Scoop Review of Books

A Series of Snapshots

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE by Simon Schama (Random House, $39.99)
Review by Judith Nathan

JewsThis book was conceived and written in conjunction with a five-part television series shown on BBC2 last year. While the television series covered from ancient to modern times, this large book covers only the first two one-hour television programmes with a second volume in preparation.

Despite its vast scope, covering 2500 years of history, the book is at times overwhelming in its detail, with a dizzying number of people and places unfamiliar to me, and in many cases not figuring in the maps or timeline at the back of the book. While the chapters are in chronological order (with pages devoted to relevant nineteenth- and twentieth-century archeological discoveries) this is not a chronology, or even a particularly cohesive narrative.

Rather than being the story of the Jews, it is stories of Jews and their interactions with Egyptians, Greeks, Romans, Christians and Moslems, rooted in surviving texts and archeological evidence. It describes a wide range of Jewish religious, literary, artistic and scientific endeavours, largely through the lives of specific typical or influential individuals. As a series of snapshots in different epochs of ancient and medieval history, it probably works brilliantly in a visual medium.

But for me the book only came alive in the last three chapters which focus on the eleventh to fifteenth centuries, a period I know something about. These chapters vividly describe the lives, forced conversions, expulsions and violent deaths of Jews in England, France, Germany and Spain during the era of the Crusades, the Black Death and the Spanish Inquisition. The Jews were valued by their hosts for their money-lending and medical skills but despised for their beliefs and customs.

Readers with a good knowledge of the Old Testament or ancient history in general may feel engaged with the earlier chapters. But I suspect many will find the DVDs more appealing.