Words are key in Judaism. In its narrative, God gave rise to creation through words. God effects His Will through words; and the main means of the master entity in the creation, the human being, to come to the Creator is through words.
Coming to the Creator through words has different meanings in Judaism. Some are anchored in theology; others emerged in the ways the Jews lived, created communities in different parts of the world, and wrote and rewrote about their experiences. For many, the ways they lived were expressions of their relationship to the Creator.
Simon Schama, curator and narrator of this version of the “story”, is not so much concerned with the words of God as much as with the words of humans. What he is driving at is not any of the myriad of theological understandings that different Jewish schools of thought developed. What animates his book are human words.
There is a delight here. By focusing on the people, their lives, and “talk” in the various areas of these lives, Schama has created a rich canvas of experiences of Jewishness across a long arc of history in different parts of the world.
A long and important part of the two volumes that form the “story” zooms in on a period that is arguably among the most formative of the experiences of Jews: their lives in medieval Europe. Here, Schama takes readers on sojourns in different towns and villages scattered in Central and Eastern Europe. The secular and religious interact; and so the stories of the communities, the people, the synagogues and genizahs, and what went on inside them, give us (the readers) glimpses of the social, political, artistic and cultural experiences that shaped Jewishness in each of these places. The intricacy of these facets of life fill the canvas that Schama draws for us. They also pull us in; through Schama’s narrative, we come to see, smell, and hear life in these times and places.
Along with the delight, there is education. This part of the story, in Central and Eastern Europe, is valuable to anyone interested in the modern socio-political history of Europe as a whole. This part will enrich many readers’ understandings of how identities in different parts of Europe evolved from the sense of belonging to local communities that were tiny components in colossal empires, to the birth of the idea of belonging to a nation state. This evolution was often painful, especially for minorities. Still, getting to understand how it happened is crucial to grasping key elements of the wider and bigger story of Europe post-Enlightenment, and before the dominance of modernity.
The book shows the shift of the centre of gravity in the story of the Jews from East to West. The East here includes Muslim Spain and Ottoman Turkey where Jews lived for centuries and often were at the heart of the cultural, economic and artistic lives of these societies. But as the story progresses and community after community moves to different parts of Europe, not only do the locations of the story change, but also we get a sense of some of the changes taking place in these locations.
But the book, despite its two lengthy volumes, misses a key aspect of the story of the Jews. That is the thread that has connected some of their most creative ideas. For example, we do not hear in any serious way about how Jewish theology and identity were influenced by exposure to advanced ancient Egyptian civilisation. There is a lot about human interaction, but not much about the interaction of ideas. We also barely get anything substantial on some of the most creative work in the Kabbala, arguably the richest school of philosophy, and of course theology, in Judaism. This is particularly strange because many thinkers of and within the Kabbala were among the most daring in reaching out to other philosophies for common understandings, cross-cultural fertilisations, and challenging ideas. These interactions led to some of the most marvellous intellectual expositions in the history of monotheistic religions.
Simon Schama told us his book recounts the story of the Jews. And so, it is not really about major ideas in their history. It is a worthy book that meets the expectations raised by its title. As for the subtitle (of the first volume), “finding the words”, it has found some; it has shown us how many Jews expressed their Jewishness and in so doing enriched the intricate tapestry that is their collective story. But Schama has missed other words, some of which, I think, are among the most valuable intellectual contributions in Jewish history.