Simon Schama
Simon Schama at the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria © BBC

Has it been a wilderness in which I’ve been wandering for 40 years, like the Children of Israel taking the scenic route to the Promised Land? No, it hasn’t. But all the same it feels like a destination, with the emphasis on “destined”, or beshert, as we say in Yiddish.

The Yom Kippur war, which began on October 6 1973 with a bold, fierce Egyptian campaign back over the Suez Canal, undid any notions of Israeli invincibility that might have been fostered by the Six-Day War six years earlier. The sobering shock registered itself in all sorts of unanticipated ways. The archaeology of the Bible lands – which, after the Six-Day War, had some people hoping they might find David’s royal buildings or Solomon’s temple – took a radically sceptical turn. Another inevitability was undone: that of the mostly secular, socialist, decidedly unmessianic Labour Zionism as the perpetual government of Israel. In 1977 Menachem Begin, founder of the centre-right party Likud, was elected the first non-Labour prime minister, and a deep faultline opened up that has never been closed. Even before the first Palestinian intifada in 1987, there was much agonising over how best to bring peace without compromising security. Added to this dilemma was the question of what to do about the occupied territories, how to absorb the facts of Palestinian history into the Jewish story. There was, at least, no continuing the head-in-the-sand fiction that Palestinian nationalism was some sort of spurious invention.

But I was in England, in the Fens, teaching everything and anything, except the first history I’d ever known; the French, industrial and American revolutions, not the Jewish evolution. Some Friday nights and every Passover and new year would see me at the synagogue in Thompson's Lane, singing the tunes that were buried deep in my consciousness, dipping and bobbing, and even swaying a bit, the Hebrew I’d learnt as a child (and even taught) exerting its own peculiarly musical spell. But there were limits that my mother tested when she sent a Sabbath chicken by train to Cambridge. I had to collect the noisome bird but – ingrate that I was – swiftly binned it somewhere near St Andrew's Street.

And I found it hard, if not impossible, to talk to non-Jews, students, colleagues, the rest of the world about Jewish history without the subject being dominated by the smoke of the Holocaust and the fires of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The rest appeared obscure, inaccessible, separate from the historical mainstream, whereas, thinking of Samuel ibn Naghrela, the poet who had probably been the commander of a Berber Muslim army, of Baruch Spinoza, of Franz Kafka and Albert Einstein, I knew this wasn’t at all true. It was not just that Jewish history was inexplicable without everyone else’s history, it was that the history of the world was inexplicable without Jewish history.

Which was why, I suppose, some time around the mid-1970s, Nicholas de Lange, Amos Oz’s translator and a scholar of philosophy in late antiquity, and I sent out invitations to anyone who wanted to gather in my rooms to talk about post-Biblical Jewish history. It was an informal reading and discussion group but it was the only place where history and literature students came together to do this. For a couple of hours after supper, the sages, the false messiahs, the poets and the revolutionaries barged their way into my modernist rooms, all (I blush at the memory) flokati rugs and knock-off Eames modernism. (I fear there may have been a burgundy beanbag.) We cracked walnuts and jokes; drank deep of the brimming cup of Jewish words.

It was, without meaning to be, mostly kosher. The little group entirely Jewish. Outside everything about Jewish history was muffled, embarrassed. Mainstream history was still struggling to find the right tone in which to write about the Holocaust, a phenomenon too monolithically evil to be explicable with the usual historical tools of the trade. Better to look respectful and pass on to the Reichstag fire. I, too, wanted to change the subject, to argue for a richer, less uniformly catastrophic Jewish history; even to restore the possibility of a Middle Eastern history where mutual calamity might not have been the only outcome. When I moved to Oxford in 1976 I even lectured on this, an unheard of thing in the Faculty of History, which did a lot of eye-averting and let me get on with it.

Mosaic depicting ‘The Infant Moses and the Pharaoh’s Daughter’
‘The Infant Moses and the Pharaoh’s Daughter’ (2nd century AD) from the Dura-Europos Synagogue in Syria © Bridgeman Picture Library

I was working on a book about the French Rothschilds and Palestine, and I was haunted by the Jewish history I somehow could not write. And not for want of being asked. The Oxford scholar Cecil Roth, who devoted a long prolific life to nothing else, had died before completing a volume on the Jews in a series called The History of Human Society. J H Plumb, who had been my professor at Cambridge, was its editor and he thought I was the person to finish it. I couldn’t say no, although I remembered the words of the wintry-wise preacher of Ecclesiastes: “My sonne …of the making of many books there is no end and much studie wearies the flesh.” And how could I not be aware of the mountain ranges of scholarship throwing a long deep shadow over any novice gambolling in the foothills. But the opportunity was too serious to pass up. However rash the presumption, I believed that by writing a post-medieval history for a general readership, one that gave weight to shared experience, I could act as an interlocutor; persuade readers (and makers of history syllabuses) that no history, wherever and whenever its principal focus of study, was complete without the Jewish story, and that there was a lot more to it than pogroms and rabbinics, a chronicle peopled by ancient victims and modern conquerors.

This was the instinct I’d grown up with. My father was obsessed in equal measure with Jewish and British history, and assumed the fit between them. He would take the tiller at the back of a little boat on the Thames puttering along between Datchet and Old Windsor, with some strawberries, scones and a pot of jam in a basket, and talk of Disraeli one minute as though he had known him personally (“Baptised? What difference did that make?”), and the next of Shabbetai Zevi, a 17th-century false Messiah through whom my Dad (and the ancestral Schamas, reposing, large-arsed, on silky divans in Smyrna) had obviously seen (“What a momser [bastard]!”). Or who’d got their Jews right? Walter Scott or George Eliot; the caricaturing Dickens of Oliver Twist or the sentimental Dickens of Our Mutual Friend? We would moor under the willows to wrestle with the pain of Shylock.

It was from my parents, too, that I inherited the sense that the Old Testament was the first written history of all; that, for all the poetic excesses of miracles, it was the scroll of enslavements and liberations, of royal hubris and filial rebellions, of sieges and annihilations, of lawgiving and law breaking: the template on which every other subsequent history would be laid. If my Dad had written it, his history would have been called From Moses to Magna Carta. But he didn’t.

And neither did I, not in the 1970s. I tried, following on from Cecil Roth’s narrative. I moved, intellectually and archivally, around the Venice ghetto, through the Jewish cemetery on the Lido; along the Amsterdam canals where the Portuguese Marranos had camped and, astonishingly, had been permitted to build modest and then grandiose synagogues. I was there in my head at the tricky interview in Whitehall between one kind of godly man, Oliver Cromwell, and quite another kind, the Portuguese-Amsterdam Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, over whether the English were ready to have Jews again amidst them, 360 years after they had been brutally expelled. Somehow, though, the graft wouldn’t take. Perhaps I was haunted by Roth’s possible disapproval of the unconscionable chutzpah of the whole thing: the gripes of Roth, I groaningly declared to friends. I abandoned the effort and then moved off to parts remote from my Jewish background, to Holland and South Carolina, Jacobin Paris and Skara Brae. But through all that time, the lines of the story I might have told stayed dimly present in my thoughts and memories, like relatives tugging gently but insistently at my sleeve at family weddings or funerals (which sometimes they did). Never underestimate the power of a Jewish auntie, much less the silent, patient reproach of a mother.

Coin with pomegranate motif from c140BC-37BC
Coin with pomegranate motif from c140BC-37BC © Bridgeman Picture Library

So in 2009, when Adam Kemp of the BBC arranged a meeting to talk about an idea for a new television documentary series “which you’ll either love or hate”, I knew, somehow, before it was out of his mouth just what was in the offing. There was, I admit, a fleeting Jonah moment. A voice inside me said, “Flee to Joppa, book berth on first ship leaving for Tarshish.” But, then, what good had it done Jonah? So, with gratitude and trepidation, I took hold of the project abandoned all those decades before. This time, the story would have the persuasive power of television behind it, and through the two media – writing and filming – organically interconnected but not identical, I hoped to build exactly that bridge between Jewish and non-Jewish audiences that seemed to elude me 40 years ago.

For all the challenges (three millennia of history in five hours of television and two books), this has been, and still is, a great labour of love. However unequal to the task of its telling (and anyone who thinks otherwise is kidding themself), I rejoice to be narrating this story, not least because the source materials for its narration have been so transformed over the past few decades. Archaeological finds, especially inscriptions from the Biblical period, have given a fresh impression of how that text that would become the heritage of a large part of the world, came into being. Mosaics have been uncovered that radically alter not just our sense of what a synagogue and Jewish worship was but how much of that religion was shared in its forms with paganism and early Christianity. Without forcing the narrative into smiley face pieties, and without playing down the many sorrows that have spotted the story with tears, the history that unfolds is one of the heroism of everyday life as much as that of the grand tragedies.

The book and the television films are full of such little revelations that add up to a culture, the prosaic along with the poetic: a doodle on a child’s Hebrew exercise page from medieval Cairo; battling cats and mice on a sumptuously illustrated Bible from Spain; the touchingly meagre dowry of an Egyptian slave girl from the fifth century BC married to a local Jewish temple official; a Jewish general of a Muslim army in 11th-century Spain watching his soldiers sleep in the ruins of an abandoned fort and composing lines of sombre, beautiful meditation; the great doctor-philosopher Maimonides writing a manual of sexual performance for a wasted Muslim potentate and recommending rubbing a concoction of crushed “saffron ants” on the problematic member for hours on end (therapy or revenge?); a 14th-century Mallorcan Jewish map painter smuggling a little star of David on to his “Catalan Atlas”; the illuminator of the most spectacular Bible produced in the Middle Ages, signing his name in Hebrew letters comprised of acrobatic clowning figures some of them without a stitch on; the heart-rending lament of a survivor of the Spanish massacres of 1391 grieving for the death of his community and of his own son, who was of their number.

For good or ill, too, so much of the material newly unearthed or freshly considered ties together the history of the Jews with everyone else’s. I had been presumptuous to suppose 40 years ago it needed me to do it. The sources, the stories, the images, the architecture, do the work. We historians are just the enablers of their visibility. Those mosaics in the early synagogue are indistinguishable in style and even in content (the sun god Helios often appears at the centre) from pagan places of worship. The breathtaking wall paintings of the fourth century synagogue at Dura-Europos in Syria looks for all the world as though it owes a debt to Byzantine images whereas, in fact, it is their anticipator; Maimonides writes his Guide for the Perplexed in Arabic and every day Jews of his world write that Arabic but in Hebrew letters, making an unconscious or conscious marriage of tongues; well-to-do patrons and bigwigs in Germany hire Christian illuminators to make an imperishable work notwithstanding the fact they sometimes get the Hebrew characters wrong. The former monk Obadiah the Proselyte became a Jew in the 12th century and writes a plainsong chant about Moses that survived in a manuscript kept in the Cairo Geniza, the repository of every imaginable kind of document, and can now be found in the Cambridge university Library.

Much of this is the small stuff of common culture. But the Jewish story has been anything but commonplace. The tale the Jews have survived to tell is one of the most intense known to human history; it is a tale of adversities endured by other peoples too; of a culture perennially resisting its annihilation; of writing the prose and the poetry of life through a succession of uprootings and assaults. This is what makes this story at once particular and universal; the shared inheritance of Jews and non-Jews alike, an account of our common humanity in its splendour and wretchedness, repeated tribulation and infinite creativity, a tale that after those 40 years I felt I had to tell and that, in so many ways, remains one of the world’s imperishable wonders.

The first part of ‘The Story of the Jews’ is on BBC2 on Sunday September 1 at 9pm; the book of the same name is published by Bodley Head on September 12

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2022. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article