In The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000BCE – 1492CE, Simon Schama has done a splendid job in challenging the stereotypes. His spirited, immensely enjoyable and wide-ranging account – the first of two projected volumes – takes us from the time when we can begin to talk about the Jews as a people and a religious community up to the traumatic moment of their expulsion from Spain, the land where they had seemed most secure and had risen to the greatest heights in scholarship and even government. Towards the end Schama does pile up the woes, and his graphic portrayal of the deterioration in Spain needs to be balanced by the story of Jewish settlement in Italy, Poland and parts of Germany. Sometimes he lets the stereotypes prevail: interfering Jewish mothers; people who kvetch (a Yiddish word for constantly complaining). But as he says, the Jews of early medieval Cairo, about whom we know an enormous amount because a massive rubbish heap of their letters and sacred documents has survived, “were not a people who went around with their heads bowed, austerely dressed”. Still less was that the case for Joseph ibn Naghrela, a vizier of 11-century Granada, who possibly created the first luxurious palace on the Alhambra hill, or Samuel Abulafia, whose 14th-century Tránsito synagogue is covered with inscriptions glorifying him and the king of Castile whom he served as treasurer (and who before long had him executed).
more from David Abulafia at the FT here.