Schama’s Jewish history: a history of the ordinary?

Simon Schama

Simon Schama's panoramic history of Judaism pulls the reader in with an engaging mix of fact and anecdote. But is there an inconsistency in the treatment of the subject matter, asks Marc Saperstein in The Independent.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE by Simon Schama (Bodley Head)

Upon first encountering, in 1988, Simon Schama's The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age, I was in awe of the depth of scholarship, the integration of historical and fine-art analysis, the power of the elegantly crafted sentences. The following year, Schama's Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution revealed a similar mastery of a period 150 years later, with a totally different theme. It seemed astounding that a historian could produce two such diverse and impressive books in less than two years.

The Story of the Jews presents even greater challenges. The 2500-year time-span in this first volume encompasses Jews living in four civilisations: the ancient Near East, the Hellenistic and Roman world, medieval Christianity, and Islam.

The relevant languages of the primary sources include - in addition to Hebrew and Aramaic - ancient Egyptian, Babylonian and Persian, Latin and Arabic. Archaeological material is critical for the first part of the book. In this age of specialisation, writing authoritatively about such diverse material is a daunting task rarely undertaken by scholars.

Ideally, the different periods and contexts would be presented in their own integrity, with some element of continuity binding them - beyond the obvious motif of Jewish survival despite all the obstacles. Yet the book reveals a surprising lack of consistency. The writing style ranges from high seriousness to Woody Allen. Readers will certainly appreciate many examples of Schama's elegant exposition and vivid narrative. But all too frequently the elevated tone that would seem to be required by the material is undercut.

Colloquial expressions are rampant, including Yiddish or Hebrew terms, suggesting an intended in-group readership:  ‘even tougher goyishe boatmen of the rough waters’; ‘literary excess and sumptuous schmeckerei’; Maimonides was ‘a king of the kvetch.’ Hyperbole abounds: Hasdai ibn Shaprut ‘spoke every tongue imaginable’; Maimonides was ‘the world's most famous champion of even-tempered moderation’; ‘For everyone, it was always about Jerusalem.’

Occasionally we encounter allusion to internal Jewish jokes:  ‘The moment you know that Josephus is the first… truly Jewish historian is when, with a twinge of guilt, he introduces his mother into the action.’ The documentation of sources is haphazard. Sections of the book provide standard academic annotation, but others are surprisingly incomplete.

Biblical verses, Talmudic passages, quotations from Maimonides' classic Code of Jewish Law (inaccurately characterised as ‘his great reworking of the Mishnah’) are often not properly identified. There are far too many passages where the reader is given no clue about the source for quotations or statements being made, and far too many passages in which reliance on the work of another scholar is evident but without adequate acknowledgment.

Most important is the thematic inconsistency. Schama announces that his story commences with ‘the documented beginning of ordinary Jews...’

- Marc Saperstein is Professor of Jewish Studies at King's College London, and Professor of Jewish History and Homiletics at Leo Baeck College.

Full review in The Independent:

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