Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900

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Only a quotation, taken pretty much at random, can capture the charming but equally irritating quality of the second volume of Simon Schama’s highly personal and idiosyncratic history of the Jews:

There was a time when Jewish catering opened doors. Every Friday afternoon, following Muslim prayers but before the Jewish Sabbath, a caravan of confections from the villa of the Great Jew in Pera was delivered to Topkapi Palace. Seated upon silk cushions, the yellow-haired sultan, Selim II, awaited with keen anticipation the delicacies brought to him on Chinese porcelain: pigeon dainties baked in rose water and sugar, goose livers chopped with Corinth raisins and the spices which were, after all, the Jew’s to command; also some items preserved in the kitchen of culinary nostalgia, from the ancient Turkic days of tents and flocks and racing ponies; the sour yogurts and yufka, the unleavened bread that was wrapped around a pilaf. In the new style there was an array of zeytinyagli dishes, named for the olive oil (another Jewish import trade) in which they were cooked and served cold – a corrective, the physicians said, to the black bile that would come on the humid summers.

This passage is vintage Schama: lush in evocative detail, a veritable word picture, but also self-indulgently overwritten. The passage goes on for another page and a half before we learn the identity of this Jewish confectioner, Don Joseph Nasi, a refugee from the Iberian Peninsula, who became one of the richest and most powerful men (and certainly the richest and most powerful Jew) in the Ottoman Empire.

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