Simon Schama has returned to his roots and written an affecting and raw account of early Jewish history
In Landscape and Memory, his great study of civilisation’s relationship with nature, Simon Schama introduced us to his father’s relish for fried whitebait. No one could know true happiness who had not tasted it. “The fact that this excluded much of the world’s population was unfortunate, but merely another sign of the elect position of those wise enough, or blessed enough, to live by the Thames.” It was a wryly touching moment of autobiography – and a reminder to British readers that our most celebrated historian, long since exported to the purlieus of Columbia, had his roots in Essex.
But not only Essex. “Had the pharaohs only leavened our servitude with whitebait, some of us might still be living by the Nile.” In Landscape and Memory, Schama made play with his Jewish ancestry. Now it provides a context by which to judge an entire book. The Story of the Jews opens with two men on the banks of the Nile, back in pharaonic times. These are no slaves, though, and the pharaoh that one of them serves as a mercenary is Xerxes, the Persian king bloodied at Salamis. We know about Shelomam and his father Osea thanks to the fortuitous discovery in 1893 of an entire cache of papyri: records of a Jewish colony established at Elephantine, in the far south of Egypt. Yet, for all that we are separated from them by two and a half thousand years, Schama catches in their overheard conversations a familiar echo. Osea, writing to his son, frets about his dangerous posting. “And then, the inevitable clincher, the three words Shelomam must have known were coming, even without Osea having to write them, the one all Jewish boys hear at some point; the phrase from which history unfolds: ‘Likewise your mother.'”
The joke, while a good one, has a serious purpose. A line of descent is being implied from the soldier in pharaonic Egypt to today’s stereotype of the nebbishy, overmothered Jew – and, by extension, to Schama himself. Introducing us to Xerxes’ mercenary, he makes sure to tell us in only his second paragraph that “Shelomam” is the Aramaic version of “Simon”, and that Osea, the anxious parent, shares his name with Schama’s own father. With great subtlety and charm, the justification for the book’s title is being established right on its opening page. Jews today, so Schama reassures us, can look back into the distant past and see themselves reflected there. The line of continuity may have wound and twisted over the course of the millennia, but the historian can hope to trace it, Theseus-like, even so. The story of the Jews is one that can indeed be told.
How, though, are “Jews” to be defined: as an ethnic grouping or as the adherents of a god? The Bible, that titanic record of their beginnings, and without which they would surely long since have gone the way of the Moabites, blurs the question by casting them as both. Not merely a people, they are a Chosen People, united by a common line of descent from Abraham and a code of laws inherited, via Moses, directly from YHWH. Simultaneously fantastical and transcendent, this is a narrative that plays directly to one of Schama’s greatest strengths. He has always had a genius for celebrating the myths he is simultaneously deconstructing. The methods of analysis he once applied to the Dutch republic and the French revolution are now applied to holy writ. Jews first become Jews, in Schama’s telling of their story, by a feat of willpower. Tradition generates its own backstory, which then takes on the cast of reality. “The Hebrew Bible is the imprint of the Jewish mind, the picture of its imagined origins and ancestry.”
Inevitably, then, self-definition was something that the Jews of antiquity could never take for granted. Recent scholarship has emphasised just how subjective their identity was. The Jews of Elephantine, who cheerfully married out and even maintained their own temple, are only the first of a number of examples that Schama gives us to illustrate this. For every Jew who affirmed a narrow interpretation of what it meant to be Jewish, there were others busy exercising in gymnasia or commissioning flamboyant mosaics. Even the disastrous sequence of revolts against the Romans were simultaneously, as Schama reminds us, civil wars.
By the middle ages, all this had changed. The temple was gone; Jerusalem was ruled by rival monotheists; Judaea had become Palestine. Yet though the Jews no longer had a homeland, and lived instead, as Schama puts it, “the wide world over”, their identity had become something far more rigidly circumscribed than it ever was in antiquity. The law which governed their lives, and was simultaneously religious, cultural and political in nature, now served to define them as a people set definitively apart. A Jew could not live outside it, and still remain a Jew. The only option was to convert to Christianity or Islam – there was nowhere else to go. The boundaries that served to define medieval Jews simultaneously hemmed them in.
How had this change come about? Traditionally, the pluralism of Jewish identity in antiquity was held to have been shattered on the anvil of the temple’s destruction. A Jewish people, united by blood, were then shepherded through the trauma of the centuries that followed by rabbis, who served as the guardians of something normative and unitary called “Judaism”. Since this is a narrative that derived in large part from the rabbis themselves, it is not surprising that an increasing number of historians should have come to look at it with some scepticism. Rabbinical Judaism, like Nicaean Christianity, took far longer to establish itself as orthodox than its ideologues liked to claim. “One might say,” as Daniel Boyarin has put it, “that Judaism and Christianity were invented in order to explain the fact that there were Jews and Christians.”
Schama is aware of this, and pays it lip-service; but his account of how Jewish identity evolved over the course of the first Christian millennium lacks the subtlety and rigour that characterises the rest of his book. In particular, he neglects the degree to which many Jews under the Roman empire actively sought out converts. “‘Jewishness’,” so the theologian Origen wrote, “refers to a way of life, not a people.” To many rabbis, committed as they were to the belief that only children born of Jewish mothers ranked as Jews, any notion of Judaism as a missionary religion was anathema. “Proselytes,” so one declared flatly, “are as injurious to Israel as a scab.”
This, by the middle ages, was the orthodoxy that had won out. Jewishness had come to be defined by blood as well as by obedience to the Torah. The rabbis, obscuring the degree to which they had rewritten the history of their faith, had successfully cast their own brand of Judaism as the expression of immemorial practice. Nevertheless, there were some who claimed to see through this: to recognise that the rabbinical version of Jewish history was, as Schama puts it, “a fable, concocted to legitimise the usurpation of those who called themselves ‘sages’.” These were not, though, scholars of a kind that Schama himself would wish to have as models. Quite the opposite. It was Christian inquisitors who had learned by the 13th century to condemn the traditions upheld by the rabbis as a fraud. So it was, in June 1242, that 10,000 rabbinical writings were burnt in Paris. “Every so often a breeze would pick up from the Seine, and flames bearing Hebrew letters, their edges lit with curls of fire, would do an aerial dance over the crowd before descending on the heads of canting friars as clots of soot.”
No one can mistake the tone of white-hot anger with which Schama writes about this and all the manifold other crimes against the Jews committed throughout the middle ages by bullying Christians and Muslims. As a scholar, he knows that “the story of the Jews” is in fact vastly more complex, ambivalent and problematic than the title of his book implies; but as a Jew, and the loving son of Jewish parents, he knows as well that tradition can sometimes possess a value that transcends what scholarship has to say about it. “‘Bye-bye, darling, sleep in the gan eden,’ was the last thing my mother said to my father when she saw his dead body in the Hampstead hospital.'” Moments like this, all the more raw and unexpected for Schama’s customary tone of urbanity, explain why, perhaps, in the final reckoning, he chose not to side too overtly with the inquisitors’ scepticism towards rabbinical history. The book may, as a result, be a fraction less scholarly – but it is also a great deal more affecting.
• Tom Holland’s In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World is published by Abacus.
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