'The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama' offers intricate look at people who endure

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

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Telling the story of the Jews is such an impossible task, it sounds like a routine Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks cooked up, just after the 2,000 Year Old Man.

The five-part series "The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama," though, is completely legitimate and scans further back than a mere couple of millennia. Schama's brilliant take on history premieres on PBS in five one-hour installments on consecutive Tuesdays, this week and April 1 (WNET/13 at 8 p.m.).

It's an intricate look at a people who endure. Schama, who has racked up awards for his books and documentaries on history, art and literature, talks about how he initially shied away from tackling the subject.

"I had a slight sense, a residual sense, that I was at my best when dealing with cultures not my own," Schama says.

He let the concept percolate for a while, and the result is the series and a companion book.

"I didn't want there to be any backlit camels in the series," he says. "We talked endlessly about a clear story line for the film."

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The diversity of Jews

"This is a Jew, and so is this," Schama says in the series' first moments, as the camera pans people who look very different. "This is a Jew, and this, and so am I. So what, if anything, do we have in common? Not the color of our skin, not the languages we speak, the tunes we sing, the food we eat. Not our opinions -- we are a fiercely argumentative lot. Not even the way we pray, assuming we do. What ties us together is a story, a story kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering and resilience, creativity."

Fittingly, the first episode, "In the Beginning," chronicles the Bible. "What a moment in literature that was," Schama says as a Torah scribe dips his quill into the black ink and painstakingly writes the block letters onto the treated parchment.

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Schama celebrates the many differences among Jews and what binds all -- the Torah, the sacred scrolls that have kept the religion alive.

In the second installment, "Among Believers," Schama tackles the question of "How do you live without a temple, without an institution?"

Schama does not tell the story in a linear method, relying strictly on dates, texts and talking heads. Rather, the Columbia University professor of history and art history walks through the ruins of antiquity and weaves in history, showing art and interviewing people.

By the end of the second episode, he talks about how the Romans despised the Jews, and this was after centuries of attacks by the Egyptians, Syrians and Babylonians.

"There would have been scant reason to suppose that the Jews would survive," he says. "And yet, 2,000 years later, the Jews are still here. How?"

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Next Tuesday, the third hour, "A Leap of Faith," examines "urban modernity," when in the 18th century the worlds of gentiles and Jews came together. Prejudices were supposedly swept away with the promise of enlightenment.

The Jews of Germany

Schama walks along snow- covered paths in what was Prussia and talks about metropolitan German Jews assimilating into German culture in the early 20th century. Jewish children were four times more likely to go on to high school than gentiles. They were thriving patriots of the new Germany.

"They expressed their confidence the way Jews always did, by building synagogues," Schama says, standing in front of Berlin's Oranienburger Strasse Synagogue, which seats 3,000.

It was during this time, as the German Jews became more prosperous, that the seeds that would lead to the Nazi evils took root.

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In the fourth episode, "Over the Rainbow," Schama visits the shtetls, the Jewish villages scattered throughout Eastern Europe, where Yiddish was spoken. The shtetls, he says, were "energetic, wildly cultural. We try to reanimate that lost world."

The film does a great job of showing this world that is no longer. Then the Cossacks rampaged, and anyone who could, escaped the bloody siege and fled.

Schama purposely does not devote an entire episode to the Holocaust.

"I do know I grieve endlessly for those here in Berlin and all over Europe who innocently imagined they could be Jews and citizens of their own countries and who to the end could not imagine the evil that would turn their books and their bodies into ash," Schama says in the film.

"There are many wonderful programs" about the Holocaust, he says, and Schama does not try to ignore the genocide that killed 6 million Jews because there is no way to tell the story of the Jews and omit this hideous chapter. Instead, it is woven into the narrative, much as the collective memory is woven into modern Jews.

The ultimate backfire of the Final Solution is shown in the final installment, "Return," which "inevitably begins with Israel," Schama says. He examines "how Zionism came to be, whether or not Zionism is essentially a safety or refuge or separateness of neighborliness."

Even as an educated Jew, steeped in the tradition, laws, language and culture, Schama says that making this film emphasized to him that "this rich, complicated tradition lives among others who do not share it."

And that Jewish history is not history only for the Jews. "It is everybody's history," he says.

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