Sunday, 7 June 2020

Book review: The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words (1000 BC – 1492 CE), Simon Schama (2013)

Not sure where I bought this study – of the (usually) twin cultural artefacts: intolerance and faith – but near page 150 there is, as a bookmark, a tag issued by a hotel in the Ecuadorian capital of Quito, where I was over 10 days in November 2013, with “802” written next to the word “Suite” – the room in the Best Western Plaza, where I sojourned on that occasion.

While I enjoyed this when I read it this time, I remember that I had been disappointed, on my first try, by a plethora of unfamiliar things. Schama is nothing if not dogged, and he uses an astonishing array of facts in his pursuit of his quarry, but this is a big story and has many actors in it.

What is different for me, now, is that I have in the intervening years visited Jerusalem – not South America again – and so can authentically claim to have taken possession of some form of conceptual base upon which to graft my understanding of his book. In addition to an ability to visualise things in my mind’s eye – for example the walls of the old town, or the countryside between the River Jordan and Jerusalem, the dusty miles and the fields full of fruit trees, or such artefacts as domestic altars (see photo below; these were used for offerings to God) that you can see today in the Israel Museum in the nation’s capital – also there’s generally a more developed ability to comprehend things, perhaps due to my having been writing more reviews, and therefore being in the habit of preparing my mind for the delivery of words about words.

Schama makes much of the Jews’ habit of making an issue out of things – not least the books upon which they base their faith – which has, by his reckoning, led to the production of an unceasing stream of words about the world. Within a space characterised by competition between opposing hegemonies – the Egyptians, the Babylonians, the Assyrians, the Greeks, the Romans, among others – Jews carved out (and sometimes lost) a place for themselves where they could practice their obeisance to YHWH. The best way to assure themselves of God’s favour became, for generations of historians – writing what would eventually become the Old Testament – a topic of intense personal and collective interest. There was also the Talmud, a book containing the words of elders. All the books. All the words. Hence the discussions.

At times, however, Schama recounts a story of accommodation, for example when discussing Alexandria under the control of the Greeks in around 300 BC, when Jews expressed themselves – for example in the names they gave to their children – in a way that would bring them closer to the culture of the hegemon. For their part, Greeks saw virtue in the Jewish tradition – in a way that was a far cry from how the Romans or generations of Christians would do – especially as it was expressed in words contained in the Bible, and Schama quotes from a work of fiction made at the time that contains dialogue to this effect.  

His use of primary sources is enthralling, compelling, and distinguished, by turns dry-eyed and euphoric, often drenched in an acerbic sense of himself as witness. You can hear his voice – matured for the medium of television, and become not just oratorial but enthusiastic – but we must always, due to the breadth of the sources he draws on, put our trust in his perspicacity. Sometimes he’s a bit hard to follow, for example at the point at which he deals with the era of the Hasmonaean revolution. At this point I had to go to Wikipedia to work out the political players – two sets of Greeks (Seleucids and Ptolemies), Romans, as well as Jews – and the relations that evolved between them. Fortunately, things soon become a little clearer as the era in question falls immediately prior to the birth of Christ, so Schama is able to link into his story the perennial question – which has not only beset Jews, but also Romans and other hegemons – of the proper relationship between religion and state. I scurried to the computer again when reading chapter eight (‘Trials’) where you are asked to grasp the significance of actions of Louis IX of France and Pope Gregory IX (both alive in the 13th century – thanks Wikipedia!) and then grapple with a discussion of the various levels of importance ascribed to the Mishnah, the Talmud and the Torah. It’s gnarly and overly-complex but – and this has to be always kept in mind when reading this book – the complexity of Schama’s prose is nothing compared to what he must’ve had to come to grips with while pursuing his studies.

And though there is a beguiling mixture of a demotic register (e.g. Christianity and Judaism “both looking over each other’s shoulder” as they developed in the years immediately after the death of Christ) and a scholastic familiarity with the language used by people living at the time, at points in his narrative Schama falters. Even given his ability to get to the crux of the matter, sometimes – such as when he discusses the revolt of the Zealots that led to the Jews’ Roman overlords destroying the Second Temple – Schama is unable to understand, and therefore unable to communicate to us, what people alive at the time (around 80 AD) were thinking. 

This is a failing that all historians must, if they are being honest, admit to, and goes beyond density (lack of clarity of a purely rhetorical nature). Perhaps it is something to do with the discipline: a veil cannot always be drawn back to reveal the truth because, despite biological imperatives, people alive now are so different from people who were alive at the time being studied. Facts can be hard to nail down, such as what took place in the first century AD when Jewish Christians worshipped alongside Jews in synagogues, participating in ceremonies and hearing sermons given by rabbis. Much is hazy and indistinct even for a time relatively close to our own, let alone a time as far distant as that in which might be found the origins of Judaism.

Things are better-defined in the early Middle Ages, and you come across, at this point in the narrative, people like Shmuel ibn Naghrela, in describing whom Schama turns on the rhetorical tap and lets rip. His style here reminded me, as I was reading, of some of his descriptions, in ‘A History of Britain’ (broadcast on the BBC between 2000 and 2002) of some of the notables living, in the past, in the British Isles. Schama loves a good story, and relishes (his voice rumbling like a freight train negotiating a corner on its tracks) the words he uses when he is in the flow, as he is here:
For in Shmuel ibn Naghrela the reader encounters, for the first time in Jewish literature, an unapologetically outsized ego, a hand-pumping, back-slapping, rib-whacking, hairily muscular personality, capable nonetheless of inward self-examination and erotic pathos. Even when at his most ruminative, brooding on the inexorable wasting of the years, Naghrela is the earthiest of all the great poetic presences in medieval Hebrew. If it is at all conceivable that a Hebrew poet could also be a field warrior and a politician, then it had to happen with Naghrela whose every motion of mind and muscle suggested the battles of power not least inside his own tight-strung frame.
This is on page 272 of ‘The Story of the Jews’, where the love of richness evident in Schama’s own character – unearthing for me a memory of his verbal portrait of Thomas a Becket of his ‘A History of Britain’ TV show – is evidence of a poetic bent. On pages 249-50 you have this, a description of early Medieval documents found in the Cairo Geniza in the 19th century:
And how word-hungry these paper-scribbling Jews were! Unlike judicial and administrative edicts issued in Baghdad, where perfect Arabic calligraphy was heightened by the lavish use of space, the [Cairo] Jews ran their words over every millimetre, filling margins, turning the sheets this way and that and starting again, leaving just enough space on an exterior fold to indicate a recipient and address, for there were no envelopes. The hands writing Arabic in square-form Hebrew characters are urgent, greedy, possessive, abhorring emptiness, the page, as Goitein perceptively noticed, resembling nothing so much as a densely woven carpet. Or perhaps there was another model to which they approximated and that was Talmudic commentary with its multiple voices, arguments and counter-arguments crowding the page in all sizes, columns and styles. Here too in the paper world, quite different pieces of life would meet on the sheet: recipes for medicines, shopping lists, learned utterances, trousseaus, business accounts – the one kind of act jostling with the other as they do indeed in life.
Schama doesn’t hesitate to pass judgement and try to come to grips, in an illustrative way, with his subject matter. It’s important to him to reach out and engage with his audience as how, in the 19th century, men would grab each other’s coat buttons and tug, in order to make a point, bringing their interlocutors closer to their faces so as to more effectively do so.

But the story becomes far less enthusiastic, indeed deeply sorrowful, by page 300, at which point Schama recounts atrocities Medieval Christians committed against Jews who, as they had been by the Romans in the 1st century AD and by the early Church fathers, were demonised (literally), with predictable consequences. As I was reading these pages, the riots in the US were raging in the streets, and I couldn’t help but make a comparison between the scenes that were playing out on the page in front of me, and those which I saw when I turned on the TV to watch the news. 

In fact, this section of the book is deeply disturbing because – for a person who was raised in the Christian tradition (despite not being a practicing Christian) – so shameful. We are, by this point in the book, a long way from the Ebionites of the first years after the death of Christ. That movement contained some hope of synthesis of an intelligent type, as did the Jewish communities on the Arabian peninsula in the years leading up to the revelation of Mohammed in 610. By 1060, such possibilities had, at least in Europe, been closed off by nationalism and chauvinism – it’s a funny kind of triumph that requires the Other to be the recipient of condign punishment; if anything, the crusades against the Jews are sign of relative insecurity, rather than of strength.

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