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.