I've been watching this week episodes of Simon Schama's "The Story of the Jews," broadcast on PBS during late March and early April, now available live-streamed (for a time) at pbs.org.
Like much good television, this is a BBC production, broadcast last September in Britain. And Schama is a British historian, although at 69 he teaches history and art history at Columbia University.
Five hours may sound a little intimidating in this age of instant, even to cover 3,000 years of history, but the story is beautifully and engagingly told. Not as a grand sweeping narrative, narrated from above as some have put it --- but from the bottom, the middle and various unexpected sideways angles.
The story-telling begins, for example, at the London home of Sigmund Freud, atheist although profoundly Jewish, driven from Germany as the Nazis rose to power, who spent his final years exploring cultural and religious identity.
Artifacts as diverse as architectural detail, a scrap of papyrus and a gorgeously illuminated medieval Hebrew Bible serve as launching points for various aspects of the stunning visual and spoken narrative. (There's also a book, not "companion" but predecessor, and Schama is working on a second volume.)
Although the Holocaust always is in the background, the foreground or circling round, it is not dealt with episodically. As Schama said, he did not want his accounting to be perceived of as "the road to the Holocaust." It is instead a story of endurance, great beauty and remarkable survival.
It's can be a mild challenge to watch the series from a culturally Christian perspective. A friend, for example, was modestly miffed to find church father John Chrysostom featured in one of the episodes (the Prayer of St. Chrysostom is embedded in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer and frequently used; and he is revered as a church father in Orthodox, Roman Catholic and various protestant traditions).
Chrysostom also was a vile anti-semite, however, as was Martin Luther and many other "fathers," an early author of the poisonous myths about Jews resurrected at convenient times as the church careened through its briefer history to demonize those still growing from the religious and cultural root to which Christianity attached itself.
And it's also tempting to become a little preoccupied with that devilish demonizing madness still embedded in the soul of Christianity that continues to influence its dealings with the "other."
But it's useful to let loose of all that for a time, just watch and allow Schama to tell the story, which some have described accurately as an "impassioned personal essay."