What a Saga!

National Museum of Damascus, Syria/Zev Radovan/Bridgeman Art Library
‘Exodus and the Crossing of the Red Sea’; wall painting from the Dura-Europos Synagogue, Damascus, Syria, third century

Simon Schama’s new book is a “story” and bears the subtitle “finding the words.” From his huge oeuvre we know him to be a natural storyteller who is never short of words. The size and complexity of great stories from the past, such as the empire of the Dutch republic, the French Revolution, or the rise of the Rothschilds, have held no terrors for him. Despite his preference for a big canvas, he once showed himself an excellent miniaturist in the partly fictional tales he told in his shortest and most adventurous book, Dead Certainties—a novelistic reconsideration of two deaths, in eighteenth-century Quebec and nineteenth-century Boston—and this talent comes through in the details and vignettes that enrich his other work. But even for Schama this latest book is a stretch. No story is so immense and so profoundly freighted with implications for the modern world as the evolution of the Jewish people from antiquity onward. At the same time as publishing a book on this vast theme, Schama is launching a related television series and producing a second volume that will carry his account forward from 1492 to the present.

The present book is by no means a history of the Jews, despite its roughly chronological structure and distinct geographical frames. It is, as its title proclaims, a story, for which mere words barely suffice. What Schama has written demonstrates yet again his prodigious ability to write with fluency and panache, and to structure his work in surprising ways. It begins not with Abraham or Moses, or the parting of the Red Sea, but rather with a small group of Jewish mercenaries clustered, far from friends and relatives, on an island near the first cataract of the Nile in the service of the Persians. This means that he starts with the Jews back in Egypt long after Moses led them out. The time is the early fifth century BC. The documents that these Jews left behind on their island, which was called Elephantine (for reasons that are still obscure), constitute the first hard evidence for the daily life of Jews in antiquity. Although Talmudists may be pleased to find that they were writing in Aramaic, this was nothing more than the official language of communication in the Persian empire.

After such an arresting opening Schama necessarily moves into the infinitely better known history of the Jews in Palestine as they came into conflict with Greeks and Romans, from the resistance of the Maccabees to the persecution of the Hellenistic king Antiochus IV, through their two great rebellions against Rome and subsequent dispersal in a vast diaspora. Schama incorporates the rise of Christianity into his story, as he must, since this is a religion…

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