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The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC - 1492 AD
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73 of 79 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
‘Story of the Jews’ written by Simon Schama is well-researched book that on its five hundred pages provides a good overview of Jewish history over a period of 2500 years.

When I saw the title of this book I was a bit surprised how such a long history period the author managed to compress in the still respectable 500 pages book, and how readable it would be to someone who does not consider himself a detailed scholar of Jewish history, but approaches to the subject as a historical enthusiast.

The answer is that the author successfully found the middle ground, his book is easy and interesting to read, but still offers wealth of information that pushes it toward academic kind of work, although does not come fully to such level, probably intentionally to remain interesting to a wider audience.

Simon Schama will lead reader on a journey not only through long periods of time, but also the three continents where this story is taking place – Africa, Asia and Europe.

Through the book the reader will not only learn a lot about the history of the Jews, but also about the times, systems, governments and countries where Jews lived through history and were usually persecuted – such as Rome, Paris and London – while Schama manages to skillfully evokes the atmosphere and different times passing through the exciting and often tragic Jewish history.

Therefore ‘Story of the Jews’ can be considered a good book for readers who do not want to go very deep in every epoch because any book that will try to achieve that goal will be equally large as this, but he was interested to provide an overview of a nation history. This does not mean that the author is superficial in his descriptions or that there is a lack of details in his story, just the opposite, but it's all about the story and pace, and the author does not bury the reader with unnecessary details that would cause fatigue and boredom.

So if you love history and you are interested to get a good history overview of the Jewish people in the less well-known time period, give ‘Story of the Jews’ a chance because Simon Schama did a good job of writing a book just for those people who are not history scholars, but are fully interested in history.
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68 of 78 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
Among the distinct surviving ancient cultures which make up our modern advanced nations, few can reasonably deny that, as a percentage of the Earth's peoples, the Jews have made more than an inordinate share of contributions to the fields of Art, Science and intellectual achievement than almost any other single culture. This book is an illustrated, companion-reader to the PBS/BBC television production series of the same name. While it is true there are very few remaining archaeological artifacts, written accounts or remnants that have survived from early Jewish history (pre-750 BC); The author of this book and creators of the series have done a magnificent job of creating whole cloth out of the dwindling amount of surviving historic thread. Spanning the globe over approximately 2500 years, from the first written Hebrew to Columbus' historic voyage to the New World, this book describes and highlights the most significant chapters in the history of these enigmatic humans. It is a true masterwork.
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41 of 46 people found the following review helpful
on November 9, 2013
Format: Paperback
Alas, some reviewers miss the subtle nuance of the title. Simon Schama has crafted a story about the history of Jews, weaving a dream-like image of the past. In his role of the story-teller, Schama does indeed demand much of the reader in terms of background knowledge, but so would any author writing on a topic of this magnitude and complexity. I am certain that he would say that he never believed for an instant that he could write the last word on the topic, and he would probably be gratified that any reader would feel compelled to search out and fill the gaps in her/his knowledge as a result of reading this book.

I also appreciate Schama's inclusiveness, which reflects his own beliefs against the narrowness of an interpretation of a people's culture as separate monolith over time and space. He presents his story of Jews as everyone's story, and that is a lovely and touching aapproach in our era drenched in neo-con rhetoric of the "clash of civilisations."

If you do not like Simon Schama's style, then certainly you will not like this book. Myself, I like him and have thoroughly enjoyed this book.

For China hands, Schama's book calls to mind The Chinese Heritage by C.H. Wu, published in the early 1980s. Demanding but it pays dividends for those who invest the time and effort.
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36 of 42 people found the following review helpful
on January 29, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition
Yet another History of the Jews? But Simon Schama digs out much that is missing from most such histories. The first chapter already sounds a new and idiosyncratic note: he begins not with the Patriarchs or the Exodus, but many centuries later, in the sixth century BCE, with the Jewish community and temple at Elephantine, in Egypt, during the time when Egypt was governed by the Persians. Schama calls it the “first [sic] Jewish society we know anything much about” (can this be true?), though “outside of a circle of scholars, this first [again], rich Jewish story has had virtually no purchase on the common memory of Jewish tradition.”

Later parts of the story follow along more traditional lines, but Schama also introduces little-known details found in scraps of clay, papyrus or other materials which are about the daily activities and concerns of ordinary people. (There are sixteen pages on the Genizah treasure trove, discovered in Cairo in 1896.) There are also fables which, as all fables do, tell us something about the mind set of the people who invented them.

The book is not one for readers new to the subject: a good deal of knowledge is taken for granted. It does improve as it goes along; but the early chapters are not always an easy read, and the chronology is not always clear and has to be worked out from other sources. Again it is in the early chapters that the style is sometimes stodgily detailed; at other times, both here and later, it is imaginative and eloquent, in places jauntily colloquial, and occasionally verbose and declamatory.

Schama is expansive on some topics: on Josephus, for example; or on the glowing murals of the synagogue at Duro-Europus and the mosaic floors of at least forty synagogues, which show that religious Jews did at one time make images (as indeed they would do again in medieval Haggadahs and Bibles); or in the loving description of the Mishna’s obsession with minute details both in injunctions about behaviour and in recalling the minutiae of sacrifices made in a Temple which no longer existed; or on the Jewish poets in Muslim Spain. On other topics he is cursory: for example on the Babylonian captivity; or on the life of the Jewish community that stayed behind in that region after the Return and flourished under the Persians; or on the Karaites and Saadia Gaon; or on Kabbalism.

The story is not always continuous: the long third chapter discusses at great length the Victorian scholars (they included George Grove, who was irked that he was known to most people only as the compiler of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians when he saw himself primarily as a Bible scholar) who went to the Holy Land to identify places mentioned in the Bible; then those scholars who think the Hebrew Bible in mainly invention; then the archaeologists who have found in their work support for passages in the Bible. It is all very technical, and a massive interruption of the story.

This is resumed when Schama comes to tell about the Hellenistic period (here, and wherever else he finds it, Schama stresses and approves of acculturation), the Roman and Byzantine period, Jewish life under medieval Islam in the Middle East and in Muslim Spain, the horrors of the massacres in Western Europe during the crusading period. And this first volume ends with the terrible events leading up to the expulsion of unconverted Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
on October 29, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Previous reviewers commented on the price instead on the content, so I will stick to the latter instead dismissing a book based on the price.
Simon Schama's attempt to present a history of the Jews -limited in the first of two volumes, the second covering the remainder - as a largely personal account, using the stories of individuals of different times embedded in the events of the era. It is an interesting concept I think although sometimes he seems to get lost a bit in small details. The interesting parts however are the gems hidden among the noise, such as the development of Jewish teaching throughout time and its consequences in everyday life. He emphasizes a lot on the Mishnah and the later creation of the Talmud as a consequence of the events taken place in the year 70 CE -perhaps apart from the Shoa and the Zionist movement the most defining event in Jewish history (in my opinion) - not only for Jews but for Christians as well. The book describes lively how Jewish culture blossomed under Muslim rule and suffered under Christian rulers in the west. It is hard to believe that the Talmud (in the form of the Babylonian Talmud) originated in the very same region where Jews are under threat today - whilst protected by the west. How things change in history! Simon Schama sees himself as a Zionist when I recall the accompanied TV program correctly. Certainly the book emphasizes on the efforts made by previous generations of Jews to assimilate and the rejection by the Muslim and Christian rulers. In thus he echoes Theodor Herzl.
For Christians this book is definitively a good introduction into Jewish history and complements another book published at around the same time, "Anti-Judaism- The Western Tradition" by David Nirenberg.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Simon Schama has written a very well researched book about the history of the Jews in his Book "Story of the Jews"
This 500 page book, covers a 3,000 year period of history of culture, experience and identity.

This book follows the 5 hour documentary on PBS this month, of the same name.

This book discuss many historical characters, from Sigmund Freud, to Moses, to Josephus, as it discusses varies episodes of history we all have read about.

I found the book an excellent read and a joy to my heart. Mr. Schama has done an amazing job trying to get so much history, in so little space. Brilliant read.
If my review helped you, please click on "helpful" (or "yes") below. Thank you for reading this review.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on May 1, 2014
Format: HardcoverVerified Purchase
I watched the first episode of this series on TV and I was impressed. I bought the book hoping to absorb even more information, but Schama tends to go off on a tangent and get lost in a miasma of small facts. So much info is thrown out there that you end up losing the historical flow of the story. Being that he is an art history professor by trade., he relates historical artifacts to the story, but not in a cohesive manner. I find myself all over the place and nowhere at the same time. Very disappointing. Stick to the TV series .
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50 of 66 people found the following review helpful
Format: Kindle Edition
I was somewhat disappointed by the book. Given the high profile of the author I had come to expect a very competent and thorough historical account but found myself confused from the first chapter onwards about the direction of the book. Although I appreciate that this is not meant to be popular science or Jews for Dummies the book expects a lot of prior knowledge in several disciplines, unless you want to continuously flick back to the index. I know some of the necessary background but not enough to follow Schama's narrative and train of thought which seemed to jump between tribes, locations, philosophical aspects and other topics.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Hardcover
I wrote a history book. I know it is not easy. I envy and admire anyone who can do it well- with ease and enjoyment on every page. Schama excels. I wish I could write history like he does. I felt as though he was holding each ancient relative's hand and walking with them through history on a personal, compassionate level. He feels a personal attachment during each epoch of history touching upon the Jewish ancestors, affecting the modern Jewish psyche. If your roots were Greek, or Irish, or Native American Indian, I doubt you could muster the deep connectivity that Jews feel for their ancestors, because I doubt any race or religion or cultural group kept such detailed and personal records..every slap on the face, every discrimination, every chat with God is remembered. Forever. Highly recommended reading.
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 6, 2014
Format: Hardcover
"The Story of the Jews" (of which only volume 1 has so far appeared; volume 2 will come out in September) was conceived simultaneously as a TV series and a book, and the book is actually based upon the TV series.

This combination of the visual image and the printed word works excellently in relation to the central theme that the true and eternal homeland of the Jews is the Book - the Jews being very aptly named "The People of the Book"; that the indestructibility of the Book is one of the main reasons for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of terrible adversity; and that as a result the words of the sacred books were regarded as so beloved and holy that beautiful images grew up around them. Schama excels in describing the lovely, vibrantly-coloured images that decorated the words in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts (pages 372-3) - and this book contains beautiful illustrations of these.

Related to this is Schama's demolition of the myth that Judaism is opposed to representational images, with his vivid description of the discovery of early synagogues with brilliantly-coloured paintings on their walls (pages 173-192), also reproduced in the book's illustrations.

Schama is also particularly good on the "mappae mundi" - the "cloths of the world" that were made by the Jews of Palma de Mallorca during the Spanish Golden Age - maps such as the Catalan Atlas (which also features in Schama's illustrations), with its "folding lengths of painted vellum - crowded with Catalan text, webbed with the lines of the winds, brilliant with gold and silver, vermilion and viridian, the personifications of the zodiac, things fabulous and things charted...." (page 375). These maps, as Schama brings out, also bear witness to the dispersal of the Jews all over the world and celebrate their adventurous trading voyages.

But a big drawback of the dual-media presentation is that what works well as a TV series often does not come over so effectively in a written history. In a TV series, we need a presenter to provide continuity between the visual images, but in a book, the presenter himself as an ever-present guide can come to seem intrusive and over-familiar. Schama adopts a chatty, jocular, at-your-elbow style that works on TV but in a written history can become very irritating (though some Amazon reviewers evidently find it engaging).

There are also a number of errors. An earlier reviewer (writing last September) mentioned the statement on page 19 that the Sabbath does not appear in the Book of Deuteronomy. This mistake has already been corrected in my copy, recently ordered from Amazon, but I have spotted several others. Two small ones are:

1) Again on page 19, Schama claims that Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid intermarriage: "The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy took a dim view of the practice ("Neither shalt thou make marriages with them" Deuteronomy 7:3)". But this quotation from Deuteronomy only applies to the seven "wicked" Canaanite nations, not to all Gentiles. In Exodus, Moses actually marries a Midianite woman! (2:21) It was not until the time of Ezra that intermarriage was forbidden.

2) Schama claims that whereas the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem was part of God's historical plan, the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt was not: "In the Bible-writing mind, Babylon-Persia had been co-opted as the instrument of divine will. Egypt was always the enemy of YHWH's plans for history." (page 11). But God says clearly to Abraham, generations before the departure to Egypt: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;/And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterwards shall they come out with great substance." (Genesis 15: 13-14)

Though it can't be called an error in itself, I find very unconvincing Schama's evident approval of the hypothesis that the Passover Seder meal is a "response to" the Christian Eucharist. To justify this theory, Schama writes: "since the Torah had nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal (only the sacrifice and reading of the Exodus) it has been daringly suggested that the rabbinical invention of the Seder might have been in response to the Easter rites rather than the other way round." (Pages 211-12). The claim that the Torah has "nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal" is in fact another error: what about Numbers 9: 11: "the fourteenth day of the seventh month at even they shall keep it [ie the Passover] and eat it [ie the sacrificial lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs./They shall leave none of it unto the morning"? Surely this is a meal? In any case, the Eucharist can hardly be called a meal, so how can the Seder be a response to it? (It should also be pointed out that the Eucharist derives not from the Passover, but from the Last Supper in the Gospels, which probably wasn't a Passover meal.) A much more convincing theory, which Schama never mentions, even though he stresses the Hellenisation of the Jews, is that the Passover Seder was based upon the ancient Greek Symposium: a banquet characterised by wine-drinking and philosophical discussion.

A serious and revealing error appears in Schama's comment - in relation to the account, in the two Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, of the Hasmonean kings' adoption of the dual role of monarchs and high priests - "Tellingly, neither book professes any concern about the violation of a separation of roles established as far back as Moses and Aaron" (page 115).

The separation of the roles of Moses and Aaron is the separation of the roles not of the King and the Priest but of the Prophet and the Priest. Moses was the first Prophet, the spiritual ancestor of the Prophets, who were arbitrarily chosen to be the inspired mouthpieces of God, through whom He spoke to the Kings and People; the Priests were lineal descendants of Aaron and their role was ritual and ceremonial and therefore subordinate to that of the Prophets (of course some Prophets, such as Jeremiah, could also be Priests). Writing of Jerusalem in 200 BCE, Schama says: "the charisma of authority was concentrated in the imposing figure of the High Priest" and that "the appearance of the miraculously clad High Priest was the closest Jews got to the apparition of divine exaltation in human form"(page 106). Schama omits to mention the scribes and sages who in 200 BCE were already developing synagogues and preserving the oral law and who thus provided a link between the Prophets and the Pharisee movement of rabbis that was about to emerge (in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt). These scribes and sages and later the Pharisee rabbis possessed, like the Prophets, moral and spiritual authority, as opposed to the merely ritual authority of the imposing ceremonial figure of the high priest in his gorgeous robes.

This over-valuation of the Priests is connected to a certain under-valuation of the Prophets. Thus I found it puzzling that Schama describes the Second Isaiah as insisting on the "exclusiveness" of God (page 46) (also the claim that he is the first of the Prophets to worship One God alone, not just one supreme God, is very much open to question). Taken together with a theme in the early part of the book of a "broad" Judaism open to other cultures and even other gods and a "narrow" Judaism that worshipped only one God, this seems implicitly to criticise the Second Isaiah for being narrow-minded. But how can the universalist vision expressed in the verses attributed to the Second Isaiah possibly be called narrow-minded? "Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it..../I the Lord have called thee in righteousness and will hold thine hand and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles...." (42: 5-6 ) Schama does not seem to me to bring out sufficiently the role in preserving Jewish identity not only of the words but of the main content of the words: the Jews' sense of dedication to one indestructible, eternal God representing universal values and a plan of perfectibility for the whole of mankind.

Schama's over-valuation of Priests and Kings also seems apparent in his evident wish to believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa, an impressive 10th-century BCE city recently discovered 30 kilometres south-east of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologists, is, as these archaeologists claim (an assertion that has modern political reverberations) a city built by King David and proof that he was an important monarch who ruled over a united kingdom. These archaeologists are trying to disprove the argument, put forward by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in "The Bible Unearthed" that the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were always separate and there never was a glorious united kingdom of David and Solomon, who were only minor tribal chieftains whose capital in Jerusalem was just a hill-village. While not coming out completely in favour of the hypothesis that Khirbet Qeiyafa was one of David's expansive royal cities, Schama goes a long way to indicate his approval of it, at one point pre-empting the issue by writing that "the defensive perimeter was casement....since casement walls largely disappear from such sites after the tenth century, this was another indication of an earlier date, most likely from the united not the divided monarchy". Schama does write of "sceptics" but does not dwell very much on the alternative theories , which are that a) Khirbet Qeiyafa is Canaanite; b) (put forward by Israel Finkelstein), that it is in the southernmost part of the much larger and more affluent northern Kingdom of Israel.

To conclude: I found this long first volume (420 pages) to be absorbing and irritating by turns. On the positive side, the individual stories of ordinary Jews are fascinating. I won't of course be able to write a review of "The Story of the Jews" as a whole till I read the second volume in September. I hope to review the book as a whole then and to include more about the first volume (I've already written enough here, I think!)
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