A Personal Story of Memory and Survival

Simon Schama's Story of the Jews may contain some serious omissions, but this haunting history is both captivating and enchanting.

Nicholas de Lange

The revealed word at the heart of Judaism: Detail from “Moses smashing the tablets of the Law”, 1659, by Rembrandt

“Every people is a question which God addresses to humanity,” wrote the German Jewish theologian Leo Baeck, with the Jews at the forefront of his mind. Simon Schama’s new book can be read as a secular attempt to answer the question. While the Jewish people occupy centre stage, successive dominant nations are passed under review and implicitly judged in terms of their treatment of the Jewish minority. This decidedly post-holocaust stance has long roots in the Jewish past. The Passover liturgy, which Simon Schama is fond of referring to, proclaims: “In every generation they have risen against us to annihilate us, but God always rescues us from their power.” For the secular historian this pious generalisation is too simplistic, but it still nurtures a grain of self-evident truth. “What the Jews have lived through, and somehow survived to tell the tale, has been the most intense version known to human history of adversities endured by other peoples as well; of a culture perennially resisting its annihilation, of remaking homes and habitats, writing the prose and the poetry of life, through a succession of uprootings and assaults.” God takes a back seat now: the people itself, in its historical setting, is at the wheel. But the essential story is still the same, a story of survival against the odds, of memory, and above all of words, “the prose and poetry of life”.

Simon Schama is a Jewish historian, not in the common sense of a professional historian of the Jews, but that of a professional historian who happens to be Jewish. He is far from the cutting edge of the research that underpins his book, and this distance, while it results in errors of fact and of interpretation, enables him to embrace the totality of the history in a way that very few professional Jewish historians have been able to achieve. 

The key to his vision is in the subtitle: “Finding the Words”. The story of the Jews is not only a story made of words, it is a story about words. This insight, too, has very long roots in the Jewish past. It is an impressive achievement to have seized on this concept and adapted it too to a secular age.

In the beginning was the word. The first endpaper appropriately illustrates the creation of the world, from a medieval manuscript, the Sarajevo Haggadah. According to the Bible this creation was achieved through speech: “And God said, Let there be light.” The rabbis in the Mishnah underline this: “By ten acts of speech was the world created.” One of the key treatises of mystical Judaism, the Book of Formation (Sefer Yesirah), puts the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet at the heart of the creation: the permutations of letters generate the words of which our world is made. For Simon Schama it is the unique distinction of the Jews to have made words the centre of their self-understanding, their faith and their history.

“In this story you don’t escape the words, the writing.” Chapter 2, The Words, sets this out most clearly. The book called in Greek Deuteronomy (“Second Law”) has the Hebrew title Devarim, “The Words”. (Actually  devarim can just as well be translated “The Things”: it is revealing that Hebrew makes no difference between words and things.)  The genius of the ancient priests and scribes “was to sacralise movable writing, in standardised alphabetic Hebrew, as the exclusive carrier of YHWH’s law and historic vision for his people”. At the heart of Judaism is a book, the Torah, which is “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel”. 

All this is spot-on, and Schama is right to devote six early pages to the Hebrew language and alphabet. Hebrew has come to be uniquely associated with the Jewish people, and there is a persistent claim that it was the original language of humankind, the language in which God spoke to Adam. The letters were used, throughout the Middle Ages, to write a plethora of languages. The biblical God himself writes Hebrew letters, on the tablets of the revelation to Moses and on the wall of Belshazzar’s feast. The Jewish shrine contains no statue, no cult object, just a “sacred emptiness”; in the synagogue this will become what Schama calls “the hallmark of Judaism: a vacuum filled only by the scroll of revealed words”. This theme, of the revealed words, persists throughout the book, generating interesting insights. The encounter with Hellenism is encapsulated in the question “the nude or the word?” The wars of the Hellenistic period pit the scroll against the sword. Rabbinic Judaism created an edifice built of words not stones. And so on.

This emphasis on the divine word as an Ariadne’s thread through the maze of Jewish history is an inspired and fruitful way of tackling what can seem a hopeless task. Schama is not a theologian, but he reveals a fine sense of some of the ways that theology impacts on history. It is all the more surprising then that he misses some of the most promising opportunities. I shall mention just three key instances of the impact of   theology on history. 

The first is the theology of the Word (logos in Greek). This complex of ideas emerged in late Second-Temple Judaism, and its traces can be found all over the literature, from the biblical Wisdom writings to the copious treatises of the philosopher Philo (who hardly gets a mention in Schama’s story) to the New Testament and the early Rabbis. It is a sophisticated development of the idea that God created the world and revealed Himself through the word; it is one of the most fruitful products of the encounter between Jews and Greeks, and a very important element in the Jewish contribution to nascent Christianity. I should have loved to see what Simon Schama, with his flair for such things, could have made of it.

Second, it is astonishing that Karaism rates only passing mention. This proto-Protestant movement, that swept across the Jewish world from east to west and gained many adherents, denied the divine origin and authority of the Talmud rabbinic “oral Torah”, and relied instead on Scripture, reason and consensus. No history of the Jews in the Middle Ages can afford to turn a blind eye to Karaism, and least of all a history focusing on the Word. The Karaite challenge to the rabbinic movement is not just of theological interest, it had serious practical consequences. In Constantinople a separation fence was built to limit outbreaks of violence between Karaites and Rabbanites. The challenge spread as far as Spain. Schama devotes several pages to the violent dispute that broke out there between the court grammarians and poets Menahem ibn Saruq and Dunash ibn Labrat, but fails to appreciate the role played in this conflict by accusations of crypto-Karaism levelled against Menahem by his opponent, a pupil of the foremost anti-Karaite polemists in Iraq, Saadia.

A third omission is Kabbalah, surely one of the best-known developments in Jewish theology in the Middle Ages, and one which, again, provoked ferocious conflicts. Mysticism and rationalism, in various forms, are the warp and weft of Jewish thought in the Middle Ages, and it is a perverse achievement to have portrayed the Jewish history of the period without giving its due role to Kabbalah (not to mention more limited expressions of the mystical urge, such as German Hasidism or Jewish Sufism). These movements are important not only in themselves but for what they show about the interactions of Jews with Christians and Muslims.

A further surprising omission is the medieval tradition of biblical commentary, a central concern of the Jewish intellectual tradition virtually everywhere, which produced major landmarks of scholarship in Ashkenaz and France, Spain and Provence. Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra and David Kimhi are barely mentioned in the book, and yet these scholars, whose commentaries are still printed in rabbinic Bibles today and who have had a significant influence on Christian as well as Jewish readings of the Bible, truly deserve the epithet “ministers of the Word”.

Schama’s story, though, is not only about the divine Word; human words also play a large part, and this is another strength of this history, which is not only about power politics and religious struggles, but also about ordinary life. “Jewish life is Jewish words,” from the everyday babble preserved in papyri and Genizah fragments, to the wide-ranging conversations of the Talmud, to the sublime and often erotic poetry of Samuel Ibn Nagrela and Judah Hallevi. And when the words run out there are also pictures, although, as Schama astutely remarks, the pictures are often adorned with words, and sometimes are even made from words. The space given to pictures — whether synagogue frescoes and mosaics, manuscript illustrations or micrography — is one of the admirable features of the book, but Schama is careful to stress that Judaism, “the religion of the word”, never became a culture of icons: “picturing was the handmaid of words.”

There is a third dimension, too, to the subtitle Finding the Words: Simon Schama’s own quest to find the right words in which to couch the story of the Jews. Schama has a real gift for narrative, and at his best he has the direct simplicity that I admire in the poet Peter Levi. Schama can be poetic too, and has powers of vivid description.

The only stylistic feature that mars the prose for me is his occasional descent into an exaggeratedly jokey New York Yiddish vernacular, which seems quite inappropriate both to Schama himself and to the story he is telling. It is vain, I suppose, to speculate about what this quirk is meant to achieve.

The Story of the Jews is told as a personal story, and it often has the exalted, lyrical quality of a declaration of love. This is the impression above all that stayed with me as I came to the end of my reading. I do not know any other Jewish history that has this haunting quality. There are others that rehearse the story more reliably but more prosaically; Simon Schama enchants and captivates. 

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