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on 21 January 2014
"The Story of the Jews" (of which only volume 1 has so far appeared; volume 2 will come out in September) was conceived simultaneously as a TV series and a book, and the book is actually based upon the TV series.

This combination of the visual image and the printed word works excellently in relation to the central theme that the true and eternal homeland of the Jews is the Book - the Jews being very aptly named "The People of the Book"; that the indestructibility of the Book is one of the main reasons for the survival of the Jewish people in the face of terrible adversity; and that as a result the words of the sacred books were regarded as so beloved and holy that beautiful images grew up around them. Schama excels in describing the lovely, vibrantly-coloured images that decorated the words in Hebrew illuminated manuscripts (pages 372-3) - and this book contains beautiful illustrations of these.

Related to this is Schama's demolition of the myth that Judaism is opposed to representational images, with his vivid description of the discovery of early synagogues with brilliantly-coloured paintings on their walls (pages 173-192), also reproduced in the book's illustrations.

Schama is also particularly good on the "mappae mundi" - the "cloths of the world" that were made by the Jews of Palma de Mallorca during the Spanish Golden Age - maps such as the Catalan Atlas (which also features in Schama's illustrations), with its "folding lengths of painted vellum - crowded with Catalan text, webbed with the lines of the winds, brilliant with gold and silver, vermilion and viridian, the personifications of the zodiac, things fabulous and things charted...." (page 375). These maps, as Schama brings out, also bear witness to the dispersal of the Jews all over the world and celebrate their adventurous trading voyages.

But a big drawback of the dual-media presentation is that what works well as a TV series often does not come over so effectively in a written history. In a TV series, we need a presenter to provide continuity between the visual images, but in a book, the presenter himself as an ever-present guide can come to seem intrusive and over-familiar. Schama adopts a chatty, jocular, at-your-elbow style that works on TV but in a written history can become very irritating (though some Amazon reviewers evidently find it engaging).

There are also a number of errors. An earlier reviewer (writing last September) mentioned the statement on page 19 that the Sabbath does not appear in the Book of Deuteronomy. This mistake has already been corrected in my copy, recently ordered from Amazon, but I have spotted several others. Two small ones are:

1) Again on page 19, Schama claims that Exodus and Deuteronomy forbid intermarriage: "The Books of Exodus and Deuteronomy took a dim view of the practice ("Neither shalt thou make marriages with them" Deuteronomy 7:3)". But this quotation from Deuteronomy only applies to the seven "wicked" Canaanite nations, not to all Gentiles. In Exodus, Moses actually marries a Midianite woman! (2:21) It was not until the time of Ezra that intermarriage was forbidden.

2) Schama claims that whereas the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem was part of God's historical plan, the Israelites' sojourn in Egypt was not: "In the Bible-writing mind, Babylon-Persia had been co-opted as the instrument of divine will. Egypt was always the enemy of YHWH's plans for history." (page 11). But God says clearly to Abraham, generations before the departure to Egypt: "Know of a surety that thy seed shall be a stranger in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years;/And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterwards shall they come out with great substance." (Genesis 15: 13-14)

Though it can't be called an error in itself, I find very unconvincing Schama's evident approval of the hypothesis that the Passover Seder meal is a "response to" the Christian Eucharist. To justify this theory, Schama writes: "since the Torah had nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal (only the sacrifice and reading of the Exodus) it has been daringly suggested that the rabbinical invention of the Seder might have been in response to the Easter rites rather than the other way round." (Pages 211-12). The claim that the Torah has "nothing to say about any kind of Passover meal" is in fact another error: what about Numbers 9: 11: "the fourteenth day of the seventh month at even they shall keep it [ie the Passover] and eat it [ie the sacrificial lamb] with unleavened bread and bitter herbs./They shall leave none of it unto the morning"? Surely this is a meal? In any case, the Eucharist can hardly be called a meal, so how can the Seder be a response to it? (It should also be pointed out that the Eucharist derives not from the Passover, but from the Last Supper in the Gospels, which probably wasn't a Passover meal.) A much more convincing theory, which Schama never mentions, even though he stresses the Hellenisation of the Jews, is that the Passover Seder was based upon the ancient Greek Symposium: a banquet characterised by wine-drinking and philosophical discussion.

A serious and revealing error appears in Schama's comment - in relation to the account, in the two Books of Maccabees in the Apocrypha, of the Hasmonean kings' adoption of the dual role of monarchs and high priests - "Tellingly, neither book professes any concern about the violation of a separation of roles established as far back as Moses and Aaron" (page 115).

The separation of the roles of Moses and Aaron is the separation of the roles not of the King and the Priest but of the Prophet and the Priest. Moses was the first Prophet, the spiritual ancestor of the Prophets, who were arbitrarily chosen to be the inspired mouthpieces of God, through whom He spoke to the Kings and People; the Priests were lineal descendants of Aaron and their role was ritual and ceremonial and therefore subordinate to that of the Prophets (of course some Prophets, such as Jeremiah, could also be Priests). Writing of Jerusalem in 200 BCE, Schama says: "the charisma of authority was concentrated in the imposing figure of the High Priest" and that "the appearance of the miraculously clad High Priest was the closest Jews got to the apparition of divine exaltation in human form"(page 106). Schama omits to mention the scribes and sages who in 200 BCE were already developing synagogues and preserving the oral law and who thus provided a link between the Prophets and the Pharisee movement of rabbis that was about to emerge (in the middle of the 2nd century BCE, at the time of the Maccabean Revolt). These scribes and sages and later the Pharisee rabbis possessed, like the Prophets, moral and spiritual authority, as opposed to the merely ritual authority of the imposing ceremonial figure of the high priest in his gorgeous robes.

This over-valuation of the Priests is connected to a certain under-valuation of the Prophets. Thus I found it puzzling that Schama describes the Second Isaiah as insisting on the "exclusiveness" of God (page 46) (also the claim that he is the first of the Prophets to worship One God alone, not just one supreme God, is very much open to question). Taken together with a theme in the early part of the book of a "broad" Judaism open to other cultures and even other gods and a "narrow" Judaism that worshipped only one God, this seems implicitly to criticise the Second Isaiah for being narrow-minded. But how can the universalist vision expressed in the verses attributed to the Second Isaiah possibly be called narrow-minded? "Thus saith God the Lord, he that created the heavens and stretched them out; he that spread forth the earth and that which cometh out of it..../I the Lord have called thee in righteousness and will hold thine hand and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles...." (42: 5-6 ) Schama does not seem to me to bring out sufficiently the role in preserving Jewish identity not only of the words but of the main content of the words: the Jews' sense of dedication to one indestructible, eternal God representing universal values and a plan of perfectibility for the whole of mankind.

Schama's over-valuation of Priests and Kings also seems apparent in his evident wish to believe that Khirbet Qeiyafa, an impressive 10th-century BCE city recently discovered 30 kilometres south-east of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologists, is, as these archaeologists claim (an assertion that has modern political reverberations) a city built by King David and proof that he was an important monarch who ruled over a united kingdom. These archaeologists are trying to disprove the argument, put forward by Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman in "The Bible Unearthed" that the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah were always separate and there never was a glorious united kingdom of David and Solomon, who were only minor tribal chieftains whose capital in Jerusalem was just a hill-village. While not coming out completely in favour of the hypothesis that Khirbet Qeiyafa was one of David's expansive royal cities, Schama goes a long way to indicate his approval of it, at one point pre-empting the issue by writing that "the defensive perimeter was casement....since casement walls largely disappear from such sites after the tenth century, this was another indication of an earlier date, most likely from the united not the divided monarchy". Schama does write of "sceptics" but does not dwell very much on the alternative theories , which are that a) Khirbet Qeiyafa is Canaanite; b) (put forward by Israel Finkelstein), that it is in the southernmost part of the much larger and more affluent northern Kingdom of Israel.

To conclude: I found this long first volume (420 pages) to be absorbing and irritating by turns. On the positive side, the individual stories of ordinary Jews are fascinating. I won't of course be able to write a review of "The Story of the Jews" as a whole till I read the second volume in September. I hope to review the book as a whole then and to include more about the first volume (I've already written enough here, I think!)
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on 23 December 2013
I thought the television version of the Story of the Jews was remarkable but I now realise it simply scratched the surface of the subject.
Simon Schama makes his fun and easy to read. His powerful narrative drive, the frequent comical asides and the extraordinary scholarship of his work make the book unputdownable. As a Jew I thought I knew the story of my people but this book makes me realise how many pieces of the complex jigsaw were missing in my knowledge. Schama provides all the missing pieces so that I can now see the whole picture in it's grandeur, complexity and bloody mindedness.
And this is only part 1!
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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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on 23 January 2014
The brilliant, erudite and articulate Simon Schama produces a muddled, idiosyncratic history of his people (OK, our people). Using his usual trick of engaging you through people you may or may not have heard of to make general points, this first volume only pays dividends in the later chapters on the late middle ages and the inquisition. Until then, it's a mess.

Schama does not credit biblical history much, unless it is Christian or Muslim history. He thinks the Old Testament is pretty much invention, and the opening chapters are so disappointing, they nearly put me off reading it. Things pick up with Josephus, but Schama spends more time covering 10th Century Jewish poetry than he does on the Second Revolt. He totally blows the connection between the rise of Christianity and the destruction of the Second Revolt, or the rise of Pauline Christianity's anti-Jewishness in the light of the First Jewish Revolt.

The later chapters redeem the book to a non-Turkey level. The sections on Maimonides and the end of the Spanish Jews are just brilliant, readable and special. His English tale of woe is also terrific.

This followed the television show - the first chapter was a mess, but it improved greatly in later chapters. When he shines, he shines brightly. When he feels it, he can really communicate.

Ancient history is clearly not that compelling for Schama, and he often assumes his readers know a lot, when they know much less than him. He bends over backwards to be nice to Christians and Muslims, despite their terrible ideas and behaviours.

Most importantly, he never really addresses the core question of Jewish persecution - the Job question - why me? Why the Jews? The Greeks, the Romans, the Christians, the Muslims. I mean, Randy Newman wipes the floor with him -listen to the words on God's Song

Not for beginners, that's for sure.
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on 8 November 2013
So much Jewish history is written from the Orthodox Jewish perspective, that it is fascinating to see a thorough history written from the point of view of what I would describe as more 'Reform' Judaism which most of us are. So this book is about facts ... ie that not all Jews were kicked out of Israel in AD 70 by the Romans ... rather than propaganda (so not the usual "we've wandered the earth since our home was stolen and we were kicked out in AD 70" nonsense).

As a Jew, I'm giving this to my friends for Chanukah ... and to friends for Christmas. I can't wait for the next book dealing with post 1492 history.
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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 13 November 2013
I read this at a gallop and will ahve to go back and read it again (which will be a treat). This is Simon Schama at his engaging and civilised best, describing the history of his people with passion and affection, and in some cases, well justified rage and grief. Unputdownable.
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on 1 February 2015
This fascinating history of the Jewish people takes us from the earliest origins to 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. There is also a TV series. Even the well read historian of the Jews will learn a lot and for the general reader, whether Jewish, Christian or something else or nothing at all you will learn a lot. It begins in a very surprising place - not for example with the Bible being given to Moses on Mount Sinai - but on Elephantine Island on the River Nile in 475 BC. There a large Jewish community is resident, complete with temple, acting as mercenaries to defend the King of Persia's southern frontier against raiders and bandits. Of course the alert reader will note that there is a problem in the previous sentence - there was absolutely only meant to be one temple in Jerusalem - and some of the correspondence is incredibly tactless as the elders in Egypt set out the issues around "their" temple. From its earliest origins then, the Jewish faith was one defined by the word and the continuing arguments about what that word meant. Christians and Jews together have very broadly fallen into two camps - those who believed that the "word" (OT for Jews, OT + NT for Christians) was God given and inspired and to be obeyed and those who thought it was of human origin and could be sifted through human reason. The former group then divide again into those who think Jesus Christ was the Messiah and those who did not. Schama falls into the second group, and my two criticisms of the book are that he tends to give short shrift to those in the former group. Poor old "second" Isaiah -writing Schama says two centuries after the first - is summarily dismissed as "isolationist" for example. Most of the OT prophets get similar short shrift. More surprisingly, the most influential Jew of all times, Jesus of Nazareth, hardly gets a look in: in fact Paul gets a far larger contribution. Putting these criticisms aside, the book is very well written and is especially good on the Victorian biblical scholars who dug up all kinds of early papyri in Egypt shedding light on early Jewish history. Most amazingly was the treasure trove of documents in the storehouse known as the Cairo Geniza in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo. Because of the deep Jewish reverence for the word, which permeates this book (hence the title) nothing written could be thrown away in case it contained, unknown the scared name. So everything was placed in a storehouse. and there it remained until it was unearthed- children's scribblings, drawings, letters, tax bills, religious and not so religious instructions, shopping lists, fashion tips and on and on. So when the Victorian scholars in 1896 found this incredible treasure trove of chaos (the very opposite of an archive) they discovered the most complete set of medieval documents anywhere in the world, covering 9 centuries. Even more fascinating is that the prime movers in this discovery were two middle aged Scottish Presbyterian sisters, Agnes Lewis and Margaret Gibson. The documents are so vast that even now they are being explored in Cambridge. But while the Victorians had a creditably high view of the Jewish people (for example, the Earl of Shaftesbury the noted philanthropist and evangelical, used to take his hat off and bow to any Jewish people he passed on the street, the noted Scottish minister "Rabbi" Duncan devoted his life to the Jews) tragically this has not been true in general. Christians have to hang our head in sorrow for 2000 years of bad treatment in the main. as the book points out in general the treatment of Jews in this period by Islam was far better than that of Christians. And not just in Russia, Germany or France - in England too. The pogroms against Jews in York and Lincoln which seem to have been forgotten predated the murder and cruelty to come. Jews were only readmitted to England by Cromwell - great man! The problem seems to have set in as the Christians acquired power. The earlier Christians, while naturally trying to convince their Jewish friends that the Messiah had in fact come (and remember that nearly all the early Christian were Jews) are a sharp contrast with the situation a few hundred years later where writers like Jerome and especially John Chrysostom were outspoken in their hatred. Augustine uniquely "made the effort of historical imagination to register in full the Jewishness of Jesus and the apostles." God wanted the Jewish people to be cared for, argued Augustine, "as custodians of the Bible's prophecies of Christ". For according to a (probably apocryphal story) an agnostic King of France was told by his counsellor that the best argument for the existence of God was the survival of the Jewish people. This book takes us to 1492, I look forward to the second volume.
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on 24 January 2014
The standard narrative, known throughout the Western World at least, is based on the New Testament. Schama tells of an energetic Diaspora, from North Africa to Baghdad, with flourishing communities, whose cultures contribute much more to the modern Jews, than the Temple practice of the Jews known to the Romans.
Quite different to the current received wisdom and essential for understanding Jews and Judaism today.
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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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