BOOK REVIEW: 'The Story of the Jews': Forget Everything You Think You Know About the Subject and Learn What Really Happened

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen

 “Another damn'd thick, square book! Always, scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh! Mr. Gibbon? -- Duke of Cloucester, On publication of Vol. 1 of The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire” 

BOOK REVIEW: 'The Story of the Jews': Forget Everything You Think You Know About the Subject and Learn What Really Happened

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Simon Schama uses this quotation in his very readable memoir "Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writings on Ice Cream, Obama, Churchill & My Mother"  but calling Schama's new "A History of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD"( Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins, 512 pages, illustrations, notes, index, $39.95)  "another damn'd thick, square book" is highly inappropriate. It's a very readable book, as are all of the British historian's works.


My immediate reaction after finishing this book -- and watching three of the PBS/BBC series episodes was that the human species is fatally flawed -- and that organized religion, especially Christianity and Islam -- only makes humans crazier.

"The Story of the Jews" ends with the appalling expulsion from Spain of Jews and those who were baptized but were still considered secretly Jewish by Ferdinand and Isabella and the Spanish Inquisition  in 1492.

Schama tells how Christopher Columbus sailed from Cadiz that year with a converso  (a Jew who converted to Christianity) named Luis Torres, on board as translator/interpreter. Torres was an Arabic speaker -- as were most of the Iberian Jews -- and Arabic was the lingua franca of the areas Columbus hoped to visit.  

On board the flagship Santa Maria, Columbus, no fool, also had the latest Jewish-made navigational instruments and a copy of the most up-to-date navigational book, "Perpetual Almanach for the Movement of Celestial Bodies," written by an astronomer and rabbi named Abraham Zacuto.

In addition to medicine,  Iberian Jews were particularly skilled in navigation and allied arts. One of Zacuto's inventions was a copper astrolabe, much more accurate than the previous  wooden ones. The success of Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama's voyage around Africa was greatly aided by his use of Zacuto's "Perpetual Almanach"  and the latest metal astrolabe.

Just what you would expect from "The People of the Book!"

The Iberia expulsion was modeled on the one engineered by England and Wales in 1290, with the expellees forced to sell their property for a fraction of its cost. This procedure would be followed by the Germans in the 1930s and various Muslim nations in the 1940s and 1950s as they rid their countries of Jews who had lived amongst the Muslims for millennia.

Getting rid of the best and the brightest residents of your countries, who made no effort to convert you to their faith: Is that the sign of mental illness or not?

The English persecution of its Jews and the final expulsion is told beautifully in Chapter Seven, "The Women of Ashkenaze." These women of England come across as people not to be trifled with by mere men! If you only read part of the book, read Chapter Seven. But of course, you'll be drawn in by Schama's prose and you'll read all of the book. I guarantee it!

Everybody knows about the Jews who were held captive by the pharaohs of Egypt, but I bet you haven't heard of the Jewish soldiers of Elephantine Island in the Nile River in the south of Egypt, mercenaries hired by the Persians who arrived in 525 BCE to rule the country. 

Unlike the Egyptians, the Persians treated the Jews like slaveowners rather than slaves and prized the tough Jews who policed the border with Nubian Africa. This is all documented in manuscripts penned by the soldiers -- literate as were all male Jews -- including the written gripes that soldiers  have voiced since the beginning of time. The Jewish soldiers married their Egyptian slave girls and built an unauthorized temple on their fortified island.

Schama explodes the accepted wisdom that Jews didn't like images, describing and illustrating their mosaics and other works of art, including the wonderful  "Calendar Girls" used to denote the seasons and magnificently illustrated religious works.

Many of these treasures were burned in France and Spain by Christians who hated the idea of a religion that predated theirs and that denied the divinity of Christ. The Talmud set ablaze in medieval Paris presaged the books burned by the Nazis in 1930s Germany.

Spanning three millennia, with stories of triumphs, followed by the worst that can be done by people, Schama details the Jewish experience from their beginnings as an ancient tribal people to the disaster of 1492.

Schama describes a world of Jews not of a culture apart but of a Jewish world immersed in the world where they lived, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Christians. The tragedy is that all too often their usefulness as doctors and moneylenders didn't save Jews from horrific tortures and death, which Schama describes in detail.

After all, he notes on pages 296-7, Jews weren't the only moneylenders: there were also Christian moneylenders who defied the Roman Catholic canon law against charging interest: Cahorsins -- Frenchmen from Cahors in southern France -- and Lombards, from northern Italy, who charged a much higher rate of interest than the Jews!

Jews attempted to form their own kingdoms, in present day Yemen and in Ukraine, Crimea and the site of the recent winter Olympics, the kingdom of the Khazars, but they were doomed by Muslims in the first case and the Mongol hordes in the case of Khazaria. I knew of conversion of the Turkic Khazars to Judaism from my reading of Arthur Koestler's "The Thirteenth Tribe," but Schama supplies details of an Iberian Jew longing to visit the fabled kingdom. He doesn't venture to describe the dispersed Khazars, with their distinctive "Hasidic" garb, as the ancestors of eastern Europe's Jews, as Koestler does.

"The Story of the Jews" is not just for Jews…it's the story of all of mankind…and nobody I've read tells it better than Simon Schama.


Simon Schama
Simon Schama
Photo by Margherita Mirabella

About the author

Simon Schama, born in England in 1945,  is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University in New York City. His award-winning books include "Patriots and Liberators: Revolution in the Netherlands 1780–1813"; "Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel"; "The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age"; "Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution"; "Dead Certainties (Unwarranted Speculations)"; "Landscape and Memory"; "Rembrandt’s Eyes." Since 1990, Schama has been a writer and host of many television programs on art and history for BBC2, including A History of Britain."

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