Simon Schama & His Jews

‘I had an immediate Jonah moment’, Simon Schama explains, ‘Don’t do it, go anywhere else instead. And then I thought “if not now, when, and if not me, then who etc.”

Poppy Sebag-Montefore interviews historian Simon Schama about his new book and accompanying BBC TV series. 

PS-M Why did you call it ‘The Story of the Jews’ rather than ‘The History of the Jews’?

SS Partly because the book in particular concerns the construction of identity through story-making and shaping a narrative as a way of bringing people together. That’s why the subsections are named after the material media of how you deliver the story, whether on parchment, stone, vellum or whatever. There are a lot of moments in the Hebrew bible about the discovery of books and a sort of benevolent fetishisation of what a story does. Our particular story is a portable story. That’s what distinguishes Sefer Torah from monuments or things which are fixed and represent the embodied authority of an autocrat. Jews invent micrographic poetics — they understand what words can do.

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Nobody goes around in Ancient Greece with miniature versions of the Iliad nailed to their doors, but the reverence usually paid to images of gods and kings was already being paid to the Tanach. That’s why we have the kryas torah moment.

I noted how even as early as the Mishnah, and certainly in the Talmud, arguments—which are the essence of Jewish life—are turned into stories. Even when they’re arguing intellectually the rabbis are also very embodied figures. So it’s meant to be about the power of endurance through storytelling.

What I say in the foreword is that Jews have gone through things that many other peoples have gone through. There have been many other expulsions and exterminations. But we’ve gone through it with incredible intensity, possibly more intensely because we’ve recovered and survived and stuck our heads above the parapet again. So we’ve lived through many of the most terrible aspects of what humans can do to each other with the greatest degree of intensity and with a surprising capacity for getting over it. But it is a paradox, if not a contradiction, there’s no way of resolving that. Tension is a nice way to put it.

PS-M Yet in the first episode you seemed to be suggesting that the biggest threat to Judaism has not been the conflicts, or antisemitism, but assimilation.

SS Jews are also constantly negotiating the possibilities of how far do you or don’t you embed yourself with your neighbours? Are you familiar with Cultures of the Jews by David Biale, the brilliant Jewish historian? There’s a message there that Jewish culture is not one thing, it’s many things, depending on where you happen to be historically and geographically. So at particular times it’s going to be shot through with all sorts of relationships with, say, Arabic philosophy and the way the Arabs have transmitted Greek philosophy and so on. But it’s no less Jewish for that. So you either have to take the view that the more you’re engaged with where you are, the less clear you are about your Judaism, or you can take the opposite view. And I suppose the subliminal text of my book is the latter. Even the Holocaust shouldn’t shut down that possibility. Even the catastrophe of the German experiment shouldn’t shut down that possibility. 

SS The television series and book are certainly in tandem but the book ends in 1492 because there is a volume two. I chose 1492, of course, because of the expulsion. Originally I wanted to do one volume, but this book is itself nearly 500 pages. And with this particular project I did a lot of book writing before I started script writing and before we went of filming.

PS-M I have got to bring you back to the Jews at some point but, just quickly, are you picture first or script first?

SS Sometimes there is quite a lot of commentary written and sometimes very little. For example, opening the whole series, it was entirely me. I knew that I wanted to make a connection with people by showing them faces they didn’t think of as belonging to Jews, without being tokenist—because if you go down the street in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem it’s one of the most diverse countries in the world. But people think of Jewish life as Holocaust survivors and swinging peyot. I woke up one morning and had in my head that the line “this is a Jew, and this is a Jew, and this is a Jew …” possesses a kind of deliberate frisson, an anti-Nazi identification: “… this is a Jew, and I’m a Jew.” And I knew I wanted that.

PS-M  When did you know you were going to write this book about the Jews?

SS It’s when Adam Kemp, who no longer works for the BBC, and I were editing The American Future—so it’s 2008 and there’s always talk about what you might do next, because the worst thing is deadly silence from the BBC. And he phoned me up and he said “can we meet for a chat? I’ve got an idea for you that you’re either going to run miles from or you’ll really want to do”. And by the time that I got to the drink I knew exactly what he was going to say. As I say in the foreword, I had an immediate Jonah moment: don’t do it, go anywhere else instead. And then I thought “if not now when, and if not me then who etc.” Of course you will only fail better. And the Rabbonim will hate it and the Palestinians will hate it. But I thought: it’s fantastic that the BBC want to do this. And I also think—this is a JQ point I suppose—we are constantly seen only through the frame of the Holocaust or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—or as super-frummers in Stamford Hill. I absolutely wanted to say: here’s a much richer story for you. And you only get one crack at that.

PS-M Were you worried about the portrayal of Jews on television, did you look at other televisual examples? Were you worried about people’s anxieties at being represented? SS No. I never thought, ooh this is so awful. I have no problem with things that Americans get hysterical about. Imagining the BBC is antisemitic seems to me ludicrous. There was a series of 3 parts about British Jews that I thought was rather good. There was an observational documentary about a Hassid who became a drug smuggler. I thought that was rather good. So I thought it was more a question of just being out there and in the zeitgeist. I saw all kinds of representations. Because of the pain of Israeli politics right now, that image has dominated lately, and has started to creep and seep into a much more general antisemitism, so I didn’t really want to frontally say that there are still monstrous libels going on. I wanted to do it organically by saying here is, if not the whole story, a much more complex story.

PS-M And was it a very different history for you to write because you use the personal pronoun?

SS Yes, it’s much more personal. It seems pointless to try and pretend in some sort of lapidary tone that you’re a dispassionate observer of something. I didn’t want to be egregiously autobiographical, but there is one very painful piece to camera. Certain of my Israeli friends may not be altogether happy with the bit at the wall, at the security fence, where I’m grieving over it. But I do say “the facts are the facts and someone who doesn’t live in Israel probably ought to just shut up.” However, there is something about our tradition, at least there is something about what I have chosen to make of our tradition, which is more open to everybody else. And therefore this wall is a tragic place to be. And there are other moments about which I am absolutely unrepentant, which will get me into trouble with the other side. After the Dreyfus sequence in film three I say right into the BBC cameras, “Guess what? I am a Zionist. I am an unapologetic Zionist. How could you actually live in Vienna with an antisemitic mayor and see this inferno of hatred starting to rise around you and not be a Zionist?” Nobody in the BBC has any problem with it. And they bloody well shouldn’t have any problem with it. But does anyone say that? I don’t think so. I’m too old to be frightened. I’ve had a good life, if someone wants to kill me, fine. PS-M Wow, what a thing to be able to say.

PS-M What about God?

SS What about God? Me and God?

PS-M Well, it seems to be a portrait or history of the Godless Jews.

SS ‘Godless Jew’ is Freud’s term for himself. There is no Judaic theology because I thought it would be a bit hypocritical for me to do it. I am not an orthodox Jew. Am I atheist? Absolutely not. I’m a kind of Einsteinian Spinozist. My God is one who is kind of coterminous with creative nature. So, I do believe in the possibility, actually even the probability, of the prime cause. But, like Freud, for me, which sounds a bit weasely, the point isn’t whether or not Moses directly took dictation down from the divine hand, but the fact that we were saddled in a glorious and heroic way with this set of precepts by which we led our lives.

PS-M But I felt your history was helpful in finding a place for God, and I wonder if history can be helpful in finding a place for God; especially when you describe how during the Babylonian exile the tone of the Torah changed and God began to sound stricter because of the historical context—that offered me an explanation for the sometimes more severe tones in the way God’s voice sounds in the service, which I find difficult to relate to and to put together with the other tones.

SS Remember Maimonides is thought of as an absolute orthodox authority today, but in his time the anti-Maimonides rabbis called for his works to be burned. They called in the Dominicans in order to burn The Guide to the Perplexed, and the Mishnah Torah—it’s really shocking. So are we saying Maimonides isn’t actually Jewish? That he’s been too infected by classical philosophy?

PS-M And did your research deepen your sense of identification or alter your sense of self?

SS Yes. As I went on writing, this business of not doing lapidary remote sardonic history means there are certain moments where you feel you absolutely could have been in the same room as someone you’re researching. And you have to watch out not to become too soppy about that. All of the poets, such as Soloman Iban Gabirol who is very mystically religious, or the one that I felt that I knew from day to day was Shmuel Hanagid. He is someone who leads a Berber army. He is the only Jewish commander of a Muslim army there probably has ever been—in 10th and early 11th century Granada. And he is an incredible poet. In that period Jews are writing Arabic and they are also interested in recovering a kind of Hebrew which is closer to the poetic element of the biblical books. And they feel that the Talmud, as glorious as it is, is kind of petrified, partly because of its Aramaic scholasticism. And some seem to believe that, if only they could bring back a Hebrew poetic classical tradition, their lives would not have been lived in vain. So Hanagid, while he’s being a doctor and a soldier, writes these amazing poems. And I felt very strongly about Yehuda Halevi as well.

PS-M What kind of impact did it have on you?

SS What we’ve been talking about—that there is an immense treasury of Judaic richness, outside the Talmud, the Mishnah and the Bible, which goes off to have its own life. I kept on finding that. Some of them were religious Jews. Shmuel Hanagid was probably still somewhat religious. Yehuda Halevi is deeply and profoundly religious. And then I found that again in Yiddish stories in the 19th century, for example in I. L. Peretz, a short story writer as good as Chekhov—I mean he is mind-blowingly great actually. But I found it almost impossible to read Yiddish. I struggle with my Hebrew but I can read Hebrew so I read it well enough to know that it’s a problem for me, especially when clearing copyright, that at least four different excellent translators of medieval Hebrew poems have radically different versions. So I went back to the Hebrew and chose my own version without doing my own translation from beginning to end, which I would find too hard.

PS-M So did you feel that the Judaism that you’d grown up with hadn’t shown you …?

SS No, not really. But that’s unfair—there was the wonderful Sammy Kramer, my Hebrew teacher, whom we all loved. I knew who Yehuda Halevi was, but I never properly looked at his writings before and it just blew my head off really. It was like reading John Donne, or Baudelaire. Poetry doesn’t get any better than this.

PS-M So do you think that, growing up, not having those figures more centrally represented within the faith was a mistake?

SS Yes, it’s a mistake, it’s a shame, for the kids. I don’t know what they do at Hasmonean school, but they bloody well should do this. I would love to do a long radio series called ‘Jewish Voices’, which would start with Shir HaShirim and end with now. Poems and fictions mostly, but maybe a little bit of philosophical commentary as well. There are pages of The Guide to the Perplexed that are stunningly beautiful.

PS-M Why are these not passed down do you think?

SS I think we are split between the extremely orthodox who have this very exclusive view of which are proper texts and which are not, and people who see Jewish writing as Saul Bellow and Howard Jacobson, as if there’s nothing in between—but there are glories in between, absolute utter glories.

PS-M Is that your hope for the book then?

SS Well, I have two hopes. I hope that it will enrich and expand notions of what it means to lead a Jewish life, of the mind and in every other way. But also that it will connect—that we shouldn’t be frightened of making connections with the world, and that you should strive to do so, as plenty do. I can’t tell my friend Jonathan Sacks that he hasn’t been interested in the world, he’s been doing that for 30 years. But we don’t lose anything of ourselves by doing so. And you’ve got to do that for the BBC. There are 300,000 Jews in Britain, but there are 50 million people here.

Simon Schama’s The Story Of The Jews: Finding The Words (1000 BCE – 1492) is available now, in Paperback, from Vintage Books, priced £9.99

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