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

Scott Cresswell on Flickr via Creative Commons
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Podcasting Down Under: Tom Wright on how Australia is innovating with audio

The ABC producer, formerly of the Times and The Bugle, makes the case for Australian podcasting.

In September last year, Ken Doctor wrote that “We can mark 2016 as the year the podcast business came of age.” Statements like this have been coming thick and fast since the first series of Serial dropped in October 2014. We’re either living through a golden age of podcasting, or the great podcast advertising boom, or the point when podcasting comes of age, or some combination thereof. For the first time, everyone seems to agree, podcasts are finally having their moment.

Except this isn’t the first podcasting gold rush. Tom Wright, now a producer for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), was there the first time media organisations rushed to build podcasting teams and advertisers were keen to part with their cash. Speaking to me over Skype from Australia, he said that seeing podcasts attain “hot” status again is “very strange”. “The first iteration had similar levels of excitement and stupidity,” he added.

In 2006, Wright left BBC Radio 1 to join the Times newspaper in London as a multimedia producer. The paper was “very gung ho” about using podcasts, he explained, particularly comedy and sport shows, as a way of reaching new audiences. There, he launched The Bugle with comedians Andy Zaltzman and John Oliver, The Game with football writer Gabriele Marcotti, and a number of different business shows. “This was ahead of the crash of 2008,” Wright noted.

The shows found large audiences almost immediately – “in my time, The Bugle had 100,000 weekly listeners,” Wright said – and The Game (plus periodic special podcasts pegged to the football, rugby and cricket world cups) brought in good sponsorships. Both podcasts and the videos that Wright also worked on were seen by the Times as “an add-on to the main deal” – ie, the paper’s news stories and features.

“Podcasts, especially in comedy, are still kind of seen as a marketing exercise for something else. . . My feeling is that a lot of comics – let's just pick on one country – in America, say, do a podcast and it's not particularly funny or good, but they flog their tickets for their tour relentlessly so you come and see the really good stuff.” Wright, however, saw the podcast form as something more than a marketing exercise. “My feeling was that we had this opportunity to do comedy, and maybe make it a bit more ambitious, you know?”

It all changed after the financial crisis of 2008, when the advertising money dried up. A new boss came in at the Times and Wright said the focus shifted to online videos and a greater emphasis on hard news. “Amazingly, they let The Bugle continue, which is fantastic,” he said.

(For long-term listeners of The Bugleof which I am one – Wright is a much loved presence from the first 100 episodes. He is referred to solely as “Tom the Producer” and used to chip in regularly to try and keep Zaltzman and Oliver to time, and to express his disgust for the former’s love of puns. Listeners used to write emails for the show straight to “Tom”, and he has his own section on the slightly bonkers Bugle wiki.)

Wright left the Times and moved to Australia in 2010. That year, the paper had introduced a hard paywall, and Wright said that he and other colleagues felt strongly that this wasn’t a good idea. “Who wants to be writing or making stuff for 5,000 subscribers?” he said. “It was also a cost of living decision for me,” he added. “I'd been living in London for ten years with my wife, and we did the sums and just realised we couldn't afford to live in London if we wanted to have kids.”

Wright tried to keep producing The Bugle from Melbourne, a decision which he now describes as “insane”. “It was around 2am [Australian time] when they started recording,” he explained. “I was using my in laws’ Australian-speed wifi, and because I was uploading huge reams of data to the Times, they got stung with an enormous bill. I thought maybe this is a message that I should seek some local employment.”

Wright joined the ABC and went back to live radio, producing for a call-in programme on a local Melbourne station, before moving over to triple j – a station he describes as a bit like BBC Radio 1 in the UK. It was hard work, but a great introduction to life in his new country. “The best way to learn about Australian culture and the way of life was being at the ABC,” he said. “It's the most trusted organisation the country has, even more so I think than the BBC in relation to Britain, given all the scandals recently.”

After the success of Serial, he said he remembers thinking “are podcasts back now?”. “The Nieman Lab in America came out with a journalism survey about reader engagement, and it said the average interaction with a video is one minute, the interaction with a page is almost ten seconds, and with podcasts it's 20 minutes. That was just this eureka moment – all these people thought wow, that's an aeon in online time, let's try doing this.”

In Australia, Wright explained, as in the UK and elsewhere podcasts had been “just the best radio shows cut up to a vast extent”. But in 2014 publications and broadcasters quickly moved to take advantage of the renewed interesting in podcasting. He is now part of a department at the ABC developing online-only podcasts “that will hopefully feed into the radio schedule later on”. It’s a moment of unprecedented creative freedom, Wright said. “That sense of risk has been missing from radio, well media, for a long time. . . Like at the Times, we’re told ‘just go do it and come back with some good ideas’, and it's fantastic.”

Wright is focusing on developing comedy podcasts – as “Australian comedy is great and criminally underrepresented,” he said. One show that has come out of his department already is The Tokyo Hotel, an eight-part series following the inhabitants of an eccentric hotel in Los Angeles. It’s a great listen: there’s a lot of original music, and the fast-paced, surreal script feels at times reminiscent of Welcome to Night Vale. “It was hugely gratifying but immensely hard work,” Wright said. “It had its own score, numerous actors, a narrator who was Madge from Neighbours. It was quite literally a big production.”

The plan for 2017 is to bring out another, similarly ambitious production, as well as “a couple more standard ‘comedians chatting’ things”. Australians are already big podcast fans, and Wright reckons that enthusiasm for the form is only growing. “I think that Australia is a place that's not afraid to embrace the new in any way,” he said. “Podcasts are a new thing for a lot of people and they're really lapping it up. . . It's very curious because I think in Britain anything old is seen as valued, and the new is sometimes seen with suspicion. It's almost the exact opposite here.”

Five Australian podcasts to try

Little Dum Dum Club

Comedians Tommy Dassalo and Karl Chandler run a charming weekly interview show.

Free to a Good Home

Michael Hing and Ben Jenkins, plus guests, chat through the weird and wonderful world of Australian classified ads.

Let’s Make Billions

Simon Cumming and his guests aim to launch a new billion-dollar startup every week.

Meshal Laurie’s Nitty Gritty Committee

The commercial radio host shares the stories she’s been most surprised and moved by.

Bowraville

Dan Box, the crime reporter at the Australian newspaper, investigates the unsolved serial killings of three Aboriginal children.

Do you have ideas for podcasts I should listen to or people I should interview? Email me or talk to me on Twitter. For the next instalment of the New Statesman’s podcast column, visit newstatesman.com/podcasts next Thursday. You can read the introduction to the column here.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman. She writes a weekly podcast column.