“I’m a Zionist,” Simon Schama announces, halfway through The Story Of The Jews. It is, he concedes, a loaded term, but he’s “quite unapologetic about it.” By the time Schama declares this personal stake in the story he’s telling, viewers should understand what he means. At that point, he’s just finished describing how the journalist Theodor Herzl was moved to write The Jewish State, in which, after witnessing the railroading of Alfred Dreyfus, he argued that the Jewish people were in need of their own homeland. In Herzl’s view, people of his ethnicity and religion had been consistently demonized and exiled whenever they seemed to be on the verge of finding a home in Gentile society.
All this comes in one of the more upbeat episodes of The Story Of The Jews, “A Leap Of Faith,” which largely deals with Jewish contributions to music and opera, and the rewards reaped from it. One of the heroes of this section is composer Arnold Schoenberg, who, Schama relates, did not go out of his way to identify himself as a Jew until he was taken aback by some ugly comments by the painter Wassily Kandinsky. When confronted, Kandinsky tried to make peace with Schoenberg by assuring him that he was one of the “exceptions” to the run of distasteful Jews. He was pouring gasoline on a fire. Schoenberg’s reply came in a long letter in which he asserted that “I do not want to be an exception,” and declared, “I am not a German, not a European, indeed perhaps scarcely a human being (at least the Europeans prefer the worst of their race to me), but I am a Jew.” Schama dryly notes, “When the Nazis came to power 10 years later, they agreed with him.”
In addition to being a Zionist, Schama is a great popular historian, who breaks off huge chunks of history and distills them for a mass audience with lucidity and wit. He’s a towering figure in the tradition of BBC hosts such as Civilisation’s Kenneth Clark and The Shock Of The New’s Robert Hughes. Having so mastered their fields and achieved such verbal deftness, these presenters need only their mouths and a travel budget to make great TV.
Schama demonstrates the former attribute as he opens the series, describing a story of people who are not linked “by the color of our skin, not the language we speak, the tunes we sing, the food we eat, not our opinions.” Instead, he continues, it’s “loyalty to the God of words.” At one point, Schama reverently examines an ancient, richly illustrated Hebrew Bible, “a book so enticing that you want to live inside its pages.” His heroes are those who’ve used their brains and language to try to make sense of their world and the history of their people. The debut episode begins with Sigmund Freud, ailing and in exile, working on Moses And Monotheism; Schama then flashes back to the days of the Greek and Roman empires, when assimilationist Jews submitted to “reverse circumcisions,” described by Schama as “an eye-watering procedure, involving weights and pulleys.” He then touches on the life of the Jewish historian Josephus, who was shunned for having defected after the First Jewish-Roman War, rather then do the noble thing and commit suicide. But as Schama sees it, when Josephus finally examined his own identity—doing so through the example of Moses, setting a precedent for Freud—“this compromised, sycophantic, creepily self-exonerating historian stands tall, brimming with pride in his Judaism.”
On one level, The Story Of The Jews is a series of betrayals and slanders. Felix Mendelssohn—another great composer of Jewish heritage who was “in denial” about his Jewishness—helps the young Richard Wagner to get ahead in his career, only to find himself the target of Wagner’s poisonous, ferocious anti-Semitism. Centuries earlier, the Jews are welcomed into Britain, where nobility circumvents religious prohibition against usury, thanks to loans from Jews willing “to take the sin on themselves.” (Schama calls it “a theological sweetheart deal.”) Richard II’s eventual expulsion of the Jewish people would, the host says, relieve “everyone of the inconvenience of paying back the debt.”
The series isn’t simply a downer, though. Schama keeps finding reason for hope and new heroes. Heroes like Yip Harburg, who, with his collaborator Jay Gorney, created a “Depression anthem” with the song “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” by grafting “the poetry and passion of Lower East Side politics” onto the melodic framework of a Yiddish lullaby. For Schama, the spirit of Jewishness is embodied in the belief that rationality and faith can defeat violence and cruelty, a belief that, he says, some might have expected to have ended at Auschwitz. “But it didn’t end. It never does end. It moves elsewhere… where there’s the possibility of the decency and the nobility of an ordinary life.”