The time is now to tell ‘The Story of the Jews’

Historian Simon Schama 

By Repps Hudson, Special to the Jewish Light

While watching Simon Schama’s five-hour PBS documentary “The Story of the Jews,” it dawned on me: The Jewish story is now compelling enough and attractive enough to a wider audience that its many details needn’t be downplayed any longer.

Rather, it’s a saga, three millennia in length, worth telling to several million Americans, not just Jewish viewers. Schama also has released the first of two books, “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC – 1492 AD” (Ecco: 512 pages, $39.99).

Schama coming out with this long yet fascinating tale of the origin, repeated near destruction and then rebirth of a fiercely tenacious people (and a now a country, however flawed or controversial) is something to be admired.

In the opening minutes of the first hour, we see Jews today of a variety of colors, ages and temperaments. What ties them together? Schama asks.

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“What ties us together,” he says, answering his own question, “is a story, a story kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering and resiliency.”

It’s a story of a people who have endured for more than 3,000 years, an extraordinary story, Schama says. “We told our story to survive.”

It’s a story of generations talking to and debating each other, as Schama points out when he looks at what rabbis over the centuries have written as they “obsessed” over the Torah and its meaning.

By his reckoning, it’s a story no longer to be scorned and kept from the larger gentile world, as it has been for so many years.

Think about that.

This is quite a change, in this sense: A happily proud Jewish author, commentator and Columbia University professor, an unabashed intellectual advocate of Jewish life, culture, tradition and faith, would feel confident enough to tell the story of his people to anyone with an open mind who is willing to watch and listen.

It’s a relief that Schama is neither bragging nor ashamed nor apologetic as he takes viewers from the Valley of Elah, where David is said to have slain Goliath; to the stones of the destroyed Second Temple in Jerusalem; to the expulsion from England; to the Crusades, the Inquisition in medieval Spain and then into today, when we see Jews at a seder celebrating Passover, and Jews of many ethnic backgrounds living in Israel.

Schama tells this tale with much expression, with many references to the infinite intricacies of Jewish history, its joys and sorrows and triumphs over enormous hardship, its powerful and enduring sense of community.

He cites the Jewish sense of being “a suitcase culture,” always ready to flee when the powers that be deem the presence of Jews unworthy, as happened in the Passover story, in the Romans’ destruction of the Second Temple and the diaspora that followed, in the expulsion from Spain in 1492, and on and on.

With the broadcast on KETC (Channel 9) for two hours March 25 and three hours April 1, the PBS powers that be must believe that the network’s viewers – admittedly a small segment of the American people – are ready to learn the story of the Jews from well before the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians through to the founding of the state of Israel and into the present.

This story, by the way, does not generally cast Christianity, many Christians, and some of the saints and authors of the New Testament in a favorable light, which is another risk in this largely Christian country.

In one ironic and amusing exchange, Schama is discussing a major difference between Judaism and Christianity with Leon Wieseltier, a writer and the literary editor of The New Republic.

The problem for the Jews, Schama says, is that the messiah never comes, so things never get better.

And the problem for Christians, Wieseltier replies, is that the messiah came and things are still a mess.

Yet, perhaps Americans’ perceptions of Jews have changed for the better. We see this in Jews holding high public office: U.S. Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Democrat from Connecticut, who in 2000 very nearly was elected vice president with Al Gore as president. 

Today the U.S. House majority leader is Republican Eric Cantor of Virginia. The new mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, surprised many of his constituents when they learned he is Jewish.

Then there’s Rahm Emanuel, mayor of Chicago and former White House chief of staff whose father was born in Jerusalem and was a member of the violent Irgun Jewish militia during the British Mandate in Palestine. And, of course, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, one of three Jewish mayors of that city – and that’s not counting Fiorello La Guardia, whose mother was Jewish.

Fifty to 60 years ago, many Jews across the United States still were dealing with overt anti-Semitism. That is still somewhat true in the United Kingdom, where this series originated on the BBC.

Telling the Jewish story in its grand and gruesome detail, as Schama does, could be taking a very big chance. 

But maybe not so much. The Anti-Defamation League, using an 11-question index, has found that “approximately 12 percent of Americans hold deeply entrenched anti-Semitic views.” 

These questions include whether Jews have too much power in America, whether they are more loyal to Israel than the United States and whether they have “a lot of irritating faults,” according to a JTA story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in February. 

“The proportion of Americans who hold those views has held relatively steady in recent years, at 12 to 14 percent,” JTA reported. “In 1964, roughly 30 percent of Americans held such views.” 

When “Shoah” played in just a few movie theaters here nearly 30 years ago, I remember noticing that most of the audience appeared to be Jewish. Few were the gentiles who really needed to see Claude Lanzmann’s documentary about the Holocaust and to try to understand this near annihilation of European Jews in all its complex details.

We are about to find out if this version of the Jewish story, with its tangled and beautiful narrative, will find understanding and acceptance among the broader American public.

The expected audience of Jewish viewers, many of whom know bits and pieces of the story, will surely tune in. They, too, stand to learn from Simon Schama and his elegant presentation of their history, faith, culture and way of life.