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

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.

twitter.com/Arifa_Akbar

Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Hewer is to leave The Apprentice after 10 years

TV review Nick Hewer, the man whose eyebrows speak a thousand words, is set to leave The Apprentice

Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
    The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

    The 12 ways of Christmas

    We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
    Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

    The male exhibits strange behaviour

    A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
    Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

    Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

    Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

    The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

    A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

    The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
    Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

    Marian Keyes

    The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

    Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

    Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
    Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

    Rodgers fights for his reputation

    Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
    Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

    Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

    'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
    Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick