Witty and readable — but mind the gaps

The second instalment of Simon Schama’s history of the Jewish people is typically energetic but has some serious failings

“Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”, 1878, by Maurycy Gottlieb

Few historians write with the energy of Simon Schama. His second volume on the history of the Jews shows that Schama has lost none of his vigour: the mixture of stories about people, ordinary but more often extraordinary, witty asides, Schama family reminiscences, schmaltzy views of Jewish life in past times — all this is there. But is it good history? Imagination sometimes takes over. French revolutionary soldiers eating carciofi alla giudia (Roman Jewish-style deep-fried artichokes) in the Campo de’ Fiori to celebrate the tearing down of the walls of the Roman ghetto might sound plausible; but I always understood that the restaurateur Piperno only invented this utterly delicious recipe late in the 19th century.

Schama has to confront the problem that anyone trying to write global history also has to face: weaving together disparate stories, taking one as far east as Kaifeng in China, and as far west as the Americas, means frequent changes of scene. Making this into a coherent and continuous history is therefore not just a challenge but an impossibility. So he rightly tells his story through a large number of principal actors, devoting a great amount of space (I would say too much space) to several of them: Doña Gracia Nasi and her son the Duke of Naxos, in the 16th century, the pseudo-Messiah Shabbetai Zevi in Smyrna and beyond in the 17th century, the prize boxer Daniel Mendoza in the 18th century, and so on.

Now, these examples all come from the Sephardi branch of the Jewish people, those Jews who can claim descent from the Jewish communities of medieval Sepharad, that is, Spain and Portugal. Much of Schama’s book is a history of the Sephardim after 1492. After their expulsion from Spain that year, the Sephardim spread across the seas and began to cohere in new ways. They asserted their nobility among the Jews, relying on an obscure text in the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible, Obadiah, that refers to “the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad”, which probably meant somewhere quite different to Spain — but the point was that the elite obviously came from Jerusalem, so the Sephardim must be the elite. They rather forced themselves on other communities around the Mediterranean, importing their own 15th-century Castilian dialect (“Ladino”), so that even the Romaniot Jews of Greece found themselves speaking medieval Spanish. The Sephardim looked back on their life in Spain as a Golden Age of liberty during which the finest scholarship had been able to flourish; and, importantly, their scholarly contribution had been secular as well as religious, for instance the astronomical tables used by the early European explorers.

Schama observes the superiority complex of the Sephardim with wry detachment. Their ability to combine attachment to Judaism with an openness to the outside world characterised the Sephardi communities, whether within the Ottoman world (where many found refuge) or in western Europe, where Sephardim for long lived outwardly as Christians, nervous of the Inquisition and keen to find lands (such as Holland and England) where they would no longer need to pretend not to be Jews. This willingness to engage with the dominant culture had some significant results. Spinoza’s radical dissent can to be traced back to the battle going on in the minds of many of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam about their identity.

Schama is at his best on territory that he has covered more broadly in previous books: 17th-century Holland and revolutionary France, where his account of the debates about Jewish emancipation exposes the aspirations of Jews, whether Bordeaux Sephardim or Metz Ashkenazim, and the fears of those who opposed Jewish equality. Looking at France does oblige him to think a little more about the Ashkenazi communities of central and eastern Europe, whose daily language of Yiddish had its roots in medieval German dialects, just as Ladino did in Spanish ones. But it is only when one is very far into this massive book that he explains what the Jews had been doing in Poland and Lithuania since the 14th century, and conjures up vivid images of towns such as Brody that were mainly inhabited by Jews. The Mendelssohns get attention, but most of the rich history of Jewish Germany and eastern Europe is left aside. One might expect the author of Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel to devote a good amount of space to that family from its early days in Frankfurt onwards — but no.

There are two really glaring gaps that mean this book will never be able to claim a place as a standard history of the Jews. In an interesting account of the 19th-century cathedral synagogues of Europe, often built in a mock Moorish style, Schama admits to being a member of the West London Synagogue, Britain’s first Reform synagogue. However, there is virtually nothing about the schisms in Judaism that saw, in the 19th century, vigorous challenges to traditional orthodoxy, especially in Germany and the United States. In the USA the great majority of professing Jews belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, not orthodox ones. This reflects changes in the conditions of Jewish life in the New World and the need to find an accommodation with surrounding society. But Schama is not terribly interested in the religious dimension to Jewish history. Sure enough, there is something about the Sephardi kabbalists of Safed and about the Hasidic movement, which owed a great deal to Safed mysticism; but, as one can see from Schama’s chaotic transcriptions of Hebrew words, he is a bit confused about the holy.

The other omission is even more serious. In the 21st century historians have been trying to avoid a purely Eurocentric view of the world. There is more to world history after 1492 than the “expansion of Europe”; but even in the History Faculty at Cambridge that was, until recently, the label for the study of extra-European history, a label devised by Schama’s guru, J.H. Plumb. Schama does, as has been seen, devote some space to the fascinating Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, and mentions the black and white Jews of India; but vast swathes of the Jewish world barely appear: North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Bukhara, and so on, though Yemen earns some space when a French Jew named Joseph Halévy goes out there to collect early Semitic inscriptions and comes across sword-bearing Yemenite Jews with limited knowledge of the outside world.

Most of these places belonged to what is called the Mizrahi, or “eastern”, branch of Judaism, whose origins go all the way back to the deportation of the Jews to Babylon in 586 BC. The similarities of Mizrahi religious practices to Sephardi Judaism have resulted in the misuse of the term “Sephardi” in modern Israel to include Jews from countries such as Iraq, Iran and Yemen, whose inhabitants did not, of course, originate in Spain but had been living in the Middle East for several millennia. The reason Schama says so little about these places appears to be that he considers that nothing happened in them: he talks of life in Yemen as an almost timeless history of subjugation and poverty — not that the Yemenite Jews with their silver swords quite fit that image. There were indeed cycles of persecution in Yemen, but so there were in Europe, as he shows. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, wealthy Jewish businessmen emerged, some of whom played a key role in the rise of Bombay, Hong Kong and Singapore.

Apart from some brief comments about an American diplomat active in Tunis and Tripoli, Schama also omits North Africa, where Spanish Jews had settled alongside much older communities. Here too Schama finds more or less unrelieved gloom and stasis, but in fact there were bright spots, such as the extraordinary role of the Sephardic Jews of Mogador (now known as Essaouira) in the trade of 19th-century Morocco, especially the tea trade, and at the court of the sultans. London was closely connected to Mogador, as Moroccan names such as Sebag and Belisha remind us. Even Palestine and Syria get short shrift. He says a little about the Duke of Naxos’s attempt to re-establish Jewish settlement in the largely empty town of Tiberias (though that was in fact a failure, and I have to point out the town’s revival was in fact the work of one of my own ancestors some time later). A brief account of the horrific Damascus blood libel in 1840 confirms that Schama is still wedded to the lachrymose view of Jewish history, and is unwilling to take into account the long years of coexistence since Sephardim arrived in the Ottoman Empire. Yet the Damascus blood libel imported its subject-matter from Europe, and the supposed victim was a European friar.

Would one buy a history of the British Isles that had much to say about England and Ireland but failed to include Scotland and Wales? It is much the same problem with this book. Its infectious energy and its readability do not make up for its omissions. Obviously no one is asking for a complete history of the Jews; but it should have been a rounded one. Caveat emptor.