"Surrender to Our Verbosity!" Or at Least Read Simon Schama's History of the Jews

In his brilliant new book, the unconventional scholar somehow manages to be simultaneously sentimental and subversive, consensual and contrarian.

“The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD,” by Simon Schama; Ecco/HarperCollins, 496 pages, $40

Jerusalem, Vilna, Babylon, Brooklyn: historic wellsprings of Jewish life and lore. But Elephantine Island? Who ever heard of Elephantine Island, also known as Yeb, in the Nile River in Upper Egypt, the site of today’s Aswan? Who knew that an Aramaic-speaking colony of Jews, in the military service of imperial Persia, lived there in the 5th century B.C.E., the period of Ezra and Nehemiah, and built their own temple, complete with animal sacrifices?

The great British Jewish historian Cecil Roth, in his “Short History of the Jewish People” (1936), devoted a subordinate clause plus a brief footnote to this fascinating episode, remarking that lately discovered documents “throw a striking sidelight upon the age of Ezra.” The story merited but one paragraph in “A History of the Jewish People” (English edition, 1976), the indispensable 1,170-page doorstop co-authored by six eminent Hebrew University professors. The Israeli account, not surprisingly, stressed Elephantine Jews’ “dependence on Jerusalem and the Temple.”

Simon Schama, on the other hand, milks the story deliciously in his bold, erudite and entertaining new book. “Outside of a circle of scholars,” he writes, “this first, rich, Jewish story has had virtually no purchase on the common memory of Jewish tradition.”

It is surely for that very reason that Schama, who has made a brilliant career as an unconventional historian, has chosen Elephantine Jewry as the subject of his opening chapter. “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD,” is the first volume of two; the second, “When Words Fail: 1492 – Present,” comes out next fall.

The project began life as a documentary series for the BBC, with Schama as writer and presenter. He has made dozens of TV films; authored one dazzling book after another on such huge and disparate subjects as the Dutch Golden Age, the French Revolution, the whole of British history, American slavery, and human perceptions of nature (“Landscape and Memory,” 1995). He has served as art critic for The New Yorker and food writer for Gentleman’s Quarterly. It takes considerable chutzpah and boundless curiosity for a non-specialist to produce a full-tilt history of the Jews. Schama does not lack for either, and we readers come out lucky.

Born in England in 1945, Schama has lived for 30 years in the United States, first as a professor at Harvard and now as a professor of both history and art history at Columbia University. In the 1970s, as a young scholar at Christ’s College, Cambridge, he wrote a book called “Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel,” not returning to Jewish history till now. Interviewed in 1991 for a piece in Harvard Magazine, the historian J.H. Plumb, Schama’s mentor at Cambridge, described him as “ebullient, creative, torrential,” and opined that “his imagination does not take fire on the problems of Jewish history. He wants to do something larger.” In the event, Plumb was wrong: Schama is at his torrential best as he integrates the Jewish saga into the larger story of mankind.

‘Elephantine Yahudim’

Throughout the book, Schama draws impressively on cutting-edge academic studies. In the first chapter, his main source is “The Elephantine Papyri in English,” by Bezalel Porten, et al. (1996). The papyri, written in Aramaic and discovered in 1893 by an amateur Egyptologist, testify to Sabbath and Passover rituals as well as the prevalence of intermarriage. “The Elephantine Yahudim,” Schama pointedly writes, “were Yahwists who were not going to be held to the letter of observance laid down by Jerusalemites any more than, say, the vast majority of Jews now who believe themselves to be, in their way, observant, will accept instruction on what it means to be Jewish (or worse, who is or isn’t a Jew) from the ultra-Orthodox.”

Schama calls the Elephantine story the “first” because, unlike the biblical accounts of Moses and the Exodus, or David and Solomon – stories that the author aptly characterizes as a poetic “echo” of what actually happened – this one (which ended when Egypt overthrew Persian rule) is based on hard archaeological findings.

The biblical narrative, capped by the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, has “the express aim of purging Jewish society of ‘foreign’ elements: a winnowing out of foreign women, foreign cults, foreign habits ... But suppose there is another Jewish story altogether, one in which the line between the alien and the pure is much less hard and fast; in which being Jewish did not carry with it the requirement of shutting out neighboring cultures ... If both are legitimate ways of thinking about Jewish history, Elephantine could be seen not as an anomaly but as a forerunner.”

The archaeological texts are anything but canonical, and there too lies their appeal. In Schama’s version, words that matter are also to be found on scraps of ancient parchment and pottery, and in letters, recipes and student exercise books in the Cairo Geniza (“the greatest empire of paper to have survived from the medieval world.”)

Part of the charm of this book is the way Schama shamelessly conjoins past and present with generous layers of schmaltz: “It need hardly be said that the Geniza has its share of grieving Jewish mothers complaining that their sons don’t write ... So all right if you won’t send a letter at least, if it’s not too much bother, Mr Always Busy Big Shot, at least send your dirty laundry…” Though it may be argued that he goes one Yiddishism too far when referring to Maimonides, who groused to his translator Samuel ibn Tibbon about his onerous workload, as “a king of the kvetch.”

Schama, to his credit, manages to be both sentimental and subversive, consensual and contrarian. He concludes a chapter on biblical archaeology with a description of a tiny silver scroll from an ancient burial cave at Ketef Hinnom, southeast of Jerusalem, dated to the late 7th century B.C.E. Experts have deciphered Hebrew writing on it: “bless and make shine his face on you and give you peace.”

For Schama, this artifact represents “the hurtling together of an ancient Then with the fleeting Now”: “I am nine years old again and standing in my synagogue ... [T]he Cohanim are standing ... their prayer shawls pulled over their heads ... We Jewish hoi polloi are forbidden from looking at them as they deliver their blessing, but of course I can’t help peeping ... ‘May the Lord bless you and keep you,’ they are saying, as if reciting from a scroll just rediscovered in the reign of Josiah, ‘may he make his face shine upon you and give you peace’ ... [A]nd not ten years from the end of the annihilating war I feel somehow safe.”

‘The words travelled on’

Jewish writing, committed to memory, is indestructible, and its portability has ensured the survival of the Jews as they flee persecution and endure expulsion. “For all the attempts to burn, expunge and blot them out, to excise and criminalize Jewish reading, to beat the books out of the Jews, the words travelled on and on through space and time.”

Schama drives home this traditional theme as he unflinchingly describes what the historian Salo Baron called the “lachrymose” narrative of Jewish history: the Jewish suicides of medieval Ashkenaz, the pogroms in Crusader-era England, the Spanish Inquisition. “History frowns on anachronism,” he writes of anti-Jewish actions in 15th-century Spain, “but what, the crematoria and the shooting squads aside, in the Nazi repertoire is missing from this list?”

At the same time, he delights in the exotic and heterodox: the Hellenized Jews who underwent “partial foreskin restoration known as epispasm” to evade jeering in the gymnasium, the erotic (and homoerotic) poetry of Judeo-Arabic Andalus. He valorizes the controversial Josephus, the Romanized Jew who was the first Jewish historian. And as an art historian, Schama takes special pleasure in describing the 3rd-century C.E. Dura-Europos synagogue in the Syrian desert, whose stunning wall paintings “demolished the assumption that Judaism abhorred images.”

He also dwells on illuminated Passover Haggadahs, kvells over the Braga Bible from 15th-century Spain, now housed at Oxford’s Bodleian Library, in which “bearded David sits resplendently on his throne; dragons do their worst, and phalanxes of cats do battle with enemy mice.”

“Contrary to received wisdoms about the Jewish tradition, texts and images work with each other, not against each other,” Schama stresses – yet in the end he is a man of many words. He expends many pages on the Mishnah and the “coral reef” of the Talmud, savoring the minutiae of their legal discourse. He celebrates the “behavioral doctoring” of Maimonides’ “Mishneh Torah,” which distilled the rabbinic legacy into a guide for living.

Curiously, the author doesn’t mention the Zohar, the mighty medieval classic of Jewish mysticism – his book’s most conspicuous omission – and oddly stumbles, amid a discussion of Maimonides’ sojourn in the Land of Israel in 1165, by referring to Safed as “the home of a gathering of Kabbalistically inclined mystics” (which came to pass only much later.)

Schama has a special fondness for the Dead Sea Scrolls, a corpus that also lies outside the official canon. “Some of it is mesmerizingly, crazily, wordy,” he writes. He takes special note of the apocalyptic War Scroll, which describes “exactly what must be inscribed on trumpets, banners and even weapons in the battle array of the Sons of Light ... We are going to write the enemy into capitulation! Surrender to our verbosity or else!”

In the end, the reader of Schama’s book happily does just that. Listen to his riff about the 11th-century Judeo-Spanish poet-warrior-politician best known as Shmuel Hanagid: “In Shmuel ibn Naghrela the reader encounters, for the first time in Jewish literature, an unapologetically outsized ego, a hand-pumping, back-slapping, rib-whacking, hairily muscular personality, capable nonetheless of inward self-examination and erotic pathos.”

What author, after all, could ask for a better role model?

The writer, a Jerusalem-based journalist, is a fellow of the Shalom Hartman Institute. His translations from Hebrew include books by A.B. Yehoshua, David Grossman and Meir Shalev.

Photo © Zev Radovan / The Bridg
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© Zev Radovan / The Bri