The Story of the Jews is not a dry academic tome, but rather a vibrant history of a People that has repeatedly resisted its annihilation.

The book, subtitled “Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD”, is the first of two volumes to accompany the acclaimed television documentary series. In a video introducing the documentary, which was produced for BBC and is now being shown on PBS, prize winning author and Emmy Award winner Simon Schama states:

“What ties us together is a story.

The story kept in our heads and hearts.

We told our story to survive.

We are our story.”

The Story of the Jews tells the story of the Jewish People, or at least a portion of it. It is a story like no other, but it is a history shared by all of humanity. As Schama points out on the PBS website, “If you were to remove from our collective history the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable. There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different.”

I have not seen the television documentary, but I have heard Schama’s unique voice as it appears in print. He tells a fascinating story in a sinuous narrative, flowing from incident to legend to fact as possibly our oral traditions were once relayed across the generations. Rambling at times, and frequently side-tracked with obscure historical minutiae, the tale nearly overwhelms, yet inevitably leads to a “what happens next?” compulsion to read more. The information presented in this pertinently footnoted book is based on a rich collection of archaeological findings, ancient texts, and modern scholarship.

From papyrus to parchment

Story of the Jews by Simon SchamaOne of the earliest source materials Schama considers is, of course, the Bible. The author does not relate to the Bible as a sacred creation of divine origins. As noted in a recent Times of Israel article, “Schama’s book is intent on pointing out that much of the Bible is highly inaccurate, and some passages were written nearly 500 years after supposed historical events took place. In other words, the Scriptures, historically speaking, are most likely an echo of the truth, rather than a reflection of actual events.”

No punches are pulled as we follow the trail of the Hasmonean kings who once ruled Judea. Their political rule was marked by infighting and frequent switches of allegiance. The former rulers of our land, whose names are often recognizable to us from Jerusalem street signs, were cruel and barbaric, but then again, we’re judging them by today’s standards.

Like the wandering Jew in his narrative, Schama is prone to wander from subject to subject, even from millennium to millennium. In one chapter you meet Nehemiah and Ezra, and then, before you know it, you’re following 19th Century British archaeologists as they dig deep underground, discovering the inscription carved into the rock of Hezekiah’s Tunnel.

Many of the characters portrayed in the book are household names to us from history books or possibly even from prayer in the synagogue, but it’s as if we’ve never really gotten to know them. In this centuries-long journey, we trace the poetic wanderings of Yehudah Halevi across the Iberian peninsula; learn of the controversial Torah interpretations written by Maimonides; and study the war reports of Josephus. Certain milestones in the story will be unfamiliar territory: the Temple-era Jewish community of Elephantine in Egypt; the extent of Jewish settlement in Arabia prior to the rise of Islam; and the role Jews played financing medieval kings among them.

A culture perennially resisting its annihilation

Modern readers will be shocked by the many times Jews were faced with near-holocaust assaults on their lives and their communities. Massacres, book burnings, and expulsions occurred at frequent intervals across England, France, Germany, Spain and elsewhere. “The numbers of those who fell victim to the rolling wave of terror, torture, lies and judicial murder… would do credit to any twentieth-century autocrat of degradation and death.”

It is by surviving these horrors that the true miracle of the Jewish People shines through, and this miracle is portrayed on nearly every page of this book.

“By preserving their religion, the Jews have given themselves an extraordinary possibility of enduring not just as a faith, but as a People, when everything else has been loss,” Schama states.

“If we know one thing for sure about the Jewish tradition, it is that the chapter is written, but the book is not finished,” Schama says in conclusion. The author is hard at work finalizing the second book in his epic story of the Jewish People.

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