Simon Schama Interview

Our people, our story, his words

By Jenni Frazer, September 6, 2013
Simon Schama at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Simon Schama at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial

Three random facts about historian Simon Schama, professor of art history and history at New York’s Columbia University: he once worked, half a century ago, in the JC’s library when he was a teenager, describing the experience as something like the Hapsburg Empire, a mixture of order and chaos.

In 1995, he told a JC interviewer: “I find it very hard to write about Jewish history.”

And a few years later, he recalled a mantra of his father’s, Arthur Schama: “The Jew’s greatest weapon is his mouth.”

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to bring these seemingly disparate strands together when considering what may possibly be Schama’s greatest work, The Story of the Jews, a magisterial consideration of the epic story of the Jewish people, presented, in typical Schama fashion, as a sprawling, brawling, poignant and poetic account of how we came to be who we are.

For publishers The Bodley Head Schama has divided our story into two huge volumes. The first, published on September 12, begins in the little written about years of 1000 BCE, and ends in bloodshed and anguish with the Sephardic expulsion of 1492 CE.

My work was to focus on the issue of Jews among the goyim, the society at large

The second volume, When Words Fail, which will appear next September, will begin in Venice in the aftermath of the Iberian calamity and run until the present day, taking in – well, everything, from Renaissance Jewry and the flowering of the printed word, the Enlightenment, the gradual return of Jews to places from where they had been expelled, the emigration from the Old World to the New, Tin Pan Alley, Hollywood, the horrors of the Holocaust and the establishment of the state of Israel. (It is not Schama’s first venture into the Zionist dream: one of his earlier books, with which he has professed himself rather dissatisfied, discusses the relationship of the Rothschild family to Zionism.)

And for the BBC Schama has rendered the narrative into five one-hour programmes, which will run on BBC2 on Sunday nights throughout September in the prime time 9pm slot. The programmes run beyond the time span of the first book and if it is hard to imagine all of Jewish history being slotted into a mere five hours, then one can only suggest that if anyone was born to do this, it is Simon Schama.

His first volume is subtitled Finding the Words and he pays tribute to his father, Arthur, a textile merchant and a frustrated actor, whose greatest legacy to his son was a passionate love of words, from Shakespeare to Dickens. On his mother’s side, he says, his great-grandfather was a Jewish lumberjack, and indeed Schama takes great delight from his very first pages in presenting Jews outside the well-worn stereotypes of academics, medics, lawyers and moneylenders.

Schama’s Jews gleam with the unexpected: his opening chapters focus on the unexplored history of Elephantine, an island in Egypt’s Nile where there was an astonishing Jewish presence, a military barracks entirely inhabited by Jewish soldiery. “We know about them because their world was preserved in papyri, which were re-discovered in the first decade of the 20th century.”

Schama also introduces us to Jews as “spears for hire,” or mercenaries, and Jews who were expert crossbowmakers. In England, before the Jews were kicked out by Edward 1, Jews were moneylenders – but very frequently the most powerful were Jewish women.

“Both ends of the book,” says Schama, “chronologically speak to the great issue of how the Jews could or couldn’t live among other peoples”. His work, he says, has been to discuss “Jews among the goyim, the engagement of Jews with the society around them.

“I wanted to begin with what historians would accept as incontrovertible evidence about the nature of a Judean society — independent of the Bible – which only very indirectly is an historical document. The Elephantine papyri — written as some of the books of the Bible are being written — is true social and legal documentation, and to historians overwhelmingly powerful and moving, even when ostensibly about trivial things.”

Schama’s speciality, of highlighting the personal and the intimate to make history relevant, finds rich pickings in the Elephantine papyri, which mention “the sweet meagreness of Tamet’s dowry, compared to her daughter Jehoishima’s dowry, later.” This, says Schama, “is a Judean-quasi-Jewish world that we can smell, taste, hear and see, not Biblical archetypes.”

“This project,” he says, “has been five years in the making, but in some other sense, all of my life, since cheder anyway.” The Schama family, depending on Arthur’s financial status, moved from London to Southend and back again to London’s Golders Green. Though these days the professor, a well-known gourmand and food hedonist, may be regarded as secular, it is not a description which he embraces.

“I’m not entirely secular,” he says, slightly indignantly. “I am a Jew in the way Einstein (with whom otherwise I don’t compare myself) thought of himself… which is to say that I’m definitely not atheist. I was brought up pretty Orthodox, kosher at home, Dover sole eating out; cheder three times a week, as well as Sundays; a whole sedra barmitzvah (Terumah); even a little bit of chumash teaching at [Golders Green’s] Dunstan Road — I remember all my Hebrew teachers very, very well, from the wonderful Anne Marks in Southend when I was very small.

“So in the Einstein way I can’t believe in a universe that doesn’t have some sort of prime mover, identical with all of created nature. I have a whole lot of a harder time with supposing the fine print of the Torah was a direct revelation. I do say in the book that the fact that there is no historical or archaeological evidence whatever of the Exodus doesn’t necessarily mean that it didn’t happen – and we are always left with the beautiful, challenging, archaic quality of the earliest ‘songs’ of the Sea (Miriam, Deborah, etc) which all historians agree belong to the styles of the 12th century BCE or so.

“The historical consensus is that Israelite religion and those attached to it somehow differentiated themselves from other Canaanites around that time — but if they were otherwise indistinguishable pastoral hill tribes, why would they want to take as their founding story the kind of balladic archaic songs that belonged to sea peoples? There are many conundrums still to be resolved.”

As the book darts back and forth in its early chapters between the Israelites in Egypt and the making and moulding of the Bible, it’s sometimes difficult to discern what we would understand as a Jew, someone whom we would recognise in the present day. But as Schama explains it: “There are two wholly distinct phenomena going on here.

“One is the establishment of a Hebrew-using Judean state of some sort, in the late Iron Age, mobilising the kind of labour and tribute taxes needed to build Khirbet Qeiyafa, the so-called ‘fortress of Elah’ that was a lot more than the ‘cow town’ that ultra sceptical archaeologists suppose Jerusalem to have been at that time.

“But then there is the One-God, formless, faceless God religion, which took as pretty much everyone agrees, much longer to become dominant. All those Asherah pillar figurines all over Judea and elsewhere, into the eighth century, also massebot (standing cult pillars), which as unfigured were kind of Jewish, and then kind of not!

“So we can’t really see the two phenomena coming together earlier than the eighth century BCE, and probably even later, perhaps the seventh or sixth century, which puts that identity into the Babylonia exile, when the Deuteronomist writers of the Bible make it much harder, fiercer, more adamantly monotheistic. It depends whether you think ‘lifnei’ — as in ‘thou shalt have no other gods before Me’ — presupposes that there were other gods, or the opposite.”

Schama acknowledges that “the really Orthodox are obviously going to be unhappy that I can’t take most of the Bible as an historical document which tells us when Abraham lived, moved out of Chaldea, etc.” But — even in a long conversation and discussion with the secular Israeli archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel — Schama is careful to observe that an absence of proof does not necessarily mean an absence of fact.

For the reader — even those who thought they were familiar with the Jewish narrative — Schama’s book has surprises in plenty, like hidden plums in a cake. But had Schama himself been surprised?

Definitely, he says. “There were all kinds of immense surprises, starting with Elephantine, which I knew very little about before I started research. Other things that the historical evidence tells us is how deeply important images and pictures have been in Judaism, notwithstanding the Second Commandment. Can anyone look at Dura Europos [an ancient synagogue uncovered in Syria in 1932] or Sepphoris [a Roman and Byzantine city in the lower Galilee] and not see that?

“All the earliest synagogues have superlative mosaics — some, like Ein Gedi, avoiding human figures, but many of them only too happy to have them. And Sepphoris — after all. the place where the Mishnah began to be written — is also a town where it is impossible to separate out Jewish from non-Jewish buildings, houses and art – a real revelation, and rather moving.

“At [a Jewish ruined house in] Iraq al Amir, Jordan, you get, as nowhere else, what Hasmonean Hellenistic architectural style was like – which was, strikingly, very, very Greek! And very, very beautiful. So the whole issue of visual beauty moves right to the centre, not just of Jewish life but Judaism (the illuminated manuscripts and haggadot of course are some of the overwhelmingly moving things our culture and religion has ever created.)”

Another surprise for Schama was the role of women. “There is really no evidence of gender separation in the early synagogues, though it is said (unconvincingly) that there may have been [a separate women’s gallery] in the sixth century Beit Alpha synagogue [in the Galilee]. Women’s separation may have happened as a response to Islam! It is also increasingly clear that many of our taboos — prostration, removal of shoes, which have become Muslim habits — were Jewish before they were Muslim. ”

Among the women to whom Schama introduces us are at least two who deserve to be better-known by Anglo-Jews — the 13th century Licoricia of Winchester and her embittered rival, Muriel.

Muriel was the wife of the Jewish merchant David of Oxford but he had, unfortunately for her, fallen head over heels for the charismatic Licoricia and wanted to get rid of Muriel. But Muriel wasn’t having that; and Schama recounts how she got her powerful Jewish family from Lincoln to dispute the divorce, even going as far as France to make her case.

The personal anguish of the two women resonates through the pages, which ended with Muriel being cast aside but then Licoricia being murdered. All David’s property was confiscated by the Crown and Benedict, Licoricia’s son, was hanged a year after his mother’s murder.

In the first years of the reign of Edward 1, recounts Schama, London “became sewn with gallows, from which 269 Jews were hanged…Jewish body after Jewish body, among them Licoricia’s Benedict, swinging over the streets, a repellent and unforgiveable crime that has gone unremembered, unlamented, unacknowledged in English history ever since.”

Despite his bitter reportage, Schama is not generally in favour of apologies. “They seem so paltry besides the enormity of the crimes. What wording, exactly, could ever apologise for the Holocaust, ditto the expulsions and massacres of 1391 and the London hangings? I just want them recognised as part of English history.”

Schama’s remit, to illuminate where there may previously have been darkness, allows him to re-present the Jews in all their noisy, squabbling, argumentative selves.

If Arthur Schama was right, and the Jew’s greatest weapon is his mouth, then the words of our ancestors dance and dive throughout these pages, a cacophony of voices, clamouring to be heard, in Paris, in Rome, in Egypt, in Germany, in Spain, in Portugal, in England — and, of course, in Jerusalem.

Simon Schama tells our story with characteristic relish. It is a glorious gift for the New Year.

Last updated: 5:49pm, October 12 2013