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Simon Schama: Speaking for the dead

Jenni Frazer interviews historian Simon Schama as the second volume of history of the Jewish people is published

    Simon Schama: 'My mission was to be a kind of ventriloquist for the dead'
    Simon Schama: 'My mission was to be a kind of ventriloquist for the dead'

    It’s not often that the academic and historian Simon Schama is lost for words, but it happened almost literally to him when embarking on the second volume of his mammoth work, The Story of The Jews.

    Volume One, published to rapturous acclaim in 2013, took our story from 1000 BCE to 1492. It was subtitled Finding the Words, and the plan then was to produce a second volume the following year, due to take the reader to the present day and to be entitled When Words Fail.

    But Schama was so overwhelmed and enchanted by “the sheer richness of the material”, that he changed his mind. Instead of two books, the work will now be a trilogy, and his second, extraordinary volume, Belonging, is published this week, and leaves us, tantalisingly, at the gates of the 20th century.

    So words have not failed, but rather delayed London-born Schama, who is professor of history and of art history at Columbia University in New York. In Belonging, once again, as in Finding the Words, Schama’s speciality is to take sometimes little-known historical figures and bring them dramatically to life. We are presented with a glittering cast of Jews from every century since the 15th, and Schama says his concern was “vitality rather than mortality”.

    Thus, although there are many instances of persecution and antisemitism, there are as many fantastic portraits of men and women whose rich lives enhanced not only the Jewish community but also the wider world. “I wanted to present Jewish vitality,” says Schama, “but I also wanted to give a sense of Jewish life outside the rabbinic confines. I found that there has always been a kind of bookish emphasis on the rabbinic version of our story. I wanted to give a sense of the richness and sheer creative chaos of Jewish life.”

    In that ambition, Schama has spectacularly succeeded. Even more than Finding the Words, Belonging shows Jews as prize-fighters and charlatans, theatre managers and physicians, writers, actors, painters, farmers and musicians. They are men and women of every sort, who leap off the pages as they struggle with what Schama has defined as the abiding challenge of Jewish life in the diaspora: “If you go so far towards the host community, how do you retain a core sense of belonging to both the host community and your Jewish identity?”

    Belonging illustrates that dilemma on every page, how, on the one hand, the Jews strove for cultural acceptance in the wider world and, on the other, how they strove “not to lose sight of the core things which bound them together”.

    Schama says his aim was “to give voice to those who had been muffled, and to show the eloquence of those voices.”

    In one glittering, sample passage, we are transported to Poland in the 18th century: “Eighteenth-century travellers regularly mention hiring Jews as interpreters, for no one else could function amid the carnival of tongues.

    “There was nothing they would not buy and sell, far and near: salt and saltpetre; fine calicos, muslins and batistes, taffeta and linens, dyed cashmere and rich brocade; grain and timber, wax and hides; iron and copper; dried Turkish peaches, figs, oranges, and almonds, chocolate and cheese; opals and furs; sugar, ginger and spices, caviar and cognac; ink, parchment and paper; perfumes and potions; buckles and belts; cutlery and haberdashery; Chinese tea and Turkish coffee; amber and lambskins; Balkan tobacco and wine from all over; absinthe and brandy, fruit vodka and mead; amulets and elixirs…”

    Alongside the hawkers and the hoi polloi, Schama is fond of dropping in nuggets of sheer craziness. Many of us know the stories of Shabetai Zevi, the 17th-century Turkish Jew who claimed to be the Messiah and just as quickly converted to Islam when challenged by Sultan Mehmed. But we might be less familiar with the story of David the Reubenite, who appeared in Venice in 1523, at Chanukah, not just claiming messianic status but demanding to have an audience with the Pope. Which, as Schama gleefully recounts, went ahead, together with a reception by the King of Portugal, before David was ultimately discredited.

    David’s sidekick in this adventure was, says Schama, “a man who was breathtaking and extraordinary.”

    This was the secretary-scribe of the New Christians, a high-ranking court official called Diogo Pires.

    King Joao of Portugal took against David and charged him with sedition: namely, that he had come to Portugal to “Judaise”. His “proof” was that Diogo Pires had been circumcised by David.

    “Strictly speaking”, writes Schama, “David was telling the truth when he told Joao that he had not circumcised Pires”. In fact, Pires had begged David to perform brit milah on him and, when rebuffed, “Pires had done it to himself”, becoming “Shlomo Molcho the Jew,” a man even more full of messianic visions than David the Reubenite.

    To Schama’s astonishment, Shlomo Molcho’s kabbalistic robes still exist and are preserved in the Jewish Museum in Prague.

    Naturally, in this gigantic cast of characters, Schama has his personal favourites. One such is the young Sarra Copia, who, we are told, was “18 years old, blonde (as many Venetian women were, with or without the help of bleach recipes from the Book of Secrets), clever, married, and living in the ghetto”.

    In the spring of 1618, Sarra wrote what we might now call a fan letter to a Christian poet in his 50s, Ansaldo Ceba, admiring a poem he had written called Esther the Queen. There ensued a tremendous correspondence between the two, and 53 of Ceba’s letters to Sarra survive, along with some of her replies.

    Schama, mining this exchange of letters, carefully shows how the deeply flattered Ceba decided his life’s mission was to convert Sarra to Christianity — and how taken aback he was when she not only declined, but suggested he should convert to Judaism instead. “I thought she was extraordinary,” says Schama. “She absolutely refused, and I got such a sense of a spirited and intelligent Jewish woman”.

    The exchange illustrates another theme that runs throughout the book: how in so many cases and so many countries, Jews and non-Jews were actually much closer than we might believe today. Non-Jewish scholars learned Hebrew, Jews were both advisers and physicians to popes and kings. In May 1642, “three Highnesses plus one Majesty” were rowed down the Amstel in Amsterdam — one of them being Queen Henrietta Maria, wife to England’s Charles I — selling and pawning jewellery to Jewish gem-dealers in a doomed attempt to finance a prospective armed struggle against the opposition parliamentarians. And, as Schama shows, the queen was no stranger to the Jews: “the court in France where she had grown up had been accustomed to rabbi-physicians, famous for remedies that worked when traditional pharmacopeia failed the mighty”.

    Another of Schama’s favourites is the doctor Leon Pinsker, author of the seminal pre-Zionist tract, Auto-Emancipation. Pinsker, relays Schama, was one of the first to put forward the idea of a Jewish homeland as the answer to our eternal problems in the diaspora. “He decided to go on the road and set his ideas before Jews who mattered in the great capitals.” But timing is everything and, even though a wave of pogroms was erupting in southern Russia in the Passover and Easter of 1882, poor Pinsker was coolly received. About the only person to give him house-room, unusually, was the Liberal MP for Southwark, Arthur Cohen, then president of the Board of Deputies. And, as with almost every story in the book, the reader is left wondering: “Who knew?”

    Well, Schama knew. His mission, he says, was “to write as much biography as possible, and to be a kind of ventriloquist for the dead”. From Britain to France, from America to the dark forests of central and eastern Europe, Schama’s scalpel-like wit and painterly descriptions provide a bravura panorama of the Jewish story.

    I wondered what lessons we might draw from Belonging. Schama is certain that there is still a future for diaspora Jews. He says: “I was very struck by what happened after the Charlie Hebdo and Hypercacher terrorism in France, when [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu came to Paris and told French Jews, there is no future for you here, come to Israel. And their response was to sing the Marseillaise.

    “The diaspora is much richer and fuller of Jewish possibilities, and even Jewish renewal, than we might believe”.

    But Schama, a passionate opponent of President Trump, has another warning. He talks of the “sheer ineptness and absolutely vile responses” of the Trump administration, and observes that the words and actions of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner “upset me almost more than Trump himself.

    “But there is now a tidal wave of tribal exclusiveness all over the world. I don’t understand how Jews, with the weight of our history on their shoulders, can still think it is acceptable to put up walls. I don’t believe that is the message of Jewish history. Quite the opposite, in fact.”

     

    ‘Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900’ is published by Bodley Head (£25)

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