The story of the Jews extends farther back into the past than that of any other faith: perhaps only Hindus and Zoroastrians come close. But having more history does not help in the writing of it. On the contrary: the difficulties have been evident since the appearance of the first standard history of the subject, Heinrich Graetz’s compendious Geschichte der Juden, in the middle of the nineteenth century. What does it mean to write the history of a religious group? Is one charting the vicissitudes of a creed? Or is the real story the fate of a people?
There is the risk of seeking—and hence finding—some essential core of Jewishness that may, in fact, never have existed. Alternatively, since Jews have existed as a minority in most times and climes, living among others with other beliefs, the subject may dissolve before one’s eyes. Is there really a Jewish history independent of the histories of these larger societies? Take architecture, clothes, food: in their way of life don’t the Jews of Cochin, for example, have more in common with the sultans of Mysore than they do with the Vilna Gaon?
The pioneering Graetz, an early participant in the struggle between reform and conservative Judaism, was a scholar who believed in Wissenschaft—scientific study. But he was also not afraid to embellish the evidence when required, and some accused him of playing fast and loose with the facts. Indeed, one of the charges laid against him was that he gave his readers stories (Geschichten) rather than history (Geschichte).
This brings us straight to Simon Schama, who has been interested in the relationship between the storyteller and the historian for about as long as he has been interested in the Jewish past. One of his very first books treated the impact of the Rothschilds’ philanthropy in the Holy Land. His tale-filled, genre-defying Landscape and Memory (1995) opened with his Ashkenazi forebears in the forests of tsarist Russia. The Story of the Jews, his television series first broadcast in 2013, marked his most sustained engagement with the subject. Now comes the tie-in, a multivolume history likewise entitled The Story of the Jews. The first volume, Finding the Words (2013), took the story from biblical times to 1492; Belonging is the second. A third is promised.
The story? More like a bevy of them—the wilder the better. Schama begins among the swirling millenarian expectations and false messiahs of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and concludes with a loving account of Theodor Herzl and his dream of building Zion in Ottoman Palestine. In between is a roller coaster of a ride that takes us from the New Christians and the conversos of Iberia to Jewish power centers in ports like Antwerp and Izmir. Glamorous figures such as Beatriz de Luna and her nephew Joseph Nasi, the Duke of Naxos, head a colorful and varied cast. There are pen portraits galore—the…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.