Saturday 7 September 2013

The Story of the Jews

The reviews for Simon Schama's new landmark BBC series, The Story of the Jewshave been favourable so far - and rightly so, in my opinion. 

Eschewing all talk of hand gestures, background music and suits, what follows will be an extended paraphrase of Part One - and what I think is the essential element of the The Story of the Jews, namely the story of the Jews. 

It may have nothing to do with the topic of BBC bias (though I'm sure some anti-Semites will think otherwise), but hopefully you will find it interesting, even if you've already watched the programme. (Plus writing it up means I can remind myself of what it said for years to come, without having to buy the book. Ain't I a cheapskate?) 


The Story of the Jews began by posing the question, 'What, if anything, do all Jews have in common?' It's not skin colour, or language, or food, or music, or opinions, nor is it the way they pray (if they pray at all). No, it's a story, the story kept in their heads and hearts, "a story of suffering and resilience, endurance, creativity" - a story they've "told to survive" for over 3,000 years. "We are our story," said Simon Schama.

He began with Sigmund Freud who, having fled Nazi-occupied Vienna, settled in London and, in reaction to the anti-Semitic horrors beginning to unfold around him, and whilst dying from cancer, reflected on the story of the Jews, and on the very question Simon himself had just asked, and also on the question of why Jews have been persecuted so often. 

Freud's most treasured possession was an ancient Hanukkah lamp, a menorah, symbol of the temple light that kept burning. "The menorah is the most ancient and enduring symbol of Jewish identity, even for someone who called himself a 'godless Jew'", said Simon Schama. 

Freud applied his theories to the Jews, especially the story of Moses - the dominating father figure of psychoanalysis. Freud's "outrageous" theory was that the Jews had rebelled against Moses, and murdered him, but then adopted his laws out of guilt and remorse with "an obsessive devotion" that endured through millennia of suffering. A scandal ensued, but Simon said that the important point had been lost in the scandal: Freud's conviction that by preserving their religion, consciously or unconsciously, the Jews had given themselves the opportunity to endure not just as a faith but as a people when everything else had been lost. 

That was the meaning of Freud's travelling menorah and why he valued it. 

In that light, a Passover feast held by Simon for friends and family gave him the opportunity to express what Passover - the celebration of the deliverance of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt - means to him. The Seder table, the Seder plates, the symbolic food, and the sacred text, the Haggadah, provide a chance to relive that "story of stories", by discussing it and applying it to the here and now - which is what we saw them doing. One reflection that stood out for me was one of Simon's guests saying, "The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history". 

The sacred landscape of Israel, which Moses never quite reached, prompted the thought that something remarkable happened there over 3,000 years ago, continued Simon. The first archaeologists to explore the area weren't Jewish though. They were Victorian evangelical Christians, determined to find the roots of their own faith through its roots in Judaism. Survey maps were drawn to try to pin down exactly where the events told of in the Bible actually occurred, but objectivity was swept away by romanticism amidst the awesome scenery of Sinai, and it was the Bible and its names which guided their work and their technology. Archaeologists since have been much more sober, said Simon, and no concrete historical evidence to prove the exodus has been discovered. 

The earliest extant solid Jewish artefacts come from the Iron Age and were found in Elah Valley, where Goliath is supposed to have been brought low by David, on the border between the ancient hill-dwelling Judeans and the coastal-dwelling Philistines. 

Simon talked to Yossi Garfinkel, the archaeologist who excavated the fortress there. He describes it as "a Biblical Pompeii". Carbon dating has placed the site at around 3,000 years old - the time traditionally associated with King David and, thus, a highly dramatic find. Yossi takes a less dismissive view of the Bible's relevance than many other archaeologists, because David and Goliath may never actually have fought but they nonetheless represent the conflict between the Philistines and the Judeans that was going on at that time. It's metaphors rather than literalism, the Bible as an echo of some sort of reality, said Simon. One find - a little altar and two model shrines ('arks') - was especially significant. Both shrines are empty, prefiguring the Holy of Holies in the High Temple, dwelling place on earth of "that extraordinary religious innovation - the faceless, formless god of Jewish monotheism."

That God was slow to emerge from the crowd of other gods in the region. It took centuries, Simon said, for the Jews to accept that their god was the only God. A god of many names. 

The early Jews used animal sacrifices, with smoke rising to heaven and nothing in between, but they also had the Hebrew bible, the Torah, the scrolls of The Law, the first five books of the Bible. These are still central to Judaism. The sacred book is still venerated, whether in Reform or Orthodox services. That reverence is common to all strains of Judaism. Simon Schama called it "the definition of worship through the sanctification of words" and finds it deeply beautiful. The words are read out loud and not directly touched. "And it is and was those words - read, remembered, perpetuated - that would ensure the survival of Jews and Judaism through the generations". 

The Bible began to be written down around 2,700 years ago. It contains so many great stories, Simon enthused, but these stories aren't museum pieces. They still mean something, here and now - such as to an Ethiopian Jew name Aviva Rahamim, who Simon talked to. She made her own gruelling exodus to Israel three decades ago, showing that relevance through her own experiences. She feels at one with her ancestors - those "who came up with Moses". 

That inspiring story, however, prompts Simon to say that many Bible stories are much more tragic. The Bible never "soft pedals" on the terrible fate of that "puny" little state crushed between imperial superpowers - Egypt, Assyria, Babylon - he said. 

The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem - the first of the great disasters -, tearing down the great temple and exiling the Jewish elite. 

Still, the Jewish identity did not disappear - even in Babylon. Far from it. There, in exile, God's laws became tougher, fiercer, in response. When the Persians conquered Babylon and released the Jews, the exiles returned to a ruined Jerusalem with a Bible that "bound Jews ever more closely to its rules and commands". They began rebuilding, under Nehemiah, but the rebuilding of Jewish identity in those who had stayed behind was at least as urgent a priority. Torah, Law, was to be the heart of that identity. 

Ezra called the people together and told them to leave behind their non-Jewish and half-Jewish wives, husbands and children. "This is brutal - a hardline purge that elevates religious and ethnic purity at the expense of social reality", said Simon. 

That social reality, said Simon, was shown by exiles in Aswan, living at the same time as Ezra. He visited Elephantine in Upper Egypt, where many had lived in harmony with non-Jews since the Babylonian invasion. These Jews worshipped the Jewish god, but also his wife, the Queen of Heaven. They intermarried and their wives and husbands converted to Judaism. "They are ordinary, everyday Judeans", said Simon. "The documents [found in Elephantine] really are the first complete portrait we have of an entire community of Jews". They built a temple there too - breaking (or not knowing) the rule about the temple in Jerusalem being the only one where animal sacrifices were permitted. Unfortunately for the Elephantine Jews, the rams they sacrificed at that temple were sacred to the Egyptians who sacrificed at the temple next door. Guess what happened? The Egyptians got some Persian guards to destroy their temple. A petition to Jerusalem granted them the funds and the permission to rebuild, but on the strict condition that no animal sacrifices were to be carried out. "Hard Jerusalem rules had definitely won."

A new danger then emerged - the Greeks, led by Alexander the Great. With them came the threat of "annihilation through assimilation", thanks to the wave of Greek culture that followed. "The soft power of Hellenism" threatened to "submerge" Jewish identity "beneath its welcoming waters". A spectacular 2nd century palace for a rich Jewish family was used to show that seduction in action - some so much that they went through the "eye-watering" process of reverse circumcision (to look the part in Greek gymnasiums). Plus the Bible was translated into Greek. 

Jewish identity, however, could not be translated. No absolute fusion was possible. 

Loyalty to the "God of words" saved Judaism from being swallowed by Hellenism. Stubborn, orthodox resistance began and exploded when a Greek ruler [Antiochus IV Epiphanes] desecrated the temple and banned circumcision. The Maccabees (a family) led the rebellion and established an independent Israel run by priest-kings (the Hasmonean dynasty) which lasted for almost a century, until they were succeed by "the decidedly unpriestly Herod the Great", who owed his throne to the Romans, the new superpower on the block. Herod was a lavish builder, massively extending the High Temple, which became a "conveyor belt of continual sacrifice", presided over by (what some saw as) a "swaggering aristocracy", a clear expression (to many) "of what Judaism was about"...

...except that not everyone accepted that. 

Some pious Jews thought that the smoke of sacrifice was obscuring the word, the Law. They hurried away to safe places, reading their texts, awaiting the messiah. 

One such place was Qumran, birth place of the Dead Sea Scrolls, where pious mystics living "around the same time as the birth and death of a Jew known as Jesus of Nazareth" poured over the sacred texts, building a library of 850 separate manuscripts, including wisdom books and all sorts of "whacky", apocalyptic stuff alongside the Bible. Simon Schama visited a laboratory helping to preserve and investigate them.  

The big battle they envisioned because a "grim, bloody reality" soon after, in 66 AD. An immense anti-Roman rebellion began, requiring three Roman legions, under Vespasian and his son Titus, to crush it. [They became the Flavian emperors, along with Vespasian's other son, Domitian. As a wildly off-topic aside, I once fancied writing a Robert Graves-style play about mad, bad and dangerous-to-know Domitian.]

Only one written source remains, ' The Jewish War' by the Hellenistic Jew Josephus. Josephus was Vespasian's "in-house historian", someone who first took up arms against Rome, then surrendered and finally became an advisor to the soon-to-be Roman emperor, his "cheerleader and pet Jew". A turncoat to be despised? 

Simon is not so sure and attempted a rehabilitation.

Josephus was there outside Jerusalem as the zealots inside instigated a reign of terror to stop any talk of surrender, whilst the population (including his own mother) slowly and painfully starved to death. Josephus himself said his only concern was to spare his own people suffering, that he saw the Roman's as a punishment from God, and that the Jewish defenders had turned on each other like wild beasts. His point: "What was the point of going on?" The city walls finally fell, and a great disaster ensued, which Josephus (presumably aghast?) witnessed. The temple went up in smoke in flames, and the Romans pulled down what remained. 

The destruction of Jerusalem made the Flavians' fortune and Jewish loot and slaves paid for their Colosseum. Josephus was part of the "loot", and the Romans, who despised the Jews, made him despair of them. He wrote a book about Judaism - a defence of Judaism. Just like Sigmund Freud, he turned to Moses and stressed the Law. He "stands tall", said Simon Schama. "We have become the teachers of men in the greatest of things," says Josephus.

How are the Jews still here, after all those hammer blows? Words. Words beat swords, Simon says. The Roman Empire has come and gone but go into a synagogue any Saturday and you'll still hear those words. 

The dramatic final image was that of a postcard sent by Sigmund Freud in 1913. It was a picture of the Arch of Titus in Rome, that glorification of the conquest of Jerusalem. On it Freud wrote, "The Jew survives it".

I can't wait for Part Two.


  1. I thought it was more an attack on Christians than telling what really is to be a Jews.

  2. I'm all for learning about one of the major religions of the world. this show however is a biased slant, history being read from a proud and passionate person, who's mind is so closed.
    attack everyone and play the victim, worrying ethos I believe not all Jews would follow

  3. He seems to confuse the Chanukiah and Menorah.


Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.