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on 25 September 2013
Simon Scharma calls this a Story rather than a History and perhaps with reason. If you were to expect the familiar Jewiosh stories from the Old Testament you would be sadly disappointed. There is no reference to the great tales of Samson, of Elijah in his chariot of fire and (astonishingly perhaps) barely a mention of Abraham. In fact, Scharma has amassed copious evidence about the Jewish experience throughout history from ancient times up to 1492 while ignoring what many would imagine its major source, the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus of Nazareth hardly gets a mention but his followers certainly do and their treatment of the Jews, while familiar, still manages to fill one with dismay. Islam treated them slightly better but there were still massive burdens to be borne by Jew living in Moslem areas of the world. A good deal of the book is somewhat depressing, particularly since we know that the worst is yet to follow.

This is not really an easy read because it contains a massive amount of scholarship, far more than the TV programmes that accompany it. However, Scharama has a most attractive style and if you watched the programmes you can imagine his voice as you read: its humour, sardonic asides, deliberate anachronisms and moving passages that touch us more deeply.

It is the first of two volumes, covering the earlier TV programmes: the second volume is due next year. I will certainly be among those who are loooking forward to reading it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 29 January 2014
Yet another History of the Jews? But Simon Schama digs out much that is missing from most such histories. The first chapter already sounds a new and idiosyncratic note: he begins not with the Patriarchs or the Exodus, but many centuries later, in the sixth century BCE, with the Jewish community and temple at Elephantine, in Egypt, during the time when Egypt was governed by the Persians. Schama calls it the “first [sic] Jewish society we know anything much about” (can this be true?), though “outside of a circle of scholars, this first [again], rich Jewish story has had virtually no purchase on the common memory of Jewish tradition.”

Later parts of the story follow along more traditional lines, but Schama also introduces little-known details found in scraps of clay, papyrus or other materials which are about the daily activities and concerns of ordinary people. (There are sixteen pages on the Genizah treasure trove, discovered in Cairo in 1896.) There are also fables which, as all fables do, tell us something about the mind set of the people who invented them.

The book is not one for readers new to the subject: a good deal of knowledge is taken for granted. It does improve as it goes along; but the early chapters are not always an easy read, and the chronology is not always clear and has to be worked out from other sources. Again it is in the early chapters that the style is sometimes stodgily detailed; at other times, both here and later, it is imaginative and eloquent, in places jauntily colloquial, and occasionally verbose and declamatory.

Schama is expansive on some topics: on Josephus, for example; or on the glowing murals of the synagogue at Duro-Europus and the mosaic floors of at least forty synagogues, which show that religious Jews did at one time make images (as indeed they would do again in medieval Haggadahs and Bibles); or in the loving description of the Mishna’s obsession with minute details both in injunctions about behaviour and in recalling the minutiae of sacrifices made in a Temple which no longer existed; or on the Jewish poets in Muslim Spain. On other topics he is cursory: for example on the Babylonian captivity; or on the life of the Jewish community that stayed behind in that region after the Return and flourished under the Persians; or on the Karaites and Saadia Gaon; or on Kabbalism.

The story is not always continuous: the long third chapter discusses at great length the Victorian scholars (they included George Grove, who was irked that he was known to most people only as the compiler of the famous Dictionary of Music and Musicians when he saw himself primarily as a Bible scholar) who went to the Holy Land to identify places mentioned in the Bible; then those scholars who think the Hebrew Bible in mainly invention; then the archaeologists who have found in their work support for passages in the Bible. It is all very technical, and a massive interruption of the story.

This is resumed when Schama comes to tell about the Hellenistic period (here, and wherever else he finds it, Schama stresses and approves of acculturation), the Roman and Byzantine period, Jewish life under medieval Islam in the Middle East and in Muslim Spain, the horrors of the massacres in Western Europe during the crusading period. And this first volume ends with the terrible events leading up to the expulsion of unconverted Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496.
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on 8 June 2014
The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama is a well researched and exceptionally presented piece of literature. The book covers a huge space of time and does a great job at showing you the "Story of the Jews". This book shows you beautifully how we as humans can endure any hardship and not only survive but thrive within the constaints we are placed within. This book is pretty comprehensive at 512 pages long. I am glad I read this book and would definitely recommend it to others.

Thank you for reading my review.
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on 29 May 2014
Perhaps the best series made by Simon Schama. Such insight, such depth but not hard to watch. Give great insight into the Near East today and about anti Semiticism around the world.
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on 14 November 2013
The television series was first-class
This book takes one well beyond it, in a characteristically erudite yet easy to read style
It is destined to be a classic in its field
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on 25 July 2015
Truly hard work but very worthy
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on 29 November 2014
Simon Schama must be without doubt one of the finest historians and communicators in the world. A truly renaissance man, he has a profound and articulate knowledge of art and history. It is impossible not to be engaged by the worlds he describes. Here he writes the story of the Jewish people (his own people) from the beginning up to the mid 15th century. His knowledge and research are stunning and, I have to say, at times almost exhausting. It takes concentration and stamina to read every word, but it is worth it if you care about the unfolding of this story. While obviously committed to his cause and subject, he is not without objectivity or humour. He naturally understands the Jewish mind-set and attitude through the centuries, indeed the millennia. His empathy and insight shine from the pages and you realize, as perhaps never before, how complex and multi-layered the story of the Jews actually is. If, like me, you watched the original TV series of the same name, you will already recognise the territory. The book is greatly more detailed but the journey is worth it. Demanding, but recommended.
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on 30 September 2013
It's beautifully written and the photos are excellent. It covers the period covered in the TV series.
The style isn't dry academic.
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on 28 September 2014
Unfortunately too complex for my simple mind! Purchased with good intentions after his excellent TV series but I could not understand his language and context.
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on 25 December 2015
This is to accompany a tv series and it is eminently chatty but in no way a serious work of history.

In the first few pages it made two howling chronological errors, and there are others which those better versed than me in Jewish history have pointed out. He contradicts himself in a matter as important as the dating of the first synagogues and makes no mention of a matter as serious as when the Jews began to believe in an afterlife.

Those who know nothing about the subject may find its easy talk appealing but I know enough to know Schama is way out of his depth here.
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