Friday, April 04, 2014

Simon Schama's "The Story of the Jews"

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

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."


Charles M. Wright said...

Frank, this is a superb review of Schama's series -- most of which I have been able to catch. It deserves publication in IPTV's monthly bulletin "Advance," a day by day calendar of the offerings on Iowa's Public Television Network. I trust "The Story of the Jews" will be available for purchase from PBS. I'd like to gift a copy of it to my cousin Wanda and her husband Haim in Colorado Springs who've memorialized Haim's family in the National Holocaust Museum in Washington. Nearly all of Haim's family perished, victims of the Nazis, in the region of the former Yugoslavia known as Macedonia.

Buzz Malone said...

I just recently ordered the first book and I am excited to read it. I have missed the series on TV, but plan on purchasing it when it is released as well. Lorri and I have invested a great deal of time studying Jewish history and a few months ago journeyed to the Holocaust Museum to gift a series of historical letters we discovered at auction between a Jewish US Representative and his constituent, in 1937, as they unsuccessfully sought to get a family out of Germany. It was the earliest such account the museum had yet encountered.

What strikes me most about not only the Holocaust, but the entire story of the Jewish people, is not the poignancy of a the story of a single people, but the encapsulation of the story of humanity itself. Everything decent and wonderful and horrible and depraved about the human experience becomes palpable as you immerse yourself into the history of the Jewish people.

In one century, European Christians were passing laws prohibiting anyone but Jewish farmers from lending (even if they often did so with Christian funds). A century later, they are condemned for being money changers by the same Christians.

But through all of their suffering also emerges the greatest triumphs and inspirations. Just as we, as a human race, through all of our self inflicted horrors, endure to ascend to moments of grace and artful perfection, and we look, always ahead, into the eyes of infants and aspire vicariously toward a future of hope and love and understanding for all of humanity.

Just as the elderly holocaust survivor we met at the museum talked of her countless losses, and ended in the next breath with the tale of the accomplishments of each of her children and grandchildren, all of which came as the direct result of her own will to merely survive, to eat, to breathe, and to look ever into the future with hope.