The Story of the Jews
Sunday nights will scarcely be the same now Simon Schama’s lavish and exuberant roller-coaster of a ride through Jewish history — the best-known bits and the almost-never-told stuff — has concluded its five-week run.
I got the distinct impression that Schama, a born teacher, rather regretted the absence of a live audience and the interplay between him and his students. But this is a small caveat about a masterly exposition, in which we were treated to stories about Jews rather than a single story, with Schama gleefully dipping in and out like the best and most expensive tour guide.
Perhaps the weakest of the five programmes — visually, that is — was the opener. Going that far back into Jewish history, there is not that much to show the viewer. So, cheekily, Schama opened in Hampstead, at Freud’s house.
Needing to hook viewers from the start, the episode ranged far and wide, from the glorious Victorian ambitions of the Palestine Exploration Society — bent on delineating Biblical battlefields and matching them to 19th century topography in the Holy Land — to Freud’s own particular obsessions in tracing the Jewish journey.
Schama is a persuasive soul and throughout the series, archives opened to him, showing him lovingly leafing through manuscripts while wearing protective white gloves, a sort of Jewish version of Jack Nicholson’s Joker in the Batman films.
He introduced us to Moses Mendelssohn, the German-Jewish philosopher who became the face of the Enlightenment, the movement that brought the Jews for the first time into equal opportunity status with the rest of civil society. Schama showed us Mendelssohn’s own translation of the Bible, in German but in Hebrew characters. And having met Mendelssohn, we had to meet his grandson, the composer Felix, a prodigy quite as accomplished as Mozart.
Reflecting Schama’s own passions for art and music, the series moved skilfully through the career of composer Giacomo Meyerbeer, a scion of the fabulously wealthy Beer family, and the man who set present-day opera on its feet. In the opposite direction were the young and hungry Jews who wrote the early 20th century American songbook — Irving Berlin, the Gershwin brothers and Yip Harburg, composer of the classic Depression song, Brother Can You Spare a Dime?
In the fourth programme, Schama considered the rise of the Chasidic movement, travelling to godforsaken places in Ukraine. And he lingered on the rarely-told story of the composer Arnold Schoenberg, who, remarkably, and probably uniquely, was baptised into the Lutheran movement and then formally returned to Judaism in 1933, saying: “I could not do without Judaism.” It was a neat book-ending of Schama’s opening discussion about Baruch Spinoza, famously excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community for alleged heresy.
By programme four, Schama had firmly nailed his colours to the mast, stating unequivocally: “I am a Zionist.” In the last, Return, he set out the compelling arguments for a Jewish state, opening with the silence that hits Israel every year on Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day. But as the programme unfolded and Schama went back to the kibbutz where he had volunteered as a teenager, the feeling of depression and regret was almost palpable. Israel, he seemed to say, had been founded for the right reasons but had failed to live up to its founding ambitions. A cursory interview with a former Palestinian inhabitant of the Arab village, Lifta, taken over by the Israelis in the War of Independence, sat uneasily with Schama’s more enthusiastic discussions with the writer, David Grossman, and the clear distaste he felt when talking to West Bank settler Tzvi Cooper.
But Schama’s trademark enthusiasm and bounce again surfaced. “The chapter is written,” he declared, “but the book is not finished”. Kudos to Schama for an extraordinary undertaking, and, for once, also to a brave BBC for devoting five hours of prime-time transmission so that some remarkable stories could be heard. More, please.