Simon Schama has become the great popularizer of our time through the application of an infectious passion to his encyclopedic knowledge of history.
In addition to the long list of his books about art and history, he is best known both in his native England and in the U.S. for various television documentaries, including the 15-part series “A History of Britain,” linked to a trilogy of books.
Schama brings a whole new level of passion to his latest project, the documentary series “The Story of the Jews,” based on his newly released book of the same title, but it’s that level of passion that at times threatens to derail what is otherwise one of his most ambitious projects.
As a film, the five-part series on PBS is overstuffed with information and perspective. Yet it is occasionally a tough slog, especially in the first two episodes, before Schama settles into a better-organized and more chronological approach to telling one of the most complex stories in human existence.
Although the first episode is titled “In the Beginning,” Schama doesn’t take us back to the Garden of Eden, Noah and the ark, Jonah and the whale, Lot’s wife or most of the familiar stories we know from the Bible.
Instead, we find ourselves in Sigmund Freud’s London home, where the founder of psychoanalysis lived out his final years after fleeing from Austria after its annexation by Nazi Germany in 1938.
Although he called himself “a Godless Jew,” Freud never lost his Jewish identity and numbered among his most prized possessions a 13th-century traveling menorah.
Throughout the series, Schama offers his conviction that being a Jew is about much more than religious beliefs.
At another point, we meet Moses Mendelssohn, an 18th-century German Jewish philosopher considered a key figure in the Jewish Enlightenment (Haskalah), which marked a movement among many Jews to become part of the mainstream of society in the 18th and 19th centuries.
His grandson, the composer Felix Mendelssohn, was Christian, but it takes only a few sweetly doleful notes of one of his compositions to prove that, his religion notwithstanding, the composer’s Jewish heritage was not to be denied.
The episode introduces us to other figures, such as the historian Josephus, who witnessed the destruction of the Jewish High Temple in Jerusalem, and takes us to the Jewish island community of Elephantine in the upper Nile River where, in the sixth century B.C., Jews lived in relative harmony with polytheistic Egyptians, until, inevitably, they didn’t.
Taking a second to recover from the mild case of “If it’s 1492, this must be Spain,” we take away Schama’s overarching point that the richness of Jewish culture owes directly to the constant need to “keep their suitcases packed,” no matter where in the diaspora they might be.
The hard times
Jews were welcomed by various communities when they were perceived to have something to offer. When things went bad, Jews were expelled or worse, regardless of their contributions to the culture and economy of the community.
The Enlightenment was a time of great hope for European Jews, who believed they could better control their own destiny with greater participation in secular matters. Accordingly, Jews had a profound impact on philosophy, the arts and commerce.
Among the most influential 19th-century Jews was a man born Jacob Liebmann Beer who became the composer Giacomo Meyerbeer – the name itself emblematic of the marriage of Christian and Jewish culture. Meyerbeer shook up the opera world with spectacular productions of works such as “Robert Le Diable,” featuring a ballet of nuns.
Early in his career, composer Richard Wagner was the beneficiary of Meyerbeer’s patronage and guidance, particularly during the creation of his early opera “Rienzi.”
In 1850, however, the future composer of the Ring Cycle wrote an essay titled “Jewishness in Music,” which argued that Jewish influences had a detrimental effect on the quality and purity of German music.
Once again, the light of hope was beginning to be threatened.
There are challenges to watching “The Story of the Jews.” Schama doesn’t always define the Hebrew and Yiddish words he scatters through his narrative. At times, he also omits information that could be useful. For example, at one point, he walks into “one of Rome’s oldest Christian churches,” but neglects to tell us its name.
From the streets of New York and the sound studios of Hollywood, where E.Y. “Yip” Harburg and Harold Arlen wrote “Over the Rainbow,” we suddenly find ourselves in the eastern Mediterranean in 1948 as the state of Israel is established.
Did we miss something?
Yes, and it’s intentional.
In between came the Holocaust, an event so cataclysmic it defies description. Some may question this seeming omission, but the absence of a sizable sequence about the Holocaust is a reminder that “The Story of the Jews” is, yes, a story of travail and challenge, but it is ultimately, and very much in the present tense, one of survival.