Book Review – ‘The Story Of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000BCE – 1492CE)’ by Simon Schama

The volume of books and works on Jews is so massive that it will surely surpass studies on any other culture or religion. Given this backdrop, any new addition to this topic is fraught with the risk of being branded as regurgitation of works already covered in the past. In his latest book ‘The Story of the Jews’ Simon Schama the celebrated Jewish British Historian, the Columbia University History Professor, and the famous TV History series presenter, takes on the daunting task of writing about the Jewish history from a fresh perspective and successfully contributes to expanding our common understanding of the Jews. Simon attempted to write on this subject 40 years ago but given the enormity of the task didn’t quite get around to doing it. The book is part of a two-book series. This first book takes us through 2500 years of Jewish history from 1000BCE to 1492CE and the second book will take us from where Schama leaves in the first book to the current time. These books have also been made into popular TV series for BBC in the UK and PBS in the US.

One of the challenges of writing about the story of Jews is where does one begin? Should the story begin somewhere in Hebron (in today’s Palestine) nearly 2000BCE at the time of Abraham who makes the covenant with the God, of which his circumcision was an expression, and gets the Promised Land of Israel for his people? Or, should the story begin with Moses nearly a millennium later when Moses ends the slavery of his people at the hands of the Egyptian Pharaoh and  leads them in the great ‘Exodus’ to the Holy Land of Israel? Or, should it begin even later with the charismatic David, the slayer of the giant Goliath of Palestine, who later ascends the throne as King David and establishes the Temple of Jerusalem and thus the first true Jewish kingdom in Israel. Each starting point to the story gives a very different interpretation to the story. What complicates matters further is the fact that the existence of all these legendary Biblical figures based on historical evidence is often disputed.

Schama takes an entirely novel approach to his Jewish storytelling. He relies a lot on the recently discovered rich treasure troves of ancient papyri writings, pottery shreds, and parchments documenting some of the day-to-day lives of the common Jewish Diaspora. The Egyptian discoveries of the papyrus writings at Elephantine and the Cairo Geniza fragments at the synagogue storeroom or even the Dead Sea scrolls at Qumran caves in Israel, all throw light on the Jewish life from an entirely new perspective. In one letter a mother is complaining to her son for not writing back to her and keeping her informed about his wellbeing while working away, and the father adds that the son’s salary hasn’t been transferred to his family and asks him to speak to his officers for sorting it out. Now the son in question is no physician to a king but rather a mercenary working in Elephantine, an Egyptian island 500 miles down on the Nile delta basin, for the Persian king. Similarly, numerous accounts of marriage contracts, divorces, re-marriages, money-lending, fashionable clothing – in short everything to do with mundane daily lives of Jews are used to tell the Jewish story from Schama’s new perspective.

The other focus of Schama’s book is to constantly try and debunk some of the myths and stereotypes on Jews. Schama makes a point that the people of the Jewish faith are not the inward-looking close community people they are often conceived to be, and neither are they completely free of polytheistic influences within their faith. To begin with Elephantine was a major thriving city of Jewish immigrants in Egypt. Now a Jewish community living in the 5th-6th Century BCE in an Egyptian city might appear a bit strange to most, as Egypt was the land that Moses led his people away from, and Jews were forewarned never to return to this land again. Yet, throughout the Jewish history Jews return over and over to Egypt, to the extent that for Schama the Jewish story is also, in a way, an Egyptian story too. What is a bit astonishing is that the Jews not only live in Egypt they even build their own Temple there, something which is strictly forbidden, as the only Temple that the Jews can have is in Holy Jerusalem. This Egyptian temple even offers the traditional animal sacrifice regularly, in nutshell the temple rivals the Jerusalem temple and is a matter of constant consternation for the priests in Jerusalem.

Being a religion of ‘Books’ and ‘Words’ depicting images isn’t allowed in Judaism, however some of their places of worship have portraits closely resembling the various Greco-Egyptian deities worshipped by the local pagans among whom the Jews are living. Their synagogues even have beautiful mosaics again something not entirely sanctioned by religion. Inter-religion marriages are completely forbidden in Judaism but numerous accounts are there of Jewish women having married local Egyptians and vice versa. A faith completely against seeking converts to their religion, there is a documented instance of a Jewish Kingdom of Khazars, covering modern day Ukraine and Southern Russia, which seems to have possibly been converted from its Muslim Turkic descent to Judaism. With these evidences, Schama argues that the initial Judaism wasn’t a very close watertight religion contrary to what most believe. Rather, the religion of the Jews was open and ready to assimilate the local cultures in which it lived and thrived for centuries. To Schama the Judaism today and its various rituals haven’t developed in isolation but have been influenced by the faiths of the people with whom the Jews shared their living spaces. Whether they were Canaanites, Babylonians, Greeks, Pre-Muslim Arabs, or even Christians, there was something they all offered to Judaism.

Going further down the history lanes, the book explores the genesis of the Jewish conflict with Christians and Muslims, which is a painful reminder of how sometimes family feuds can get out of hand, given that all three religions claim descent from the same Abraham. In the beginning after Christ’s death things were cordial and Jews and Christians lived side by side harmoniously for few hundred years and it wasn’t uncommon to be a Jewish Christian in those days. All that changed suddenly when the Roman emperor Constantine embraced Christianity in 313CE and made it the state religion of his empire. The image of Jews as people who killed Jesus was highlighted and they were persecuted eventually making them flee to safety in other kingdoms. The 2nd-6th Century CE transfer of the mostly oral sage instructions of the several previous centuries into written books by the rabbis ultimately culminated into the development of the ‘Talmud’. This development made matters worse. The Talmud was seen to have several gaps in explanation when compared to the 5 Biblical Canon Books of ‘Torah’, and Christian Friars zealously exploited this purported gap to claim that the Jews were no longer pure and were heretical and should therefore be persecuted.

Living under Christianity was surely a very complex affair for Jews. The status of the Jews as wealthy financiers helped things a bit as their money was often badly needed by the kings to fuel their regular military expeditions. However, when things seemed stable or when the royal debts were seen too high to be repaid, the regular course of action of persecution often seemed to return to haunt Jews. Calculations were often made on the basis of how much money would be lost in Jewish revenue, to how much money now in Jewish loans need not be paid, and nobility and monarchy alike favoured the second option as often as they could afford and initiate persecutions. Furthermore, while persecution was often sanctioned and approved by the Pope and the Church there was an implicit understanding to protect the Jews as they were the bearers of the Old Testament Books, which, if read carefully, were believed to contain in them the prophesy of the arrival of the saviour, Jesus. Therefore, the Jews were to be protected to live as witnesses of this ‘Coming of the Truth’, and after the revelation becomes obvious to be then forced to give up their stubbornness and accept the saviour and convert to Christianity.

Conditions under the Muslim rulers were rather tolerant, as Schama states that historically Jews had only irked the Prophet in Medina by rejecting allegiance to him and refusing to convert to Islam, but the Jews didn’t bring any physical harm to the Prophet. So, for instance, the Ottoman Moors in the Southern Iberian Peninsula in Spain give the Jews relative freedom and as a consequence the Jewish culture flourished. Jews were valued as physicians and as people who had secret knowledge and kings often had them in the royal service. Several Jews managed to rise to important positions under the Muslim rule. One 11th Century Jew even went on to become the Vizier of Granada and is often credited with starting the building of the luxurious Alhambra palace in Granada. Another rich 14th Century Jew built the beautiful Transito synagogue in Toledo that is inspired by the Alcazar in Seville and the Alhambra. Rise of Jews to prominence and their rule over the local Muslims, and sometimes their pompous display of wealth, however, brought resentment amongst the Muslims, who were indignant about non-Muslims ruling over them. This often led to the Jews being targeted and persecuted eventually.

By this point in the book, Schama has made it clear that the Jewish connection with flourish and rise in strength and thriving in all aspects of life followed by a sudden change in fortune is a constant feature throughout their history. Jews reached the stage of near annihilation under several forces, Persians, Romans, Christians, and Muslims alike, yet they always found a way to survive and live to flower elsewhere in a new land. This cyclical history repeats and strongly resonates itself very often in their story.

The eerie connection between death, persecution, and Jews can’t be avoided, however, this book is not about pathos and misery, though of course it is there too, but it is a book about celebrating life. Whether it is the common unromantic mundane daily life of people, or that of people who survive and escape persecution to live and tell their story, it is all about vibrancy and living. It is also about the life in the Diaspora whether in the markets in Egypt or streets in England or even costal Malabar dwellings in India, this is a very dynamic and colourful story. There are poets, not just religions but very accomplished erotic ones too, if only to complete the hues of the story of the rich Jewish culture and life spread over the millenniums.

The book ends with the complete enforcement of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492 by the Spanish Monarchs King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabella of Castille, leading to Jews having less than 3 months to completely leave Spain or else be prosecuted and brutally punished. Jews were forced to give up almost all their material possessions except their Holy Books, and were not allowed to take much money with them when they fled within months from Spain. Yet, during this time of biggest gloom that Jews ever faced Schama doesn’t fail to talk about the positives that happened at the same time. Schama mentions the works of a famous Jew who invented one of most accurate mariner’s Astrolabe and an Almanac. It is often believed these two objects were extensively relied upon by both sea explorers: Spanish Christopher Columbus and Portuguese Vasco Da Gama, who started their explorations soon after the Inquisition and discovered sea routes to South America and India in 1492 and 1498 respectively.

Schama’s work is evidently a fruit of massive research and is surely a strong attempt to offer an alternate explanation to the dominant Jewish story. He has tried to bring in lot of disparate stories and weave them in a single story from a new perspective. This is where one of the fundamental problems lies with the book. The various stories while interesting in themselves often don’t seem to connect to an underlying theme. Furthermore, the stories are clearly not in any chronological order as Schama seems to club his mini stories together under his various sub-arguments, rather than connect these short stories to give a continuous story. This lack of chronology often makes it difficult to follow the plot. Next, the book is not a complete presentation of 2500 years of Jewish history, but is rather a highlight tour of some of the major events in the evolution of the Jewish story. Finally, the book is a rich dense text of commentaries and insights on the Biblical History and its various connections with the cultures in which the Jewish story lived, and it clearly assumes the reader’s prior knowledge of all the legends, myths, and stories; a person without much understanding and familiarity with the topic will surely benefit and get enriched, but might find it difficult to follow the story completely.

Despite some of these flaws, the book is amongst one of the finest works on Jews by a foremost secular Jewish historian. The book gives a fresh perspective to peep through into the long Jewish history. The engaging style of the narrative makes it a delight to read as one gets absorbed in the fluent pace of the book. This is surely an honest and brave attempt to demystify the Jewish Religion and its various legends and myths from the true Jewish history. As Schama says, the religious and historical story develops separately and at a later stage gets intermingled and then separated again, before finally converging completely. It is this constant disentangling and coming together throughout the book that makes for such a beautiful reading.


Simon Schama

Simon Schama

Simon Schama is British historian whose interests include the French Revolution and the history of art. With this book he has explained about the history of the Jewish people.

This book is available in many formats. So go ahead and read it!





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