Merging with the landscape in Prospect Park, Brooklyn: even Orthodox are models of hybridity. Photograph: Irina Rozovsky.
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On Simon Schama's Story of the Jews: There is no one version of the Jewish past

David Cesarani praises Simon Schama's erudite, playful and personal history reinterpretation of Jewish history.

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000BCE – 1492CE)
Simon Schama
Bodley Head, 512pp, £25

No one writes a history of the Jews without an agenda. The first effort that Jews made to write Jewish history, in a manner recognisable to us as history, was an arresting statement about the Jewish present and, quite explicitly, the Jewish future.

Until the mid-18th century, Jews simply did not think in historical terms. As Simon Schama notes pithily, with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70AD, “Jewish time stops.” Josephus, who chronicled the disaster, was the first and, for centuries, the last Jewish historian. He was comparable to Herodotus but unlike the Greek and Roman historians he had no acolytes. For Jews, the loss of the Temple – and with it self-determination – was a punishment by God. Until the Messiah came, they would be suspended in an eternal present framed by exile and suffering.

Jews escaped this preconception only under the influence of the European Enlightenment and histories that did not ascribe everything to God’s providence. However, Christian scholarship on the Jews was hardly inspiring. European thinkers from Voltaire to Hegel regarded the Jews as a bizarre and unpleasant historical anomaly. Their beliefs and practices were apparently handed down unchanged from biblical times. Some radicals were willing to set aside the charge of deicide but nearly everyone agreed that the Jews were an alien people with obnoxious traits. To most (apart from those radicals), this more than justified their political and social exclusion.

The first histories composed by practitioners of the Jewish Enlightenment were intended to counter this disdain and justify Jewish claims to equality. But these authors, such as Nachman Krochmal and Leopold Zunz, were fighting on two fronts. They wanted to show Gentiles that the Jews had a glorious past but they were also campaigning for reform within Jewish communities, to erase the infamies that critics identified. Their research demonstrated the mutability of Judaism. It suggested that customs considered at odds with the zeitgeist could be amended, or even scrapped. The past became a weapon of change.

Heinrich Graetz, the first notable Jewish historian, was a product of German universities. A Hegelian, he believed that Jewish history was a progression from tribalism towards universalism. He gloried in the Jewish dispersion, because how else could the progenitors of monotheism be a light unto the nations? The hero of his multi-volume history, published between 1853 and 1870, was Moses Mendelssohn, who reformulated Judaism in an Enlightenment idiom. By contrast, Graetz despised the ultra-Orthodox Hasidim of eastern Europe who cleaved to tradition and rejected modernity. Yet he was not just an apologist. He expected that once the Jews shed their objectionable peculiarities, European society would embrace them as equals.

The rise in anti-Semitism towards the end of the 19th century forced Jewish thinkers to reconsider. Simon Dubnow, a Russianeducated scholar, turned his back on the universalistic dream cherished by Graetz. Dubnow had emerged from the Pale of Settlement, where Yiddish-speaking Jews comprised a majority in numerous districts. They lived a semi-autonomous life with many characteristics of a national group. Whereas Graetz renounced Jewish nationality, arguing that Jews were distinguished only by their religion, Dubnow understood Jewish history in terms of nationhood, its loss and the struggle to recover it. The Jewish future would consist of gaining minority rights in the Hapsburg and the Russian empires where most Jews dwelled.

Dubnow’s vision earned the scorn of Zionists. They agreed that the trajectory of Jewish history led to the reawakening of national consciousness and self-rule – but saw this taking place in a Jewish state. Zionism spawned a school of historians who characterised the diaspora as an entirely negative experience, a miasma of powerlessness. To Ben-Zion Dinur, the doyen of the “Jerusalem School”, Jewish history was about charting continuous manifestations of Jewish self-government and the revival of national pride, culminating in the establishment of modern Israel.

Yet the 20th century offered little comfort to Zionists. Rather, it seemed to demonstrate the resilience of Jews in the diaspora. This dynamic appeared self-evident to Salo Baron, the first Jew to hold a chair in Jewish history in the US (at Columbia University, where Schama is now ensconced). Born in a border region of the Austro-Hungarian empire with a dense Jewish population, Baron studied at University of Vienna and migrated to the US. He observed how social and economic movements in one region could lift the Jews, while in another they created circumstances that doomed them.

Unlike Dubnow, Baron did not regard politics as the motor of change in Jewish history. In his 18-volume history of the Jews, the crucial determinants of their fate were international trade, warfare and administrative centralisation in the places where they lived. Nor were Jews the passive objects of political upheaval. They were agents of change, if only by migrating in search of a better life. From his vantage point on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, capitalist urban modernity offered the Jews the most enticing prospect.

In the 1960s, increasing numbers of professional Jewish historians began to graduate from US universities such as Columbia. They identified closely with the dilemmas of Jews in Europe two centuries earlier. Then, thinkers such as Mendelssohn confronted the challenge of Enlightenment rationalism and the possibilities offered by the French Revolution. Was it possible to be a French citizen and an observant Jew? How could Jews emerge from the ghetto without losing their distinctiveness? As Arthur Hertzberg, my teacher at Columbia, put it: “Jewish history became a question of how to enter modernity and still have the kids come home for Friday-night dinner.”

So what is the agenda of Jewish history in a postmodern world? According to the Israeli historian Moshe Rosman, “Postmodernity has led to the emergence of a new, as yet not fully articulated meta-history that can be termed ‘multicultural’.” The unity of the Jewish story has been replaced by a multitude of local histories in which Jews mingle with their surroundings, morphing through varied degrees of hybridity. Jewish identity is constantly under construction and no one period or location is privileged over another. There is no Jewish authenticity. “The essence of Jewish history is diversity.”

Schama fits perfectly into this mould. He begins his narrative not with Abraham and the patriarchs but with a community of soldiers and their families residing on the island of Elephantine in the Nile, around 475BC. These people observed many practices that we associate with Judaism. Brilliantly exploiting the fragmentary sources, Schama evokes their everyday life as well as their beliefs. They were “worldly, cosmopolitan”, speaking the vernacular and interacting with the locals. The first Jews were “obsessed with law and property, money-minded, fashion-conscious, much concerned with the making and breaking of marriages”. It all sounds like Manhattan.

That is the point. Schama is not writing a conventional history of the Jews. Note the title: he is offering stories told by and about Jews. These stories have been chosen artfully to illustrate the syncretic nature of Jewish thought across the ages and from one continent to another; the porous boundaries between those identified as Jews and others around them; the Jews’ voluntary integration as against their periodic forced segregation. His reading of Jewish law and the commentaries, which rabbinical scholars may find selective to say the least, is bent towards demonstrating the inclusivity to be found even among the guardians of ritual purity.

Schama is always readable, with uproariously funny riffs on everything from eccentric archaeologists to rabbinical advice about depilatories. He has a gift for rendering dryas- dust material into the demotic, referring to a bitty inscription as a “Hebrew tweet”. However, this liveliness comes at a price. Anyone expecting to find a conventional account opening with the hoary question of Jewish origins and the veracity of the Bible will be frustrated, not to say confused. Don’t expect to find the prophet Samuel, Saul, his kingly creation, or the tales of David and Solomon. He sidesteps the hallowed preoccupation with the singular genius and unique continuity of the Jews.

Swaths of the book deal with visual representation. Schama’s look at the historicity of the Bible opens with a digression on Victorian explorers, cartographers and painters who depicted the Holy Land. He dwells on the wall paintings of the synagogue at Dura and the mosaics at Zippori, ostensibly because they give an insight into Judaism in its formative stages, around 240AD, following the destruction of the Temple and reification of the oral law. “Judaism as it was being remade was, in some respects, actually constituted from images almost as much as texts.” In this crucial respect, it was linked to, not separated from, the culture around it. The mosaics at Beit She’an show “the openness of Judaism to the cultures amid which it dwelled”. Schama offers a scintillating explanation of illustrated Hebrew manuscripts, notably the earliest Haggadah used for the Passover service, as ocular retorts to the demonic figurations employed to disseminate Judaeophobia after the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215.

There is another reason for this proclivity for visual points. The book is tied to a television series and is driven as much by what could be filmed as by what the primary and secondary sources disclose. Although Schama displays a wide breadth of learning, his book is not overburdened with footnotes and most of the sources are in English. He prefers exciting new revisionist works over plodding, older scholarship. The result is a breezy, often racy series of vignettes, usually centring on a place or a personality, stressing the material and the quotidian. Although Maimonides bulks large and there is a beautifully wrought segment on Hebrew poetry, he barely explores the evolution of Jewish thought.

More problematically, he skips chunks of history too awkward (or dull) to accommodate. A terrifically moving rendition of how Jewish populations in Mainz and Worms were annihilated during the First Crusade, in a chapter puzzlingly titled “Women of Ashkenaz”, opens without any explanation of how Jews got there. The women appear much later, in an eccentric argument based on “some evidence” that as well as figuring prominently in business, they wore prayer shawls and participated in services.

Schama loves to toy with stereotypes, teetering on the brink of decency. From the beginning, “To be Jewish was to be bookish.” The cardo (or main street) in Hellenised Jerusalem was “chapter one in a long history of Jewish shopping”. All Jews “like pickled cucumbers”. When Babylonian rabbis discussed rich women using flour as an abrasive, it was “the first time the Jewish princess takes a bow in literature”. Needless to say, there is a clutch of guilt-tripping Yiddisher mommas. Oh, and Jews are good at business: “There was nowhere Jews wouldn’t go for something precious to sell.”

This is classic Schama: playful, ironic, immensely erudite, exuding humanity. It is also deeply personal, with references to his parents and memories of his boyhood. While The Story of the Jews may not be a comprehensive guide to Jewish history, it is a scintillating reinterpretation that makes the furthest reaches of the Jewish past seem familiar, even contemporary. To some, this will appear a postmodern fad but the gains balance the losses. And it will provide countless boys and girls with much welcome relief from the stodgy volumes that routinely serve as bar and bat mitzvah presents.

David Cesarani is the Research Professor in History at Royal Holloway, University of London

This article first appeared in the 09 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Britain alone

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If you don’t know what a Fwooper is by now, where have you been?

Meet the latest magical characters entering the Harry Potter universe.

Yesterday, the latest and final trailer was released for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them –  the latest Harry Potter franchise film from J K Rowling. Based on an index of magical animals that Rowling released for Comic Relief all the way back in 2001, it naturally features a whole range of strange creatures from the series – with familiar and fresh faces alike.

So, let’s get to know the animals we meet in the latest trailer.

Niffler

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

Any self-respecting Harry Potter fan will remember the niffler. A mole-like fellow mostly found down mines, the niffler’s most distinctive characteristic is its love for (and ability to sniff out) gold. Nifflers were part of Hagrid’s most successful lesson, when he buried leprechaun gold and asked his students to use nifflers to dig up as much as possible – “easily the most fun they had ever had in Care of Magical Creatures”. And who could forget when Lee Jordan, on more than one occasion, released a hairy-snouted niffler into Umbridge’s office, “which promptly tore the place apart in its search for shiny objects, leapt on Umbridge on her reentrance, and tried to gnaw the rings off her stubby fingers”? Some would say the niffler is a distant relative of the New Statesman’s own Media Mole – sniffing out content gold on a daily basis.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Niffler is a British beast. Fluffy, black and long-snouted, this burrowing creature has a predilection for anything glittery. Nifflers are often kept by goblins to burrow deep into the earth for treasure. Though the Niffler is gentle and even affectionate, it can be destructive to belongings and should never be kept in a house. Nifflers live in lairs up to twenty feet below the surface and produce six to eight young in a litter.

An Egg

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A. It’s an egg.

Well, well, well, if it isn’t the guy from Twitter that told me to go fuck myself. Who knows what magical creature is appearing from within this hatching egg – the only animal we’ve seen hatch in the Potterverse before was Noberta the Norwegian Ridgeback dragon, but this egg looks too small to be one of those. Aside from dragons, we know from Fantastic Beasts that Acromantula, Ashwinder serpents, Basilisks, Chimaera, doxies and fairies, Fwoopers, Hippocampi, Hippogriffs, Occamys, Phoenixes, and Runespoor all come from eggs. My money would be on this being the egg of an Occamy – a key player in the next movie – but their eggs are made from pure silver. So I’d guess this belongs to a Fwooper.

Nomaj

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A (but should be XXXXX to be honest)

Meaning “no magic”, this is basically your common or garden variety Muggle, just with a fancy new American name. Look how Muggleish this one is, falling through suitcases like a chump and getting in a muddle about basic magical principles. Get it together, mate! It remains unconfirmed whether this man’s animate moustache is a magical creature in its own right.

Billywig

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

You might not remember billywigs from the Harry Potter series – they only get a couple of passing, esoteric mentions in the final book. But anyone who remembers Fizzing Whizbees – in Ron’s words, “massive sherbert balls that make you levitate a few inches off the ground while you’re sucking them”, will have a tangential relationship with them – according to Fantastic Beasts, they’re a key ingredient in the classic wizarding sweet. These bugs seem to match the billywig description.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Billywig is an insect native to Australia. It is around half an inch long and a vivid sapphire blue, although its speed is such that it is rarely noticed by Muggles and often not by wizards until they have been stung. The Billywig’s wings are attached to the top of its head and are rotated very fast so that it spins as it flies. At the bottom of the body is a long thin sting. Those who have been stung by a Billywig suffer giddiness followed by levitation. Generations of young Australian witches and wizards have attempted to catch Billywigs and provoke them into stinging in order to enjoy these side effects, though too many stings may cause the victim to hover uncontrollably for days on end, and where there is a severe allergic reaction, permanent floating may ensue. Dried Billywig stings are used in several potions and are believed to be a component in the popular sweet Fizzing Whizzbees.

Graphorn

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

This is not a “canon” animal in that it doesn’t appear in the original series. God, it’s weird looking.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Graphorn is found in mountainous European regions. Large and greyish purple with a humped back, the Graphorn has two very long, sharp horns, walks on large, four-thumbed feet, and has an extremely aggressive nature. Mountain trolls can occasionally be seen mounted on Graphorns, though the latter do not seem to take kindly to attempts to tame them and it is more common to see a troll covered in Graphorn scars. Powdered Graphorn horn is used in many potions, though it is immensely expensive owing to the difficulty in collecting it. Graphorn hide is even tougher than a dragon’s and repels most spells.

Fwooper

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXX (Competent wizards should cope)

We see a bright pink bird sail past the Graphorn – I bet this is a Fwooper. Again, not an animal from the seven books, but here’s what we know about it from Fantastic Beasts:

The Fwooper is an African bird with extremely vivid plumage; Fwoopers may be orange, pink, lime green, or yellow. The Fwooper has long been a provider of fancy quills and also lays brilliantly patterned eggs. Though at first enjoyable, Fwooper song will eventually drive the listener to insanity8 and the Fwooper is consequently sold with a Silencing Charm upon it, which will need monthly reinforcement. Fwooper owners require licences, as the creatures must be handled responsibly.

Bowtruckle

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XX (Harmless / may be domesticated)

A fan favourite, maybe because one attacks Harry in a Care of Magical Creatures class, before it “set off at full tilt toward the forest, a little, moving stickman soon swallowed up by the tree roots.” Aw, cute and feisty! Tree guardians that usually live in trees that produce wand wood, they are pretty damn adorable. We know they like to eat fairy eggs, and we can assume they particularly favour doxy eggs: Aberforth once said, “they’ll be onto you like bowtruckles on doxy eggs”.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Bowtruckle is a tree-guardian creature found mainly in the west of England, southern Germany, and certain Scandinavian forests. It is immensely difficult to spot, being small (maximum eight inches in height) and apparently made of bark and twigs with two small brown eyes. The Bowtruckle, which eats insects, is a peaceable and intensely shy creature but if the tree in which it lives is threatened, it has been known to leap down upon the woodcutter or tree-surgeon attempting to harm its home and gouge at their eyes with its long, sharp fingers. An offering of woodlice will placate the Bowtruckle long enough to let a witch or wizard remove wand-wood from its tree.

Nundu

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but pretty damn high we’d assume

Not in the books; not in Fantastic Beasts, definitely fucking weird. Pottermore have invented a Fantastic Beasts entry for it that did not appear in the 2001 book, so I guess we have to go from there.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (on Pottermore):

This east African beast is arguably the most dangerous in the world. A gigantic leopard that moves silently despite its size and whose breath causes disease virulent enough to eliminate entire villages, it has never yet been subdued by fewer than a hundred skilled wizards working together.

Thunderbird

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: N/A, but, again, we’d guess high

Again, this is seemingly a new creation invented for this film. It apparently “senses danger and creates storms as it flies”, and a house of the American Wizarding school Ilvermoney takes its name from this bird, and Pottermore gives a bit of extra detail, supposedly from History of Magic in North America, 1920s Wizarding America:

Shikoba Wolfe, who was of Choctaw descent, was primarily famous for intricately carved wands containing Thunderbird tail feathers (the Thunderbird is a magical American bird closely related to the phoenix). Wolfe wands were generally held to be extremely powerful, though difficult to master. They were particularly prized by Transfigurers.

Occamy

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

A horrific bird-snake, it seems as though Occamys start tiny and cute and end up huge and dangerous. I am intrigued. Again, not one from the books.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Occamy is found in the Far East and India. A plumed, twolegged winged creature with a serpentine body, the Occamy may reach a length of fifteen feet. It feeds mainly on rats and birds, though has been known to carry off monkeys. The Occamy is aggressive to all who approach it, particularly in defence of its eggs, whose shells are made of the purest, softest silver.

Erumpent

Ministry of Magic dangerousness classification: XXXX (Dangerous / requires specialist knowledge / skilled wizard may handle)

We never see an Erumpent in the Harry Potter series, but who could forget the exploding Erumpent horn – “an enormous, gray spiral horn, not unlike that of a unicorn” – at Xenophilius Lovegood’s house? Hermione spots it as “a Class B Tradeable Material and it’s an extraordinarily dangerous thing to have in a house!” We can therefore assume the Erumpent is a risky animal to be around. Also fucking ugly.

From Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them:

The Erumpent is a large grey African beast of great power. Weighing up to a tonne, the Erumpent may be mistaken for a rhinoceros at a distance. It has a thick hide that repels most charms and curses, a large, sharp horn upon its nose and a long, rope-like tail. Erumpents give birth to only one calf at a time. The Erumpent will not attack unless sorely provoked, but should it charge, the results are usually catastrophic. The Erumpent’s horn can pierce everything from skin to metal, and contains a deadly fluid which will cause whatever is injected with it to explode. Erumpent numbers are not great, as males frequently explode each other during the mating season. They are treated with great caution by African wizards. Erumpent horns, tails, and the Exploding Fluid are all used in potions, though classified as Class B Tradeable Materials (Dangerous and Subject to Strict Control).

I’m sure there are loads more creatures to be discovered in the new film – but getting to know this small handful has exhausted me for now!

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.