Entertainment :: Television

The Story Of The Jews With Simon Schama

by Steve Weinstein
Contributor
Saturday Mar 22, 2014
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Simon Schama
Simon Schama  

It must be fun to be Simon Schama. An academic historian currently based ("based" being the operative word; he really gets around) in New York, the Cambridge-educated, British born scholar has become something of a superstar.

Thanks to the popular success of TV events like his really terrific history of Britain and best sellers covering everything from the French Revolution to art in the Golden Age of the Dutch Republic, at late-career, Schama has the kind of popular following that is almost unheard of for his profession.

That undoubtedly has given him his pick of projects, which probably explains not only why "The Story of the Jews" was eagerly picked up by PBS from the BBC, but how the series came to be in the first place.

Although not religious, Schama deeply feels his Jewish heritage. Here and there during the two episodes I viewed, he occasionally intersperses his historical narration with personal reminiscences. He uses his own family’s home to illustrate the celebration of Passover, the holiday marking the Israelite’s exodus from Egypt, what Schama sees as one of the key turning points when a coherent national religion began to form itself.

Such intimate details are carefully interwoven with beautifully shot set pieces, from New York to the Ukraine, of vast cathedrals and illuminated manuscripts of Jewish scripture. Very cool graphics even make the Talmud, that endless cycle of disputations of how to interpret the laws set forth in the first five books of the Bible, come alive -- no small achievement.

That said, five episodes simply aren’t enough to encompass such an epic story. The history of the Jews dates back roughly to 2,000 B.C., when, so the Bible tells us, God called Abraham to leave Mesopotamia for Canaan, the present Israel.

Spanning the time through the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D., the events of the first episode will seem hazy to anyone who hasn’t read the Bible. There’s nothing about how the 12 tribes governed themselves before uniting under King Saul; nor the breakup of the kingdom into Israel and Judah a few generations later.

Episode Two, from the triumph of Christianity and the rise of Islam through the Middle Ages, concentrates on the Jews of Spain before their expulsion in 1492. Maybe later episodes will delve into the murky origins of the Ashkenazi, the Jews of the rest of Europe. But the anecdotal presentation will leave a lot of viewers scratching their heads -- or perhaps, given Schama’s charismatic narrative, heading to the library.

That may be the series’ ultimate aim: not to present a comprehensive history of the Jews, but as a teaser to entice further exploration of how an obscure nationalistic religious sect has managed to have such an outsized influence on Western civilization.

Steve Weinstein has been a regular correspondent for the International Herald Tribune, the Advocate, the Village Voice and Out. He has been covering the AIDS crisis since the early ’80s, when he began his career. He is the author of "The Q Guide to Fire Island" (Alyson, 2007).

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