People of the Word: The Jewish encounter with history

Peter Lopatin in The Weekly Standard:

BOB_v19-46_Aug18_LopatinSimon Schama’s choice of “Story” in place of “History” in the title of this impressive new work is fitting, for the history he recounts is not history conceived of as a chronicle of important events, but rather as a compendium of thematically linked stories told throughout the ages by, and about, the lived experience of real people—and of a people. Schama tells these stories in terms of a number of characteristically Jewish oscillations: between exclusivity and inclusivity, differentiation and syncretism, assimilation and rejection, fidelity to law and tradition and the Jewish proclivity for scrutinizing and interrogating both. The myriad ways in which Jews mediated and resolved (or didn’t resolve) these oppositions over the better part of two millennia constitute the warp and weft, the theme and variation, of Schama’s narrative. To tell a story is, necessarily, to adopt a stance, an agenda that informs the story-teller’s choices of what tales to tell and what themes to educe, and Schama lays his agenda on the table at the outset:

What the Jews have lived through, and somehow survived to tell the tale, has been the most intense version known to human history of adversities endured by other peoples as well; of a culture perennially resisting its annihilation, of remaking homes and habitats, writing the prose and the poetry of life, through a succession of uprootings and assaults. It is what makes this story at once particular and universal, the shared inheritance of Jews and non-Jews alike, an account of our common humanity.

It turns out to be an agenda that serves Schama well. Some of the stories he relates are of well-known figures of Jewish history, biblical and otherwise: Ezra and Nehemiah, inveighing against the corruption of Jewish society by “foreign” influences; the important (if ever problematical and dubious) Flavius Josephus, a Jew turned faithful Roman general and chronicler of Jerusalem’s destruction at the hands of his Roman masters; rabbi and philosopher Maimon ben Joseph (known to us today as Maimonides) striving to reconcile faith with reason. And the list goes on, including rabbis and scholars, to be sure, but also mapmakers, courageous wives and daughters, poets, and physicians.

More here.