Simon Schama is an international treasure. Whether on screen or in print, he is all energy, enthusiasm, dramatic gestures, emotional intensity. He clutches his readers in a tiger-like grip, then chews them up with relish until they are almost helpless with mirth or emotional exhaustion.
If the first volume of his trilogy on the history of the Jews had something of the quality of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, this second, carrying the saga forward from 1492 to 1900, is no less of a Technicolor blockbuster. Here too we have a cast of zillions with all kinds of special effects. Composed of a dazzling succession of tableaux with linking intermezzi, this book resembles a medieval pageant. The geographical range is enormous: one moment we are in Amsterdam, the next we are transported to Kai-feng, before the scene shifts to Cranganore, Senegambia, or Constantinople. The cumulative effect is overwhelming.
The source of all this theatricality may be partly genetic. The Schamas, we are told, hail from Smyrna (today’s Izmir) where they bought and sold ‘flaking scrolls of cinnamon, each one shaped just like the Sefer Torah [Hebrew scroll of the Pentateuch.]’ Schama’s father desperately wanted to tread the boards but was ‘informed that a thespian Schama would be unwelcome under the family roof’. A great-great-uncle on his mother’s side is reported to have ridden bareback in travelling circuses.
No popular history of the Jews on this scale has been attempted since 1933, when The Romance of a People was staged before 125,000 spectators at the World’s Fair in Chicago. Schama can hope for a larger audience. In this reworking of the birth of a nation, Schama reveals himself not so much the D. W. Griffith as the Tintoretto of historical narrative. By painterly touches, he manages to convey colour, texture, shape, context, light and shadow, as well as to stimulate the senses: olfactory, auditory, gustatory and more. The style is the familiar Schama hotchpotch: soaring flights of inspirational imagery suddenly descend into vernacular bathos (here with exclamations often rendered in cod-Yiddish).
But Schama produces more than just purple prose and flashing light effects. He has studied much of the scholarly literature on the subject (at any rate in west European languages, though not in Hebrew and Yiddish) and acknowledges his debts punctiliously. When he chooses, he is capable of lucid exposition of complex ideas — as in his accounts of the thought of Baruch Spinoza and of Moses Mendelssohn. In such passages Schama displays reflective intelligence and discerning human insight.
His talent, however, is descriptive rather than analytical. The book opens with a strange meditation on the Sambatyon, a mythical river across which some of the lost tribes of Israel were said to have been exiled. Schama then introduces a number of exotic adventurers who appealed to the messianic yearnings of Jews in early modern times: David Reuveni, possibly a Falasha (Ethiopian Jew), who claimed descent from the House of David and was received by Pope Clement VII in 1524; Solomon Molcho, a Portuguese-born Marrano (crypto-Jew), saved from the stake by the same pope (who compassionately arranged for someone else to take Molcho’s place) but was nevertheless burned shortly afterwards on the orders of Emperor Charles V; and the better-known pseudo-messiahs Shabbatai Zvi — a convert to Islam — and Jacob Frank, who died a Christian.
Their stories, recounted con brio in extravagant detail, illustrate the book’s central theme: the unending quest of the Jews for a home that they could call their own, and their enduring faith that God would send a saviour-figure who would lead them back to the Land of Israel.
As with much of Schama’s writing, it would be easy for the captious critic to point out this or that error or omission. But to dwell on such failings would be to miss the point. Like other English masters of historical haute vulgarisation, from Thomas Carlyle to A. J. P. Taylor, Schama’s concern is with the big picture. Like them he is imaginative, epigrammatic and fearless. Like them he sometimes collapses into flippancy — as when he suggests that a shared interest in kabbala (Jewish mysticism) shows that Brooklyn hasidim have ‘something in common with Madonna Ciccone’. But for the most part he is an effervescent cicerone who instructs and entertains in like measure.
Yet behind the anecdotage lurk gremlins. While apparently keen to break down received wisdoms about Jews, Schama himself often sinks into tired stereotyping. ‘Jews,’ he pronounces, ‘do food first.’ Jewish mothers, he tells us repeatedly, want their children to become lawyers or physicians. Jewish doctors became specialists in optics and the digestive tract — ‘two topics of perennial Jewish concern’. Veitel Ephraim, a wealthy ‘court Jew’ in 18th-century Berlin, laid out a garden with 1,000 blossoming fruit trees, on which ‘mourning doves moaned Jewishly on the branches’. Jews, we learn, are characteristically noisy, argumentative and prone to making a scene — ‘how more Jewish can one get?’ Schama inquires. No doubt he is pulling our leg but such remarks cheapen the tone.
More problematic is an issue of substance. Gradually it becomes clear that the conceptual framework of the book is surprisingly conventional, outdated and wrongheaded. The underlying message appears to be one propounded a generation or two ago by apostles of a primitive version of Zionism (more recent exponents include David Vital and Robert Wistrich) but since jettisoned by most scholars, including Israeli ones, as crude and simplistic. In this view, European countries, even liberal democracies such as France, were so deeply imbued with the anti-Semitic virus as to doom any chance of successful Jewish integration. Only Jewish national sovereignty in their ancient homeland offered Jews the prospect of survival.
Nor, in this view, could Jews in the Muslim world hope for much better. Schama paints a grim picture of the miserable plight of ‘tarboosh Jewry’ in North Africa, relying in part on the dubious authority of Martin Gilbert’s flawed history of the Jews in Arab lands. Schama sees the parliamentary election success in 1898 of the anti-Semite Edouard Drumont as deputy for Algiers as a critical moment. ‘Modern anti-Semitism,’ he maintains, ‘now flowed into traditional Islamic disdain for Jews and Judaism and stayed in the bloodstream of Maghrebi culture with lingering, malevolent power.’ But Drumont owed his election not to Algerian Muslims, very few of whom had the vote at the time, but to French colons. Anti-Semitism, the howls of the Islamophobes notwithstanding, is not part of the ‘bloodstream’ of Muslim culture.
In his discussion of the Enlightenment, Schama stresses less its liberating force than its limitations so far as the Jews were concerned. He returns repeatedly to Voltaire’s anti-Jewish utterances: the sage of Ferney, he tells us, ‘had a thing about Jews’. The French revolution, the decisive turning-point in the process of Jewish emancipation in Europe, is depicted more as one of many instances of delusive Jewish faith in promises of equality. The familiar story of the travails of Alfred Dreyfus is artfully retold as a cinematic spectacle but interpreted as another episode in what the Israeli historian Steven Aschheim has called the ‘cult of eternal victimisation’.
Turning to Jewish settlement in Palestine in the late 19th century, Schama defends Zionism against the charge that it should be seen as a ‘colonial intrusion’. His reasoning is odd. ‘The ecology of Palestine… was unstable and, in many parts of the country, deteriorating.’ Consequent ‘environmental degradation’ provided an opening for ‘different incoming populations’: bedouin, German members of the Christian millenarian ‘Tempelverein’ (confused by Schama with the knightly ‘Order of Templars’) and Jews. There is, no doubt, a case to be made against the easy equation of Zionism and colonialism. But Schama’s argument that ecological change somehow absolves Zionism from the taint of collusion with imperialism is unconvincing.
He concludes with an account of the life of Theodor Herzl, founder of the Zionist movement, portrayed as yet another quasi-messianic figure, but this time a serious political actor rather than a confidence trickster. Perhaps with a certain fellow-feeling, Schama notes Herzl’s theatricality: ‘A big piece of him was Wagnerian and Nietzschean… Herzl now cast himself as the dramaturge of a Jewish-national awakening.’
The book closes with what Schama calls Herzl’s ‘Jerusalem epiphany’, when he climbed the Mount of Olives and conjured in his mind’s eye a new Jerusalem, rebuilt and redesigned on modern lines by his Zionist followers. The moral is clear: the anguish of centuries-long homelessness, punctuated by persecution, massacres and hankering after false redeemers, will be resolved (in volume 3) by a return to Zion.
This, then, is a reductionist view of Jewish history, enlivened by boisterous story-telling. The book is handsomely produced and lavishly illustrated. No doubt it will launch a thousand barmitzvahs.