Kansas City – When I first read that PBS would be broadcasting a new Simon Schama documentary, happy memories came to mind of his only pervious work that I have had the pleasure of seeing, The Power of Art. His latest documentary, which Andrew Anthony of The Observer also called “his greatest” was simply sublime storytelling. The series, which runs in 5 parts, covers Jewish history from the earliest instances in the archaeological record of there being a Jewish people in the Near East to the modern struggle of identity for those residing in Israel and Palestine, though where Israel ends and Palestine begins has been a matter of some confusion for a few generations now.
As a historian-in-training I found Schama’s style of telling the story of his own people to be inspiring for my own goal of eventually telling the story of my own people, the Irish diaspora. Schama’s reasons for studying history as a profession, because “We are our story,” we are the source of the history that we, as historians, study. This is almost word for word my own chief reason for studying history. That is something that Schama seems to connect to with his latest documentary that many other historians fail to see, that history is nothing without being an inheritance from the past to the present. Schama’s way of telling the story of his faith made me, an Irish Catholic American, feel as though not only could I understand some elements of the Jews troubled history, with both of our peoples often being at the receiving end of some bigger power’s brutality, and with his frequent remarks on the Jewish sense of humour developed through centuries of oppression and exile. Yet, despite these, and many other, commonalities, the story that Schama tells is very much a Jewish one. The very fact that the Jews have made it through all they have is testament not only to the existence of God but also to the tenacity of the human will to survive.
Schama is at times whimsical bringing the viewer into his personal life at the synagogue and at the annual Seder, whilst at other points he brings the viewer into the darker, dolorous parts of what it means to be a European Jew in a community that is now a mere shadow of its former self. His visit to Lithuania, his family’s homeland, is one such moment. A particularly poignant point came when Schama proceeded to explain just how the Lithuanian Jews in a particular shtetl were rounded up, tortured, and killed en masse by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Likewise in its poignancy for me was the intense description that Schama used to conclude his telling of the story of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by Queen Isabella, more famous today for sending Columbus to the Americas. He recounts how the Spanish king ordered his Christian subjects, “Not to harass or disturb the Jews in the process of packing up and selling off synagogues, and lands, and possessions. Get them out of here in peace and as quickly as possible, to which you want to say ‘How very considerate.'”
What sets Schama’s documentaries and books apart from many other historians is how dedicated to his work he has become. Especially in the case of The Story of the Jews, where Simon Schama invites us, the viewer, to join him on a journey into his own family history. It’s an invitation that I would highly recommend be accepted.
To watch Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews online in the United States, please click on the following link.