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Jewish Journal

‘The Story of the Jews’ chronicles Jewish history

by Tom Tugend

March 12, 2014 | 2:40 pm

Simon Schama at Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Photo by Tim Kirby

Simon Schama at Temple Mount, Jerusalem. Photo by Tim Kirby

“The Story of the Jews,” a panoramic overview of 3,000 years of a people’s history, is “a story of suffering, resilience, endurance and survival,” says author Simon Schama, a British historian and professor at Columbia University.

To absorb such a history, not to mention writing and filming it, may seem a lifetime task, but Schama has made the assignment relatively easy and highly stimulating.

Originally produced for the BBC with Schama as narrator and guide, “The Story,” will begin airing on local and national PBS stations on March 25.

As a foretaste, Schama will speak at the Skirball Cultural Center on March 20.

Witty and erudite at 69, Schama is one of those overwhelmingly productive people who makes others realize how little they have accomplished in their lives.

His listed specialties are art history and French history, but his interests range far afield. He is the author of 16 books, including the original “The Story of the Jews,” and is the writer-producer of more than 40 documentaries on art, history and literature, including a 15-part series on British history.

His current production follows a roughly chronological path but frequently jumps centuries to introduce an illustrative anecdote or personality.

For instance, part one, appropriately titled “In the Beginning,” starts with a 1938 interview with Sigmund Freud on the roots of Jewish life, followed by a seder at Schama’s home.

From there, the film returns to the Jews’ true beginning in the ancestral land — home to Judean hill people and coastal Philistines.

Further on, the Exodus from Egypt is compared to an eyewitness account of the journey of today’s Ethiopian Jews to Israel, and then moves on to the Greek era in Palestine in fourth-century BCE, followed by the Roman conquest.

Not one to skip an illustrative tidbit, Schama notes that in an early attempt at assimilation during the Hellenistic period, a number of Jews underwent the probably painful rite of reverse circumcision.

 “Among Believers,” the second segment, raises for the first time the question of how to stay Jewish in a non-Jewish world, following the Roman conquest and dispersion of the Jews.

The narrator then explores the expansion of the oral tradition into the Talmud, the rise of Christianity and St. Paul as originator of the “Christ killers” accusation against Jews.

In Europe, all Jews were expelled from England in 1066, with Spain and Portugal following in the late 15th century. However, Jews fared better in the Muslim world, which was home to 90 percent of all Jews in the Middle Ages.

In “A Leap of Faith,” the third installment, the “certainty of Jewish tradition” meets gentile culture in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The French Revolution assumed that Jews would shed their Judaism, thus solving the “Jewish problem.” In parallel, German Jews threw themselves wholeheartedly into the culture of their host country in what Schama describes as the “greatest human leap in the shortest time.”

The overt anti-Semitism of the turn-of-the-20th-century Alfred Dreyfus trial in France, and the rise of fascism and Nazism, put an end to the hopes and illusions of Europe’s Jews.

“Over the Rainbow,” the fourth part, surveys life in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the mass migration of some 2.5 million Jews to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, of whom some 65 percent crammed into New York’s Lower East Side.

Rising through and above the hardships, Jews became the country’s bankers, merchant princes, moviemakers and songwriters. Among the latter, Yip Harburg wrote the theme song of the Great Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

 The final segment, “Return,” brings the story up to date with the rise of Zionism and the creation of Israel. Schama points to one aspect through parallel interviews, exploring the displacement of 700,000 Palestinian Arabs in the 1948 war, and the expulsion of the same number of Jews from Arab countries.

The Six-Day and Yom Kippur wars reinforce the old antagonisms, while, on a more hopeful note, Arab and Jewish youngsters are shown studying peacefully together in the same school.

The idea for the massive project, Schama said in a phone interview, came from the BBC, which has come under frequent criticism from pro-Israel advocates.

It took him nearly four years to create the series, in the process shooting two to three times the footage used in the final product.

The end result is notable for its visual impact and variety. “We knew we had to tell the history in images,” Schama said, adding, “It’s a misreading to believe that Judaism is hostile to images.”

Particularly effective is the use of Hebrew calligraphy, with letters morphing into stick figures of walking humans. Schama said he used the device to illustrate that “God created the universe out of letters … and a culture survives through its words.”

A major goal of the project was to make Jewish history accessible to non-Jewish audiences, he said, adding, “If you were to remove from [mankind’s] collective history the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable.

“There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history, too.”

Asked to predict the next installment in Jewish history, Schama struck a somewhat pessimistic note, pointing, for instance, to the time and difficulties in reaching a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

“I’m less gloomy about the future of the Charedim and I consider Limmud [devoted to non-denominational Jewish learning] one of the brighter spots,” he said.

But whatever the future holds for the history of the Jewish people, he noted, “We have written some of the chapters, but the book is not finished.”

“The Story of the Jews” will air on PBS SoCal (KOCE) on March 25 from 8 to 10 p.m. and April 1 from 8 to 11 p.m.

Schama’s talk at the Skirball begins at 8 p.m. on March 20. Admission is free but reservations are recommended. Sign up online at skirball.org/programs/simon-schama or call (877) 722-4849.

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