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The Story of the Jews:
Find the Words (1000BCE-1492CE)
Simon Schama has never lacked chutzpah: he admits that he began his A History of Britain knowing next to nothing about it, which did not prevent him turning the book into a hugely successful TV series. Yet British history is a mere sprint compared with the marathon of his latest venture, The Story of the Jews.
Histories of the Jews have a long and distinguished history of their own, going back at least 2,000 years to Flavius Josephus. Schama has always been proud of his roots in both the European and oriental traditions, the Ashkenazi and the Sephardi. Brought up in an observant household, he repudiated God and keeping kosher as soon as he went to Cambridge. The faint whiff of anti-Semitism he detected there, however, was enough not only to draw him to New York, but to reignite his curiosity about Jews and Judaism. Not content with occasional forays into the subject, he has now decided to make it his metier.
Unlike the few other peoples that have survived since antiquity, the Jews have preserved the memory of their ancestors in the Hebrew Bible, which obliges their historian to master the vast, intractable field of biblical scholarship — a field in which Schama seemed rather out of his depth when in an interview he declared that “The Jewish tradition is essentially logorrhea. It is the very first sentence: ‘In the beginning was the word.’ Well, if I were rewriting Genesis for God it would be: ‘In the beginning was the image.’ ” Rewrite the Bible by all means, Simon, but do read it first. A Jew who knows St John’s Gospel better than Genesis has perhaps taken assimilation too far.
When I opened Finding the Words, the first volume of The Story of the Jews, I was, however, immediately reassured. Schama has indeed mastered the intricate task of extracting the historical core from the legal, poetical and mythological elements that constitute the Jewish canon: not only the Hebrew Bible, but its commentaries, the Mishnah and the Talmud. Showing great sensitivity to these often rebarbative texts, but firmly anchored in the archaeological and written record, Schama moves gracefully and instructively through three millennia, culminating in one of the most traumatic of countless calamities, the expulsion of the Spanish Jews in 1492.
But The Story of the Jews is by no means all lamentation. Hope springs eternal, too, for this is also the story of a nation that, having found monotheism, went on to learn (and later to teach others) how to worship God in ways that ultimately enabled humanity to become godlike: “We are become the teachers of other men in the greatest number of things,” as Josephus put it. It is hard both to synchronise and distinguish political and religious chronologies, but Schama pulls it off. Implicitly, he reminds us that the Jewish presence in the land the Romans renamed “Palestine” has been continuous for much longer than anybody else’s.
Schama’s title is deceptive, for he eschews grand narratives and has a penchant for the historical present. Perhaps he should have called this book “Stories of the Jews”: his great gift is to pick out the individual from the crowd and tell his or her story, illuminating an entire epoch as he does so.
Some of these individual Jews are very humble indeed, such as the unnamed 8th-century BC farm labourer who appeals to the law for the return of a garment taken from him as collateral for a loan, pleading with the governor to take pity on a poor man: “You must not remain silent.” As Schama observes, he had at least some rudimentary knowledge of the Bible, with its injunctions to the mighty to show mercy. In Elephantine, a Jewish community living on an island in the Nile in 5th-century Egypt, we hear how the Temple official Ananiah obtained freedom for his Egyptian slave bride, Tamet. A father, Osea, writes to his distant son Shelomam, a mercenary: “Well-being and strength I send you but from the day you went on your way, my heart, it’s not so good.” Then he adds a line that anticipates the stereotypical Jewish matriarch: “Likewise your mother.”
Osea’s wife is not the only Jewish mother to figure in Schama’s book. He is thrilled by the hundreds of thousands of documents found in a Cairo synagogue storehouse, the Geniza, a thousand years later in the medieval Islamic period, partly because many of them concern “schmutter” (Schama’s father was in the rag trade). One letter, however, is from an anonymous mother chiding her son for his failure to write home: “You seem to be unaware that when I get a letter from you it is a substitute for seeing your face.” Laying on the guilt, she adds: “Do not kill me before my time.”
In 13th-century England, meanwhile, we have the astonishing story of Licoricia of Winchester: literate, numerate and a merry enough widow that her second husband David of Oxford divorced his wife Muriel of Lincoln to marry her. Muriel appealed against the divorce to rabbinical courts in France and Oxford, but Licoricia and David got the Archbishop of York to overrule them. When David died, King Henry III helped himself to books from his library and £3,000 from his estate — enough to pay for much of the royal mausoleum in Westminster Abbey.
Henry may have fleeced the Jews but at least he protected them. Under his son Edward I, Licoricia, back in Winchester with her fortunes restored, was murdered with her Christian maid. Ralph the saddler was blamed, but Schama sees him as a scapegoat for one of the many Gentiles who owed Licoricia money. This medieval whodunnit was soon overshadowed by the judicial massacre and banishment of the Jews instigated by Edward, egged on by his wife and mother.
Schama rescues Licoricia and many other obscure lives from oblivion, but he also paints vivid portraits of the great and good: the biblical Persian-turned-Temple-rebuilder Nehemiah and the classical Zealot-turned-Roman Josephus, the omniscient philosopher-physician Maimonides and the wandering celebrity-poet Yehudah Halevi.
This book shows Schama at his best, doing his shtick and doing it well: no hasty product of midnight oil for a television tie-in, but a labour of love, as full of memorable incident as a Bellow novel and wittier than a Woody Allen movie. His take on Jewish history is highly idiosyncratic and will doubtless infuriate many. Me, I can hardly wait for the second volume.
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