Whatever you might say about Simon Schama, one of our most prominent and accomplished narrative historians, you can’t say he’s afraid to tackle broad and challenging subjects. “The Story of the Jews” is the first of a two-volume work aimed at covering three millennia, from 1000 B.C.E to the present day, with the break coming at 1492 and the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Ferdinand and Isabella.
That’s a lot of ground to cover, greater geographically if not in chronological terms than Schama’s last multivolume work, a three-tome “History of Britain” published in 2000-02 that reached all the way back to 3500 B.C.E. Like that work, the scale of “The Story of the Jews” was dictated by the requirement of a television documentary series, which aired on PBS. Schama might want to select his inspirations more judiciously in future, for the subject at hand comes close to overmatching even his prodigious talents.
The main signs of struggle come at the beginning of the story, set in the deep pre-biblical past. The difficulty – often, the impossibility – of separating fact from myth, legend and archaeological speculation sometimes reduces Schama’s narrative to a muddle. One gets lost tracing the peregrinations of the early Jews between Babylon and Egypt, between the Euphrates and the Nile, or distinguishing between the Jewish communities of Judea (roughly present-day Israel) and Elephantine, an island in the Nile, as distinctive as they were.
Schama resorts to two techniques to work around the muddle. One is to focus on the defining characteristic of the Jewish people, which is their devotion to the book – or, more precisely, the words. As he perceives, it can be enormously effective to track the development of the Jews as a community by watching the development of what would coalesce into the Torah.