It’s impossible to tell the story of the Jews in five hours, but Simon Schama comes pretty close.
Schama, a British historian, documentarian and contributing editor to the Financial Times, is the host for “The Story of the Jews,” a five-part documentary series produced in the United Kingdom for the BBC, and airing on PBS March 25 and April 1 at 8 p.m.
For Schama, the son of Lithuanian Jews who grew up enveloped by the Jewish experience, telling this “never-ending story,” as he puts it, is an intensely personal experience. The eloquent historian is capable of encapsulating truths of the Jewish people in ways that resonate.
“So what, if anything, do we have in common?” Schama asks at the opening of the series. “Not the color of our skin, not the languages we speak, the tunes we sing, the food we eat, not our opinions (we’re a fiercely argumentative lot), not even the way we pray (assuming we do). What ties us together is a story — a story kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering and resilience, endurance, creativity.
“I understood when I was quite small,” he continues, “that there were two special things about the Jews: that we’d endured for over 3,000 years despite everything that had been thrown at us, and that we had an extraordinarily dramatic story to tell, and somehow that these two things were connected, that we told our story to survive.
“We are our story.”
The series is divided into five parts:
• “In the Beginning”: An introduction to the Jewish story in which Schama employs some interesting touchstones to make his points, including the ancient Jewish civilization on Elephantine Island, Egypt.
• “Among the Believers”: Following the Diaspora, Judaism’s struggle to survive under Christian and Islamic rule.
• “A Leap of Faith”: The period of European enlightenment and the renewal of anti-Semitism in the late 19th century, culminating with the Dreyfus affair and the rise of modern Zionism.
• “Over the Rainbow”: The story of Chasidism and Judaism in America, how the promise of European enlightenment was fulfilled here just as the Holocaust was darkening the Old World.
• “Return”: From the Holocaust to the birth of modern Israel, complete with its early political struggles, the British mandate and today’s confrontation with its Palestinian neighbors.
Schama periodically weaves his own family history into the program in sometimes-grisly terms, but be clear: his is not the only voice in this series. He interviews an array of Jewish figures, including an Ethiopian Jewish artist who tells the story of her own exodus to Israel through her embroidery, and a Lithuanian carpenter whose wood carvings keep alive the memory of his village, which was destroyed in the Holocaust.
This is a documentary in which Jewish history is taught more with human experience than red-letter facts.
He also travels the sweep of the Jewish people’s past, visiting an abandoned Slovakian synagogue, the Venetian ghetto, the Lower East Side of New York, the catacombs of Rome and the Ben Ezra synagogue of Cairo, which housed the great Geniza of Cairo — any place that’s germane to the story.
A series clearly produced with a British audience in mind, it’s interesting to note its British touches and references, such as the top-hatted chazzan in a London synagogue and the “Jews House” congregation in Lincoln. But nowhere are they more poignant than the stories of Sigmund Freud and Szmul Artur Zygielbojm.
Freud, the father of modern psychoanalysis, fled Vienna for London after the Nazi takeover. A self-proclaimed “godless Jew,” Freud nevertheless kept among his possessions at his home in England, a tiny chanukia. According to Schama, it reminded the dying intellectual of his own identity.
Zygielbojm’s story is no less moving. We meet him in part five — an escapee from the Warsaw Ghetto trying desperately to tell the world what is happening to Europe’s Jews. He is remembered in Great Britain for an impassioned broadcast he made on the BBC, and for taking his own life when the world didn’t listen.
Part 5, where modern day Israel is chronicled, is probably the most controversial moment of the series. A professed Zionist, Schama is unabashed about his liberal views. Nevertheless, he interviews people from all sides of the debate, including a settler from the West Bank and a Palestinian whose family was displaced by the 1948 war. He also visits the security barrier, fairly stating its reason for existing, but despairing for what, to many, it has come to represent.
“The Story of the Jews” may not become your favorite television documentary of the Jewish people, but it deserves your respect. The story is told with passion, emotion and honesty.
For Schama, no corner of its history is too dark or too troubling to recount. It is an honest reckoning of who the Jews are, intended for Jews and non-Jews alike, and that is why it’s a must-see program.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at email@example.com.)