The Story of the Jews Finding the Words 1000 BC to 1492 AD by Simon Schama is a first rate work of history aimed at the general reader with a serious interest in Jewish history and culture. It is a companion text to a B B C series on the subject. (A second volume is in the works.) This is the fourth book by Schama I have read. Previously I have read his very interesting and insightful book, Landscape and Memory, his work on the French Revolution, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution, and Embarrassment of Riches An Interpertation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age. I found all of these works to be richly informative and a pleasure, though a challenging one, to read. I received an E mail advising me that his The Story of the Jews was marked down from $14.99 to $1.99 so I purchased this also.
Schama begins the story at roughly the time he thinks Jews came to develop a sense of cultural identity. He ends it in 1492 A D when the Jews were expelled from Spain. The text is a mixture of history, scholarship of the Torah, art, literature and archeological discoveries. He also brings the story to life by talking about ordinary people as revealed in ancient texts. The historical culture of Judasim is very much one of respect for the written word and learned interpretations and, as reflected in the subtitle, Finding the Words, Schama focuses a lot on the importance of the study of the Torah.
Schama also, as anyone must,talks about the rise of anti-Semiticism, the portrayal of Jews as the killers of Jesus, as Devils, as aliens with no right to exist anywhere. The history is one of long troubles but it is also a reflection of the triumph of the human spirit. He talks about how Jews made a living in the big cities of Europe, with many occupations legally closed to them.
I am looking forward to volume two which will, I believe, take us up to 1946.
I recommend this book to all with an interest in Jewish history. It is a serious work of nonacademic history. Perhaps those very into the subject will not find a great deal new but the weaving of the facts into a narrative made it a for me an edifying pleasure.
Simon Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University