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Simon Schama takes on a big topic: the history of the Jews

Three thousand years covered in five hours of TV. British historian Simon Schama's 'The Story of the Jews' heads to PBS. 'What ties us together is a story,' he says in the opening episode.

March 21, 2014|By Scott Timberg
  • Historian Simon Scharma
Historian Simon Scharma (Michael Robinson Chavez…)

When telling a tale that includes centuries of endurance, moments of triumph, bursts of humor and sudden, unspeakable atrocities, what's the right tone with which to articulate it all?

That's the trick historian Simon Schama had to figure out in his new documentary, "The Story of the Jews," which begins in the Middle Eastern desert about 3,000 years ago and tracks up to the more-or-less present. The program, in five hourlong parts, broadcasts on PBS on Tuesday and April 1.

"I wanted to say, without putting on a ridiculous smiley face or making light of the tragic aspects, that there is a story to be told beyond one clearly framed by the assumption of catastrophe," the British historian said in Pasadena. "No one's going to accuse me of doing this program as light entertainment."

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It means, for Schama, looking squarely at early Jewish persecution in the Holy Land, Russian pogroms and the Holocaust as well as the moments when things worked between Jews and those they lived among and the bright and sensuous and funny expressions of Jewish culture that blossomed along the way.

Schama, who's written extensively about visual art, is especially interested in places where he sees dramatic and unexpected cultural blendings: Spanish stucco work made by Jews but drawing from the Islamic tradition or Jewish mosaics in Tunisia that extend the imagery of the classical world. It reminds him of the measures of harmony sometimes overlooked.

"There are moving, powerful, upsetting moments in the later programs in particular," he says. "But they do not dominate."

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The documentary's governing notion seems to be that despite huge differences in complexion, religion, music, food, geography and so on, the Jewish people still have a few things in common. Thousands of years of Jewish history — and that the term "Jewish" refers to both a religion and an ethnic group — means an especially wide range. Sigmund Freud was a German-speaking atheist living in London near the end of his life but considered himself profoundly Jewish.

As Schama says in the program's opening episode, "What ties us together is a story, a story kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering and resilience, endurance and creativity. It's the story that made me want to be a historian in the first place." In short, "we told our story to survive — we are our story."

And despite his attempt to look at brighter moments, he can't escape a kind of gallows humor that may be woven as deeply into Jewish identity as storytelling. "Is Jewish culture," he asks in the first episode, "always about expecting the worst?"

Back to Abraham

The story of the Jews goes back something like 4,000 years, to the patriarch Abraham seeking the promised land and a covenant with his god. "The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama" — the program's full title — has a more conventional origin: The historian, whose best-known work includes the Emmy-winning film "The Power of Art" and the 15-part documentary "The History of Britain," was asked by the BBC to take on the project. Despite his long-standing cultural connections — he's not especially religious — Schama had not written extensively about Jewish topics for almost four decades. It seemed time to jump in.

The ensuing program, which aired on Britain's BBC2 last September, was a popular and critical hit; the Observer's Andrew Anthony called it "an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark." An accompanying book, "The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD" — came out in Britain last year and this month here; a sequel, "When Words Fail: 1492-Present," will appear in the fall.

With thousands of years of history over five hours, Schama and crew chose to concentrate on broad themes. The first episode, "In the Beginning," looks at the emergence of the Jewish tribe, its earliest rituals and wanderings, the importance of the Torah, and the Roman destruction of the Jerusalem Temple. Some of this episode was inspired by material Schama found at the Brooklyn Museum about a Jewish community on an island in the Nile: It showed him that the culture, even early on, often thrived in exile.

"These are Jews asking their correspondents in Jerusalem about which day to celebrate Passover, but they're living in Egypt, with no intention of going anywhere else. They're living lives of wonderful suburban banality: They're not creating philosophy or commenting on the Bible, but koshering up [converting] slave girls and having bling-y weddings," he says.

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