The Genial Time Traveler


The great Jewish historian Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, who died in 2009, famously declared that history was "the faith of fallen Jews." Yerushalmi had trained under the preeminent 20th-century Jewish historian Salo Baron, whose epic (and unfinished) 18-volume A Social and Religious History of the Jews was celebrated for its paradigm-shifting rejection of the "lachrymose" view of Jewish history. Despite a life lived in the shadow of Jewish history's most lachrymose moment--both his parents were murdered in the Ho-locaust--Baron insisted that Jewish history was defined not by dying but by living, by the astonishing creativity and vitality of an ever-changing Jewish culture.

But his student Yerushalmi was convinced that the time for monumental Jewish histories had passed, if it had ever existed. Instead, Yerushalmi's most powerful work was a slim volume called Zakhor (Remember), a beautifully devastating critique of Jewish history-writing as being at odds with Judaism itself. Judaism, Yerushalmi claimed, was and still is a culture of memory rather than history, animated by several deep beliefs: that time repeats, that "divine providence is ... an active causal factor in Jewish history," and "the related belief in the uniqueness of Jewish history." The "faith of fallen Jews" is the modern Jewish historian's ongoing faith in that uniqueness, even without its accompanying faith in God. "I live," Yerushalmi wrote, "within the ironic awareness that the very mode in which I delve into the Jewish past represents a decisive break with that past."

Simon Schama appears to be blissfully unaware of this paradox. A British Jew and renowned historian who earned fame for his work on modern Europe, Schama strolls blithely into Jewish history's historian-eating jaws of death with his very own two-volume, The Stoty of the Jews (the first volume just published, the second due out later this year), and a PBS series to match. Somehow he manages to suggest that no one has ever done this before.

It is important to appreciate Schama's achievement in The Story of the Jews, and to separate that achievement from the underlying problem with the project itself. For the book is indeed a great accomplishment. In The Story of the Jews, Schama has taken a culture that has a famously high bar for entry (ask any convert--or any "fallen" Jew, for that matter) and has turned it into something that plays remarkably well on PBS. When one considers the "lachrymose" elements of Jewish history, this is no small feat. The BBC version was viewed by three million people in a country with a Jewish population in the low six figures. Such statistics attest to the wide appeal of Schama's storytelling, which he sustains, for the most part, by shifting his focus away from the lachrymose parts as best he can--or at least starting out that way.

In order to do this, he has to tell a Jewish story that is high on quirk. Instead of beginning the Jewish story with Abraham or Moses, or even the importance of those legendary figures despite their dubious histo-ricity--or with the Israelite kingdoms, whose archaeological evidence he later probes quite deeply--he opens his book on Egypt's Elephantine Island, where a 5th-century letter arrives from "a father and mother ... worrying about their son." Elephantine, an outpost of the Persian empire in the 7th-5th century BCE, was a garrison city with many Jewish mercenary soldiers and their families living "side by side" with non-Jewish Egyptians, even building their own temple (yes, while the Jerusalem temple still stood) across the street from an Egyptian shrine. Elephantine happens to be hugely documented, thanks to the discovery of a massive ancient Jewish archive there. Schama goes to great lengths to tell us how normal and familiar Jewish-Egyptian relations there were--until they weren't, in the year 410 BCE, to the tune of a razed temple and violent riots. But let's focus on when they were, Schama insists, at least at first. …

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