The Magazine

People of the Word

The Jewish encounter with history

Aug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By PETER LOPATIN
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Simon Schama’s choice of “Story” in place of “History” in the title of this impressive new work is fitting, for the history he recounts is not history conceived of as a chronicle of important events, but rather as a compendium of thematically linked stories told throughout the ages by, and about, the lived experience of real people—and of a people. Schama tells these stories in terms of a number of characteristically Jewish oscillations: between exclusivity and inclusivity, differentiation and syncretism, assimilation and rejection, fidelity to law and tradition and the Jewish proclivity for scrutinizing and interrogating both. The myriad ways in which Jews mediated and resolved (or didn’t resolve) these oppositions over the better part of two millennia constitute the warp and weft, the theme and variation, of Schama’s narrative. 

To tell a story is, necessarily, to adopt a stance, an agenda that informs the story-teller’s choices of what tales to tell and what themes to educe, and Schama lays his agenda on the table at the outset:

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. It is what makes this story at once particular and universal, the shared inheritance of Jews and non-Jews alike, an account of our common humanity.

It turns out to be an agenda that serves Schama well. Some of the stories he relates are of well-known figures of Jewish history, biblical and otherwise: Ezra and Nehemiah, inveighing against the corruption of Jewish society by “foreign” influences; the important (if ever problematical and dubious) Flavius Josephus, a Jew turned faithful Roman general and chronicler of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of his Roman masters; rabbi and philosopher Maimon ben Joseph (known to us today as Maimonides) striving to reconcile faith with reason. And the list goes on, including rabbis and scholars, to be sure, but also mapmakers, courageous wives and daughters, poets, and physicians. 

The book’s subtitle is a bit misleading. Although there are references to the very earliest days of Jewish history, Schama’s story really begins with the fifth-century-b.c. Jewish community at Elephantine, in Upper Egypt, which provides the thematic backdrop for the stories that follow. As revealed in troves of papyri uncovered at the end of the 19th century, a Jewish garrison town flourished in Elephantine, populated by “tough guys, anxious mothers, slave-girl wives, kibitzers and quibblers, hagglers over property lines, drafters of prenups, scribes, temple officials, jailbait indignant that they were set up for a fall, big shots and small fry.” This was a community of Jews aware of its distinct identity, yet one which remained open to the wider non-Jewish world. Their Jewishness was “worldly, cosmopolitan, vernacular (Aramaic) not Hebrew, obsessed with law and property, money-minded, fashion-conscious [and] much concerned with .  .  . the niceties of the social pecking order and both the delights and burdens of the Jewish ritual calendar.” These were Jews who mingled freely with their non-Jewish neighbors, sometimes to the point of taking non-Jewish wives, a practice repugnant to the priestly grandees of contemporaneous Jerusalem, where, at roughly the same time, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were being composed, “with the express aim of purging Jewish society of ‘foreign’ elements: a winnowing out of foreign women, foreign cults, foreign habits.” 

Elephantine and Jerusalem serve as the thematic poles about which Schama’s “story of the Jews” will turn, as he guides his reader deftly, if at times feverishly, over a great swath of Jewish history. The tension between the sacred demands of text and tradition—the never-ending “laying on of words” that is intrinsic both to the practice of Judaism and the lived experience that is Jewishness—and the pervasiveness of “alien” influences upon a people who saw themselves in some important sense as “distinct” is a recurrent theme in Jewish history. That theme runs like a river through Schama’s account as well, perhaps nowhere more strikingly than in his chapter on “Classical Jews,” in which he explores the tense yet fructifying interplay between Hellenism and Judaism.