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

Photo: Barry Lewis / Alamy
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Special Brew with George

My time in the gutter taught me how much the homeless deserve our compassion.

George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint across the road from Stockwell Tube station. Sometimes you’ll see other people begging there, but mostly this is George’s pitch. He’s a wizened man with the weathered-walnut complexion of the long-term street sleeper and addict-alcoholic. George is small and very thin and has hardly any teeth; I rather like him.

His backstory will be familiar to anyone who has ever taken an interest in the homeless: his father a drug addict who died young; his mother an alcoholic who couldn’t cope. George and his sister were in and out of care throughout their early childhood and then vanished into the system.

I haven’t been able to get from George a straight account of the events that precipitated him into a gutter near me, but that is not surprising: alcoholics are usually pretty resentful people, and because they are so ill-used by their malady it is difficult for them to distinguish between the world’s bemerding and the shit they’ve got themselves into. George speaks of a young daughter’s untimely death and an estranged wife. Once he had both a home of his own and a decent trade – plastering – but now he gets plastered to forget about everything he’s lost.

I first began chatting to George in the autumn – chatting to him and giving him a pound or two. He’s good at begging, George: he keeps eye contact and speaks politely while maintaining an unthreatening demeanour. But anyway, I give money to homeless beggars: that’s my thing. I never ended up on the street myself, but 20 years of drug addiction will lead you down some crooked and filthy alleyways of human experience. I’ve begged for money in the street and got high with the homeless enough times not to shy away instinctively from their lowly estate. From time to time I’ll join them on their cardboard palliasses and take a swig of Special Brew.

Thomas Hobbes averred that charity exists solely in order to relieve the rich man of the burden of his conscience, but I’ve no wish to be so eased: I welcome the burden of my conscience, because it keeps my eyes down on the ground, where they are more likely to spot the Georges of this world, who are as deserving of our compassion as anyone.

I don’t consider giving money to homeless beggars to be an act of charity. I view it more as a redistribution of the tokens required for food, shelter and the warming overcoat of intoxication. I also prefer to give my money directly to people who need it, rather than having this act gussied up as something “fun” for me, or as a means of providing wealthy young people with ­careers in the charitable sector that give them a good conscience. Hence George and his predecessors – because usually, at any given time, I have a redistributive relationship with someone of his ilk.

The Big Issue vendors now wear fluorescent tabards that proclaim “A hand-up not a handout”, and of course I appreciate that many concerned people are working flat out trying to get the homeless off the streets and socially reintegrated; but as the years have passed, and all sorts of welfare provision have been pruned and cut and pruned some more, so the position of the Georges of this world – slumped beneath the vomitous cashpoints like so many personifications of the rising Gini coefficient – has come to seem altogether intractable.

***

As the winter nights drew in, I got to know George better, and as a consequence began giving him more money. After all, it may be easy to leave nameless hordes lying in the streets on frigid nights, but not people you actually know. If he was too obviously on the lash I’d proffer only a fiver or a tenner. Not because I’m judgemental, though – far from it. In my view, it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a tenner on booze or a bag of smack if you’re on the streets; it’s just that if George is bingeing he starts spinning yarns to hook in more drug money, and nobody likes being taken for a mug. However, if he was staying sober and going to AA meetings I’d dob George £15 for a night in a backpackers’ hostel.

Like many of the homeless, George avoids the free hostels, which can be veritable cesspits of abuse; he thinks he’s better off sleeping out, which may be true some of the time, but not in the cold and wet, because people die out there, they really do. The outreach workers do the rounds of our cities’ parks and wastelands every morning in the winter, shaking the figures bundled up in sleeping bags to check they’re still breathing.

At my instigation George got back in touch with the local authority’s services, because, along with the Big Issue’s hand-up, the only way for a street-sleeping alcoholic to clamber out of the gutter is for him to re-enter the system.

I live only three hundred yards from George’s pitch, and his bash (the rough sleepers’ term for an improvised shelter)is equidistant. On one faintly delirious occasion in December I was standing on the first-floor walkway of the former council block my flat’s in, talking to my Labour councillor about an unrelated local matter, when George crawled out from a concrete cranny off the courtyard below, where he had evidently spent the night. I observed to Councillor Bigham that we really should be doing more for the likes of George, and he agreed.

However, to me, George’s situation had begun to seem not so much a failure in social provision as a cosmic solecism. Since the resurgence of so-called Victorian values under the Thatcher regime, it’s become de rigueur to regard poverty as epithetic rather than environmental. The undeserving poor, it seems, are now all around us, victims of little besides their own bad character. But my feeling is that once a man or a woman is caught in the Kafka-like trap of homelessness, all bets are off: without a house you can’t get a job; without a job you certainly can’t get a house, and actually, it’s pretty bloody hard to get one even if you do have a job; of which more later.

A few days before Christmas George had a fit as a result of alcohol withdrawal and ended up in the nearby St Thomas’ Hospital for three nights. As soon as he was well enough to walk, he was pointed in the direction of the door. Then came some encouraging news: the local authority’s rough sleepers’ team had managed to secure George an inpatient detox. He’d have to wait a few weeks, but this time, after patching him up, they would also secure him some form of temporary accommodation, and then he’d have at least a hand on the ladder back into ordinary society. An ordinary society in which the bailiffs were already waiting for George with a view to collecting £4,000 in unpaid debts – because nowadays, no matter how stony broke someone is, the presumption remains that there’s blood to be squeezed from them.

On the day he went into the rehab facility I breathed a sigh of relief – but that evening I spotted the bowed and Buddhistic figure back under the cashpoint. Within hours of being admitted, George had got into a scrap with another client and been discharged, with the rider that he was not to be admitted to any London detox facility.

The good news is that today George does have another place secured at a facility; but now he’ll be heading to the West Country for a full three months of rehab – if, that is, he can hold out for another three weeks on the streets of Lambeth. This week, with my assistance, he’s gone to visit his sister in Liverpool – another child of the oxymoronic “care system” who, unsurprisingly, seems to have all the same issues as George, with this exception: she is at least housed. Why? Because she has a child, although, if George’s account is to be believed, she has some difficulties in looking after him. I get the impression that drink is often taken.

***

What does the sorry – and, some might say, drab – tale of George tell us? That the housing crisis in Britain is intractable seems a given, so long as planning policy is rigged, in effect, in favour of unscrupulous developers and the bourgeois buy-to-let bandits. The rising tide of neoliberalism in the past quarter-century (which I can’t help visualising as a vomitous tsunami coursing along London’s gutters) has had this psychic sequel: individuals no longer connect their dream of home ownership with anyone else’s.

We Britons are once-and-future Mr Wemmicks, firing our toy guns from our suburban battlements at anyone who dares to do anything in our backyards aimed at improving the commonwealth. Dickens wasn’t just the creator of the nimby avant la lettre; he also understood George’s predicament. In his celebrated long essay Night Walks, he describes a condition he terms “the Dry Rot in men”: a progressive deterioration in capabilities that leads inexorably to “houselessness” or the debtors’ prison. These are the Victorian values that contemporary Britain still vigorously upholds; yet it need not have been this way.

Reading The Autonomous City: a History of Urban Squatting, a new book by Alexander Vasudevan, put me back in touch with my youth during the 1970s and early 1980s, when to go equipped with a crowbar and a screwdriver in order to “open” a squat was regarded as the righteous contemporary equivalent of the Paris Commune or Mao’s Long March. The role of squatting in uniting those intent on pursuing what were then deemed “alternative lifestyles” (being gay, non-white or – gasp! – a feminist) with established working-class agitations for improved housing conditions was due for appraisal; Vasudevan observes that remarkably little has been published on the subject, but he makes good the deficiency with his carefully researched and discursive study.

Squatting has a long history – you could go back as far as Gerrard Winstanley and his 17th-century Diggers – but it is worth remembering that in the London of the mid-1970s there were at least 50,000 squatters and probably a great deal more. The squats could be terrifying and anarchic places; I remember them well. But they were also often havens for women and children fleeing domestic abuse and places where people afflicted with the Dickensian ‘‘Dry Rot’’ could at least find shelter. Moreover, as Vasudevan amply demonstrates, the squats were cynosures for experiments in autonomous living: hence the book’s title.

Squatting provided a buffer zone between the realm of commoditised place and space and utter houselessness, but over the past forty years this has been progressively encroached on, as squatters either made their peace with local authorities and were offered tenancies of one kind or another, or faced, in effect, criminalisation. A series of punitive measures, beginning in the 1970s, culminated in a law being passed in 2012 that for the first time made it an offence to squat in a residential building in the UK.

In This Is London: Life and Death in the World City, published last year, Ben Judah painted a compelling picture of the human crumbs being brushed from the stony skirts of the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street: with nowhere to squat any longer and space at a premium as never before, London’s houseless are being driven on to the streets, while migrant workers from eastern Europe “hot-bed” in Zone 5 dosshouses. Meanwhile I sit typing this in my one-bedroom ex-council flat, which I rent for the princely sum of £1,350 per month.

On my return to London from university in 1982, I – a single man, no less – was offered a council flat. Granted, this was on the old Greater London Council “mobility scheme”, which aimed to match not particularly deserving tenants with substandard housing stock, but there it was: an actual flat in a 22-storey, system-built block in Cubitt Town on the Isle of Dogs. The rent, as far as I can recall, was about £40 a month.

Now George begs beneath the NatWest cashpoint opposite Stockwell Tube, while my Cubitt Town flat is long gone, demolished to make way for the burgeoning Canary Wharf development and the multi­national financial services companies it now houses. Space and place have become so comprehensively monetised in contemporary London that a begging pitch can acquire a rental value.

I have never asked George if he pays for his pitch; I do hope not, because shortly before heading off to Liverpool he told me he had been served with an antisocial behaviour order, banning him from going within 200 metres of the cashpoint. I couldn’t make it up – and I’ve been publishing fiction for nigh on thirty years. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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