'The Story of the Jews’: A Tale of Schmaltz and Subversiveness

BBC2 documentary miniseries shows us that Judaism has a long history of competing narratives.

Somewhere around halfway through the first episode of “The Story of the Jews,” a five-part documentary miniseries that began last week on BBC2, the prime-time show seems to be diving head-first into a vat of schmaltz and losing its serious credentials. After triumphant footage of Torah reading in a cavernous and ornate synagogue, the show features British historian Simon Schama, who narrates the miniseries and wrote the history book on which it is based, as he segues to a soft interview with an Ethiopian-Israeli woman telling the story of her personal exodus to Zion.

Moving perhaps, for some viewers, but with little real historical context. For just a second you might have thought you were watching a Jewish Agency fund-raising video, not a documentary produced by one of Britain's best-known historians and certainly the most media-savvy. And then Schama gets serious and it becomes clear that he was simply using the sweet talk to lure in the innocents.

The next place he takes us to is Elephantine Island on the Nile, and the story of a Jewish community of mercenaries living in Upper Egypt 3,000 years ago. This is not just another "imagine finding Jews in a place like this" moment. As Schama describes them, the Jews of Elephantine lived in open defiance of the religious mainstream of their day, returning to the land where the Bible says their ancestors had been enslaved and building their own temple there: an alternative place of worship to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, which according to religious law was the only place Jews were allowed to sacrifice heifers and rams.

And this is where “The Story of the Jews” comes into its own. From the tension between Jerusalem and the Nile island 1,500 kilometers to the south, Schama moves on to the dilemma of Hellenized Jews in the time of the Maccabean wars, the ascetics of the Judean Desert groups who rejected the grandeur and corruption of Temple politics in Jerusalem, and the torn soul of Yosef Ben Matityahu, who -- long after he went over to the Roman side and became the historian Titus Flavius Josephus -- continued to agonize over the role of the Jews in the world.

While this narrative of sects and schisms has always been well known to historians, it has rarely strayed out of academia. Many Jews, and non-Jews, are aware only of the narrative of Orthodoxy, that strain of Pharisee rabbinical Judaism that survived the maelstrom of ancient times and became, through a series of evolutions, the religion we know today. And even though there have been “progressive” and “secular” versions of Judaism for over two centuries, they have been defined by and large as alternatives to the existing rabbinical orthodoxy.

And that is what Schama is really here to tell us, once he releases himself from the honey trap of schmaltziness: There is nothing new about this smorgasbord of Jewish flavors; it was always thus. “The Story of the Jews” contains a welcome subversive core that undermines the twin orthodoxies of our generation: the belief that the Orthodox, especially the Haredim, have a monopoly on true Jewish knowledge and the belief that Jewish identity is inextricably linked to Israel. These beliefs hold sway even over those who oppose Orthodoxy and who believe in a viable Jewish existence outside of Israel, but Schama is now reclaiming their birthright. And while most of the viewers of this series are not Jewish themselves, it is first and foremost a challenge to all Jews to engage with their identities without any feelings of either inferiority or superiority.

“The Story of the Jews” is a story of words, of the Torah, of laws. But it is also a story of constant internal conflict and competition, of a jostling between various narratives and beliefs. As such, it demonstrates to the viewers that these competing narratives are equally Jewish and equally true to their origins.

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