'The Story of the Jews' review: Absorbing

Simon Schama at Temple Mount, Jerusalem, on PBS' Simon Schama at Temple Mount, Jerusalem, on PBS' "The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama." Photo Credit: Oxford Film & Television / Tim Kirby

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REVIEW

THE SERIES "The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night from 8-10 and next Tuesday from 8-11 p.m. on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This five-hour series by British historian Simon Schama ("A History of Britain") covers 5,000 years, beginning tonight with an exploration of what it means to be a Jew, along with the vestigial elements from the deep past -- like the Elephantine papyri, the Cairo Geniza and many other archaeological discoveries -- that continue to nourish and reinforce this heritage.

MY SAY Schama is one of those brilliant TV "presenters" -- like Michael Wood, David Attenborough and Neil deGrasse Tyson -- who grabs viewers' attention and doesn't let go until the closing credits. Believe me, it's a pleasing and enlightening vice grip, because you are in the company of someone whose mastery of the material is awe-inspiring, with oratory skills to match.

Schama has in fact taken viewers on these sorts of historical surveys many times before, but this time it's personal. As an observant Jew, this is essentially a tour of his own soul. What's so special about this particular tour, however, is that he extrapolates it to the entire Judeo-Christian heritage: "If you were to remove from our collective history the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable," he says in press notes. "There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different."

Schama begins and closes the first hour with Sigmund Freud, a "Godless Jew," and ancient Jewish historian, Titus Flavius Josephus -- who betrayed his own people, by becoming a Roman. But both ultimately came to embrace their Jewishness, and this fascinating series sets out to explore why that may have been inevitable.

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As always, Schama is like a master lecturer who brings erudition and Technicolor to the task. He says this of Hellenism's failed seduction of Judaism: "Zeus was not a beefier version of the Jewish God." Of Qumran, where the Dead Sea scrolls were found: "This is as close as you could get to the rough hand of God." Of Josephus' final wistful reversal: "This compromised, sycophantic, creepily self-exonerating historian stands tall."

BOTTOM LINE Fascinating.

GRADE A

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