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Originally published Sunday, March 30, 2014 at 3:03 AM

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Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’: a dazzling history

Simon Schama’s “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD” connects history, art, culture and religion in its account of the Jewish people’s history, beginning with their origins and ending with their expulsion from Spain in 1492.

Special to The Seattle Times


Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of the Jews’

The five-hour companion television series began airing on KCTS March 25 and continues Tuesday, April 1. Consult for times.

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‘The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD’

by Simon Schama

Ecco, 512 pp., $39.99

Telling the story of the Jews, even in two hefty volumes (the second due out this fall) and a companion five-hour PBS television series, is a daunting task, but Simon Schama is more than up to it. Massively erudite in history, art, culture, and, on the evidence of this new book, scripture and archaeology, Schama is one of those charming polymaths that only the British Isles seem to breed. Reading Schama is like sitting across from the world’s most dazzling dinner party guest: there’s nothing the man can’t brilliantly riff on, though you may be furtively glancing at your watch before the evening is over.

If you are looking for an orderly march through the great milestones of Jewish history, look elsewhere. Schama’s approach in this volume, which begins with the emergence of the Jews as a distinctive people around 1000 BC and ends with their expulsion from Spain in 1492, is as eccentric and associative as a lyric poem. At the start of each section, he seizes on some artifact, incident or colorful individual and then waltzes off with it into great looping ruminations. You can practically see the telegenic writer, potsherd or papyrus scroll in hand, intoning for the camera, “Two and a half millennia ago, on this tawny island in the Nile River, a young Jewish soldier sat in his barracks writing a letter to his parents….”

This is decidedly popular history, but a certain level of sophistication is assumed. Unless you’re familiar with Seleucids, the Hasmonean dynasty, Essenes, Idumea, Antipater and the multiple kings named Antiochus, you may find the first couple of chapters tough-going. Schama pretty much dispenses with context and narrative bridges. You turn the page on the “family quarrel” between Jews and early Christians, and suddenly you’re deep in a discourse on the lives of the Hebrew poets in 10th and 11th century Moorish Spain.

Fifty pages later Schama has hopscotched to England, the year is 1242, and a rich English Jewish banker named David of Oxford is wooing the wise, sumptuous widow Licoricia of Winchester. The crown’s appropriation of the couple’s huge estate heralded a “campaign of crushing terror and violence” in which hundreds of English Jews were hung from London gallows, a crime that “has gone unremembered, unlamented, unacknowledged in English history ever since.”

Schama notes in the foreword that “this book and the television films are full of such little revelations that add up to a culture,” and he is indeed superb at connecting the most revealing dots. The vast labyrinth of Biblical commentary known as the Mishnah is at once “an orgy of the picayune” and “a thousand-page act of yearning.” The “surprising chatter” of an ancient potsherd inscription is a “Hebrew tweet.”

Exasperated as I was at times by the digressions and stretches for relevance, I had fallen entirely under Schama’s spell by the end. In the same year that Columbus sailed to the New World by the grace of an astronomical treatise written by the brilliant Spanish Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered their kingdom cleansed of Jews. As the columns of exiles trudged toward the frontier, “some falling, others standing up, some dying, others being born,” in the words of a contemporary observer, the women sang and beat out the rhythm on tambourines.

I closed this hefty volume with new reverence for what Schama calls “the imperishability of Judaic beauty” and new despair at how long and how vehemently the world has tried to extinguish it.

Seattle’s David Laskin is the author of “The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century (Viking).”

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