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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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood