Samuel anoints David in this 2nd-century synagogue fresco uncovered at Dura-Europos, eastern Syria © Bridgeman

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE – 1492CE, by Simon Schama, Bodley Head, RRP£25, 512 pages

A few Septembers ago I was in Toledo, and gravitated towards my favourite spot in Spain, the enchanting Tránsito synagogue. A festival of Jewish culture had brought crowds to the square outside, where local people dressed in Hasidic costume ran stalls selling Hebrew books and snacks as kosher as a pig’s trotter. Moreover, this was a Saturday, when no Hasid would be seen dead running a market stall. So it was a caricature of Jewish life, based more on eastern European models than the rich culture of medieval Toledo, the city of the three religions.

The question is how one can break from the stereotypes that have dominated the writing of Jewish history: the image of an inward-looking people, uninterested in making converts, subject to unremitting persecution and pushed into unsavoury economic activities, especially moneylending. Historians are at last heeding the warning of Salo Baron that Jewish history is not all a lachrymose chronicle of persecution. It is hard to understand why Jews would filter back to places where they had suffered great hardship at the hands of crusaders, local mobs or ill-disposed rulers if a good many people had not made them welcome. In medieval Marseille, where Jews were well integrated into local life, Christians would rush to their defence when they were accused in court.

In The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE – 1492CE, Simon Schama has done a splendid job in challenging the stereotypes. His spirited, immensely enjoyable and wide-ranging account – the first of two projected volumes – takes us from the time when we can begin to talk about the Jews as a people and a religious community up to the traumatic moment of their expulsion from Spain, the land where they had seemed most secure and had risen to the greatest heights in scholarship and even government.

Towards the end Schama does pile up the woes, and his graphic portrayal of the deterioration in Spain needs to be balanced by the story of Jewish settlement in Italy, Poland and parts of Germany. Sometimes he lets the stereotypes prevail: interfering Jewish mothers; people who kvetch (a Yiddish word for constantly complaining). But as he says, the Jews of early medieval Cairo, about whom we know an enormous amount because a massive rubbish heap of their letters and sacred documents has survived, “were not a people who went around with their heads bowed, austerely dressed”. Still less was that the case for Joseph ibn Naghrela, a vizier of 11-century Granada, who possibly created the first luxurious palace on the Alhambra hill, or Samuel Abulafia, whose 14th-century Tránsito synagogue is covered with inscriptions glorifying him and the king of Castile whom he served as treasurer (and who before long had him executed).

For success bred resentment in the host society. Muslim rules about the subordination of Jews (and Christians) were generally applied lightly; as the historian Bernard Lewis has said, the Jews were second-class citizens but citizens nonetheless, part of the fabric of society. In the Christian world the situation was more complicated. St Augustine insisted that the task of the Jews was to carry the books known to Christians as the Old Testament that would prove the truth of Christianity if they were read properly as prophecies of the coming of Christ. The Jews’ dispersal marked their humiliation and loss of power, for their task was to serve Christianity as blind “witnesses to the truth”. This provided them with a legitimate place in society, but it also, over time, gave popes (oddly, almost invisible in this book) and kings the chance to proclaim that they were their servants. It meant that the English kings could insist that Jewish wealth was actually the king’s property: when the wealthy financier Aaron of Lincoln died in 1186, that was good news for the Treasury.

Another very welcome strand in Schama’s account is the sheer variety of Judaism and the Jews. He mobilises the latest archaeological discoveries to argue that King David was not pure myth, even if it is hard to be sure that the Israelites were strict monotheists. But he begins his book in the fifth century BCE, 500 miles down the Nile, with the Jewish garrison at Elephantine. These Jews operated their own temple, with priests and sacrifices, though the Bible fulminated against any temple other than that in Jerusalem. By the early Middle Ages, becoming Jewish was fashionable; to say that Jews rejected proselytes is to repeat another stereotype. There were Arabian Jews who ruled a kingdom in Yemen; and there was Khazaria, a Turkic empire that existed between the seventh and 10th centuries in the northern Caucasus and what is now Ukraine and southern Russia, whose khans accepted Judaism.

It is a pity that Schama does not engage with the views of Shlomo Sands in The Invention of the Jewish People (2010) about the sheer scale of conversion to Judaism in late antiquity. Sands, a professor of history at Tel Aviv University, greatly overstated his case to serve a political agenda but there were Berber Jews aplenty in north Africa.

Schama passes over the Karaites, an influential group of Jews who rejected the great body of rabbinic learning, the Talmud (he also bypasses Jesus). The dissemination of rabbinic Judaism between the second and the sixth centuries effected a great revolution, changing a religion of the temple into a religion of the synagogue. Indeed, in many ways Christianity perpetuated Temple Judaism more faithfully, with its ranks of priests and its regular sacrifices (in the form of the Mass). Described by recent popes as the “elder brother” of Christianity, rabbinic Judaism was really the younger brother, and paid a price for that when medieval friars noticed the gap between rabbinic law and the prescriptions of the Pentateuch. They could then argue that these were not the Jews whom Augustine tolerated, but new, heretical Jews who must be converted or expelled.

Beyond the Talmud, there were Hebrew poets, whose work, religious and erotic, Schama expounds with particular sensitivity. Their adoption of Arabic metre reveals the constant religious and cultural interaction between Jews, Muslims and Christians, and before that pagans, which at times was expressed through shared ceremonies and even saints; Judaism was not isolated from its neighbours.

Binyamin Tsedakah, the current leader of the Samaritans, maintains that the reason the Jews have survived, while the Samaritans (who claim descent from the ancient kingdom of Israel) now number only a few hundred, is that the Jews were dispersed across the continents, whereas most Samaritans stayed put, and were largely put to the sword by competing rulers of the Holy Land. The dispersal of the Jews thus proved a good strategy for survival, despite the tragedies they faced, and Schama has expressed both the triumphs and the tragedies with irrepressible enthusiasm and his customary eloquence.

David Abulafia is professor of Mediterranean history at the University of Cambridge and author of ‘The Great Sea’ (Penguin)

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