'The Story of the Jews' review: PBS companion

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A scene from the PBS documentary

A scene from the PBS documentary "The Story of the Jews." Photo Credit: PBS

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THE STORY OF THE JEWS: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD, by Simon Schama.Ecco, 496 pp., $39.99.

Simon Schama is a distinguished historian, probably still best known for "The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age." But he also has published books about the French Revolution, landscape, Rembrandt, the slave trade, painting and the history of Britain (in three volumes). Besides teaching (currently at Columbia University), he has, according to his dust jacket biography, "written and presented forty television documentary films ... on subjects that range from John Donne to Tolstoy."

Given such a background, one might expect "The Story of the Jews" to be a superb work of popularization. It is and it isn't. While parts of every chapter are fascinating, in general Schama goes on too long about everything. This isn't so much a continuous narrative as a series of close-ups on significant periods and aspects of Jewish history. Occasional indications in the text remind the reader that the book is linked to a five-hour public television series.

This last point may explain something of Schama's surprisingly uneven tone, at times droningly archaeological, at times breezily hip. In this latter mode, he regularly cracks wise, plays on stereotypes and generally comes across as either vulgar or a pretty good Jewish comedian, or both. No doubt, this jokiness is meant to leaven the tragic seriousness of much of the story he has to tell. Still, it seems out of place.

In the first half of his book, Schama returns again and again to a basic argument: throughout their history, the Jews had far more in common with their neighbors and the communities in which they lived than is commonly recognized. He emphasizes that being Jewish "did not carry with it the requirement of shutting out neighboring cultures but, to some degree at least, living in their company."

Throughout, Schama deliberately seeks to counter common misperceptions. He discusses synagogues filled with pictures, notes private homes decorated with pagan artwork, points up the similarities between Christian and Jewish rituals. There are even Jewish catacombs in Rome. Schama has little patience with "the romantic tradition of the wailing Hebrew." In these pages, "Jewish voices change their pitch from dirge to full-throated song more often than you would suppose."

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Of course, Schama does summarize the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the siege of Masada that followed and the alternate biblical history chronicled in the Qumran scrolls. Nonetheless, he points out the surprising mutualism between early Christianity and Judaism, sadly broken by the separatist teachings of Paul and the Hitlerian diatribes against the Jews pronounced by the influential church father John Chrysostom.

In his chapter on Judaism and Islam, Schama emphasizes an early civilization of "Judaised Arabs and Arabic Jews." (He titles this section "Muhammad and the Cohens of Arabia.") He draws on the vast trove of documents -- paper scraps really -- in the Cairo Geniza of the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat, arguably the greatest surviving medieval archive. He describes the Jewish kingdom of the Khazars and reviews the careers of Jewish poets and powerful governors in Islamic Andalusia.

Perhaps the darkest chapter in this long book is "The Women of Ashkenaz," which describes a series of murders and massacres in Europe during the time of the Crusades. When Peter the Hermit called for ridding the Holy Land of the unbelievers, it seemed logical to start the cleansing right at home. Kill the Jews, then seize their valuables to underwrite the liberation of Jerusalem.

The persecution of the Jews reaches its apogee (or nadir) in 15th century Majorca, Spain and Portugal. After a long period of cultural harmony, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella -- the ones who financed Columbus -- began "the great erasure of Jewish life in Spain." Jews were forced, under torture, to convert or die (though many "conversos" maintained, in secret, their original faith). Under the inquisitor Torquemada, these recalcitrant Christ-killers were burned alive as mass entertainment. "Days of auto-da-fe were declared feast days and holidays," writes Schama, and "grandees, often including the king and queen, would attend these elaborate ceremonies, nibbling at holiday dainties, pomanders to their nose when the smell became disagreeable."

This first volume of the two-part "Story of the Jews" ends at this point of butchery and hate. Shalom.

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