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A New Jewish History on TV by Simon Schama

Schama visits the Holocaust memorial
Schama visits the Holocaust memorial news

TV Show The Story of the Jews


British historian Simon Schama is enjoying a triumph with the new PBS series “The Story of the Jews,” based on his book of the same name. But he is also receiving some harsh criticism of his highly personalized history, an “impassioned personal essay” as he himself calls it. The First Episode uses Freud’s 1938 escape to London from the Nazis as a launching point for the story. It is by means of Freud’s story that Schama briefly introduces, then drops, the story of Moses. Freud completed his last book, Moses and Monotheism in London,

Historian Simon Schama narrates the story

It appears that the anecdote about Freud, “a godless Jew,” was intended to serve as a poetic lead-in to the next very charming scene of a Passover Seder celebration held at the Schama family home. Passover, as he points out, unites both godless and devout Jews alike, (this year’s Passover celebration will begin Monday, April 14, 2014, and end Tuesday, April 22, 2014).

He puts great stock in “the Word” as the reason the Jewish people have survived through exile, persecutions and attempted genocides such as the Holocaust. He vividly demonstrates the Jewish reverence for the Book, or Torah, by showing us how it is held aloft at a worship service before being read aloud, a practice which has been followed every week since the Jews return from the Babylonian Exile in the sixth century B.C. In the film, he describes this scripture as a “compact, transferable history, law, wisdom, poetic chant, prophecy, consolation and self-strengthening counsel.”

“When the BBC approached me about doing this series,” he said, “I knew I had to seize the opportunity to tell a richer story about the Jewish experience – a story full of life and hope and poetry and which transcends the deeply somber notes of the Holocaust without for a minutes disrespecting the magnitude of that catastrophe.”

The point of view of his story is more socioeconomic and political. He discusses the Jewish attitude to money, how they became money lenders because they did not have the burden of anti-usury laws that Christianity had. He also tells about the persecutions of the lenders. So it is essentially a story of endurance, suffering, and survival through many exiles and persecutions. As Schama says, the Jews must always have the suitcase ready.

I noticed that the subtitle to the book version is “Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD,” thus leaving out the Jewish history some of us remember best, God’s covenant with Abram/Abraham, thought to have taken place by some calculations in 1876 BC, “I have made you a father of nations,” (Genesis 17:1). Schama also received criticism for this approach, for not beginning “the story” a thousand years earlier when Abraham established the relationship with God.

He has also been taken to task for leaving out the prophets and the Psalmists. He chose instead to begin with the Jews who returned to Egypt to live at Elephantine in the 5th c. BC during the Babylonian and Persian occupations of Israel. “It is the suburban ordinariness of all this that seems, for a moment, absolutely wonderful, a somewhat Jewish history with no martyrs, no sages, no philosophical torment, the grumpy Almighty not much in evidence; a place of happy banality; much stuck into property disputes, dressing up, weddings and festivals …”

This is one of Schama’s favorite aspects of the Jewish story, the pluralistic nature of the culture, and how it happily embraced the cultural contributions of their neighbors wherever they lived. The Jewish people are highly literate and urbane, and in America they became great movie producers and hit songwriters. The story of Yip Harburg who wrote the lyrics for The Wizard of Oz is an especially wonderful episode.
Schama is less interested in telling the story of modern Israel. In the PBS Q and A interview (cited above), he comments, “I think many people feel removed or separate from the Jewish story because they think it’s just about the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, when in fact there is so much more to the story.”

My favorite episode is the fourth one, “Over the Rainbow,” which tells the story made famous in the musical, Fiddler on The Roof, the world of the shtetls in Eastern Europe, the exile of their peoples. Many European Jews came here to found the “mega-shtetl” on the Lower East Side of New York City where much of our great American popular music was born. This episode also includes Schama’s visit to the Ukraine, the country of origin for some of his family who managed to escape before the “final solution” to “the Jewish problem” engulfed Eastern Europe in 1940.

Be sure and read the book and/or see the series before Schama’s Volume Two of The Story of the Jews comes out this fall. Check your local PBS network for show times at

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