Judith Shulevitz at The New York Times:
Most of the book celebrates Schama’s main thesis: that Jews were not the rigidly pious and self-segregating people Christian invective as well as the theologically dominated research of the late 19th and early 20th centuries made them out to be. On the contrary. From the beginning of their known history and for centuries thereafter, Jews commingled with Canaanites, Egyptians, Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, pre-Muslim Arabs, Muslim Arabs and Christian Europeans. It was only when the Christians and Muslims turned on the Jews, singling them out for humiliation and, in the case of the Christians, grotesque insult and slaughter, that Jews began to withdraw or be pushed into their own separate spheres.
During the sixth and fifth centuries B.C., for instance, Jewish colonists on Elephantine flourished in the company of their Egyptian neighbors. The Elephantine Jews built their temple of Yahu across the street from the Egyptian temple of Khnum — even though, technically, the Bible forbade Jews to build a temple outside Jerusalem. The Jewish soldiers and their families were chided by their betters in Jerusalem, who disapproved of the Elephantines’ high rate of intermarriage and their lax standards of Passover observance, but Schama is charmed by their easygoing urbanity.