Review: ‘Story of the Jews’ is also story of writer Simon Schama

Historian Simon Schama wrote and hosts the PSB series "The Story of the Jews."
(Michael Robinson Chavez / Los Angeles Times)

Simon Schama, the British historian and television personality and name-in-the-title host of “Simon Schama’s History of Britain,” “Simon Schama’s Power of Art,” “Simon Schama’s Shakespeare” and “Simon Schama’s Obama’s America,” is back with “Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews.” Premiering Tuesday on PBS, it attempts to distill 3,000 years of Jewish history into five hours of TV and does a fine, if necessarily incomplete, job of it.

Like many British documentaries — the series originally aired in September on the BBC — “The Story of the Jews” comes with a personal touch. The host is also the writer, who shares something of himself, his enthusiasm and his experience.

Schama is quiet as to the precise details of his own religious beliefs, which among people who identify as Jewish can vary all the way from orthodoxy to atheism. We do see him hosting a Seder, which settles nothing. He is a practical Zionist — given a long history of marginalization, (literal) demonization and (again, literal) annihilation, he subscribes to the necessity for a Jewish homeland — but is wary of those who would see their claim to the land as divinely approved.


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Nevertheless, Schama feels the fate of his people as his own, and more than once lets himself grow visibly emotional. He is interested both in culture, which is amorphous and open to interpretation, and in facts that speak for themselves.

And so he has produced a series that is at once informative, entertaining, thought-provoking, heart-wrenching and, in its final episode, in which he confronts the paradoxes of modern Israel, more than a little maddening. Like the religion and the culture that surrounds it, each of which loves an argument, it is inconclusive and open to discussion.

His through-line, such as it is, is the word, which in the beginning was the unpronounceable name of God, and has since fruitfully multiplied into a world of names, actions and adjectives. Not only was the written Bible a Jewish innovation — and with its prescriptions and proscriptions the glue that held the people together when they were scattered and stateless but the word found further expression in the Talmud, “that endless hypertext,” which stirred in additional oral tradition and commentary, and commentary on the commentary (and commentary on the commentary on the commentary).

“We told our story to survive,” says Schama, whose own way with words is part of the pleasure of the piece.

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At the head of that story was the single-god theory later adopted and adapted by Christianity and Islam, “new religions that saw Judaism as an unwanted grandpa religion, too old, too obstinate in its ways to accept a new messiah or a new prophet.” In a world dominated by those at-odds military empires, the Jews had “to find a foothold on the narrowing ground between grudging toleration and murderous hostility.”

Buffeted on the tides of other people’s history, they might come to rest for a while in some safe harbor until the next war or economic crisis found them scapegoats once again, forced to move on in search of “the possibility of the decency and the nobility of an ordinary life.”

Schama is a personable on-camera narrator and interviewer. We follow him as the story moves from Palestine and Egypt, to Spain and Italy, to the Ukraine (whence came my own Jewish forebears, the misleading Welshness of my name notwithstanding).

It is a sociable five hours, in between the Inquisition, pogroms and Holocaust. He visits museums and archaeological sites, where the history of the people always comes back to documents and words, from the Dead Sea Scrolls to a Medieval child’s Hebrew copybook to a postcard from Sigmund Freud to the socialist Jewish Daily Forward to the lyrics of “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and “Over the Rainbow,” by E.Y. “Yip” Harburg, born Isidore Hochberg on the Lower East Side.

Schama doesn’t insist on regarding his people as inherently heroic, though there are heroes among them. Nor is he blind to the fact that, throughout the ages, some Jews have taken “a hard line … that elevates religious ethnic purity at the expense of social reality.” He seems to miss the irreproachably liberal, right-minded, left-leaning politics of a more secular Israel, and is especially troubled by the encroachments of the settlement movement, and no less troubled after interviewing a settler.

“The Bible is many things,” he says, “but a blueprint for peace in this land it is surely not.” He worries that present policy “dooms us to become again as we were 2,000 years ago — a fanatic tribe in the Far Away East isolated and self-isolating from the other parts of the world.”

That’s the moral cliffhanger on which he conditionally ends his tale, pointing out that it’s just the latest chapter in a book that continues, and will continue to continue, to be written.


‘The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama’

Where: KOCE

When: 8 and 9 p.m. Tuesday

Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)