moment of this  episode, right at the end, when Schama took us up to Roman rule and Jewish slavery. On a trip to Italy, Freud sent a  postcard to a friend with a statement that summarised the  tension between struggle and survival: “The Jew survives it!”

The first part of Schama’s story covered Josephus’s legacy, Jewish resistance to Hellenistic assimilation and early internecine divisions. Any reference to the modern-day politics of Israel was thus far avoided, though Schama lay the groundwork for grappling with this thorny subject later on. Here, he navigated the concept of the “promised land” and spoke of the superpowers – Egypt, Assyria and Babylon – that the Jews were sandwiched between. Meanwhile, the contemporary British community of reform Jews wearing top hats as they prayed  in a mixed congregation to what sounded like organ music  bore an uncanny resemblance to the Christian tradition rather than Jewish orthodoxy. Also enlightening was the wonderful religious edict that the Torah was to be read aloud – declaimed no less – and not read silently. The programme has a book tie-in for those who want more depth than five episodes can offer.

Rebuilding the World Trade Center looked at the painstaking rehabilitation of Ground Zero from the point of view of the construction workers, and it will no doubt become part of this year’s programmes marking the anniversary (The Lost Hero of 9/11 on Channel 4 follows it today). Marcus Robinson, an artist enlisted to film the reconstruction process, provided the visuals, so that we saw each stage of rebuilding over the past 12 years in adrenalin-fuelled, speeded-up flashes. Alongside this were the stories of the workers themselves, from the feisty woman who left her secretarial job to lift iron and steel, to the men who followed their fathers into their jobs, rather like British miners. There were, in fact, whole families working on the various towers.

Though it might be irreverent to say so, given the everyday heroism of these hard-working men and women, the documentary seemed to falter, then drag. Even its spectacular visual effects felt repetitive by the end and the workers’ stories were all too brief. While it captured the heroic  ambition of the job – these new buildings are taller,  stronger, better than the ones that were destroyed – it  also had the disconcerting look of a promotional video.