“The Story of the Jews” by historian Simon Schama explores the epic journey of a people from antiquity to modern-day Israel. The two books and accompanying five-part television series were personal for the award-winning writer, filmmaker and teacher. Schama has produced dozens of documentaries and books, including one that examined America’s greatness and its flaws.
Ray Suarez: To write “The Story of the Jews,” to write the story of 5,700-plus years of memory among a people who hold very fast to their memories — it’s a daunting task even for the best of historians. What made you want to take it on?
Simon Schama: When the BBC said, “We would actually like to do ‘The Story of the Jews,’“ I thought, “How many years have you got left? You can’t not do this.” Partly because Jewish history for people who are not Jewish tends to be so overwhelmingly dominated by the Holocaust and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And those are not incidental historical events — they still rightly exercise the world. But they, in some ways, kind of close off the accessibility of Jewish history, which is such a rich and complicated and not always horribly tearful story, as one might imagine. So, I thought, “Well, here’s the possibility in Europe, and I think even a possibility in the United States, to provide a point of access — for non-Jews as well as Jews — to actually enter this story, which has had such a profound impact on the world.”
Were there new discoveries?
When I began the research five years ago, [I] didn’t really know about the story with which I begin the book, namely a colony, a town of Jewish mercenary soldiers and customs guards at the time of the Persian Empire, the fifth century B.C. In other words, the time that a lot of the Bible was being written, there was this extraordinary town in a place called Elephantine, an island on the Nile opposite Aswan, in which the Jews shared space with Syrians and Egyptians and knew some of their story. It was a wonderful paradox that they’re celebrating Passover, which talks about leaving Egypt, but they’re not going anywhere. I didn’t want to start in the mists of time with Abraham. Here is what I call a community of suburban ordinariness, in a way — because they’re not just soldiers. It’s a real town, and we know about the things that are daily-life things. We know about their property disputes. Jews are obsessed with that. We know about pre-nup agreements, those kinds of things. So, slightly mischievously, I wanted to say, “Look, this is a place where there was no obligation to suffer.” And also they were very connected in the non-Jewish world of which they were part. Then I moved to the Bible. The Bible, for all its riches, is not a document of social history.
Very interestingly in the last several decades, there’s been some talk in the United States about “tough Jews,” the idea of the “schtarka,” the neighborhood tough guy. Well, at least in the Elephantine, the idea that you have mercenary soldiers. People would say, “Oh, I need mercenary soldiers. Get me some Jews.”
Yes, exactly — “call the Jews.” In 18th-century London, which I’m writing about now, there was similarly a gang of roughnecks. It was the Sephardi Jews who brought fish and chips to Britain, actually, believe it or not, from the Mediterranean world. Apart from actually eating and selling fish and chips, they were kind of debt enforcers. There was a kind of Jewish “Soprano” gang, basically. And I wrote an essay about the first great sports celebrity in, I think, history, who was a Jewish boxer called Daniel Mendoza, known as “Mendoza the Jew,” who was a very, very tough and devious fighter. He invented the uppercut, we’re told, actually. And he was attacked by Christian boxers as being, typically, a Jew who would always hit you from down below, up top. So, there is this side to our existence, as well as, you say, the studious philosophers and poets and men of the mind.
There are no more Lydians, there are no more Illyrians and Babylonians, but there are still Jews, who were contemporaries of all those people.
You know, there are Jews who disappeared. The Chinese Jews disappeared. And they disappeared in circumstances where they were really quite well treated. This is not a recipe saying, “Persecute us.” I do not want to be misunderstood that you need a dose of persecution in order, really, to have a sense of your identity. Otherwise, you know, there would be no American Jews. Even if you’re not strictly, fiercely Orthodox, you commit yourselves to a community of memory. We’re the only religion which, both in the Bible and every year at Passover, [is] required to remember and to relate a story so that it doesn’t disappear generation to generation. And the Jews are not at all unique in terms of what they’ve suffered, as being treated as permanent aliens and strangers. But they are probably unique in believing you can do this through the power of the word and the power of the mind, I think, actually.
This country [the United States] has been a haven for Jews, often a difficult home, but arguably one of the greatest gifts to the Jewish people ever.
You know, Jews come to Newport, they come to New Amsterdam, where they run into Dutch anti-Semites immediately. One of them, at least — Peter Stuyvesant, the governor. But they also come to Newport in the middle of the 17th century. And Newport is significant in Rhode Island because Providence colony is founded by Roger Williams. And Roger Williams is a kind of fierce Christian of the kind of radical — in 17th-century terms — left. But his view is that there is no church that is not corrupt and imperfect. Therefore, no good Christian is ever entitled to form a government [or] entitled to bar anybody else’s worship. That includes American Indians, and it certainly includes the Jews. And there’s an incredible spark of fire of toleration that begins in New England. And Roger Williams is himself a refugee from persecution, from Puritan Massachusetts. But the crucial big point to make is that Jews have had a hard time when nations and nation-states have founded themselves on myths about soil, blood and tribe. We are wanderers. We are never going to make people feel easy if, essentially, they are aiming to have a country built out of territory and one language and the sense in which you belong to an exclusive tribe to which people have to conform almost biologically. The world now is still fighting those terrible battles. America is truly special because it’s founded on an idea. It’s the ideological and philosophical equivalent of a formless God, in other words, you know? It’s, again, the only great country in the world that it is formed out of words. The union, the communion between American words and Jewish words is a natural and surprising meeting.
You’ve written a lot about America. How does the country look to you now?
One thing that America has trouble with is the sense of limits. America was not founded on calculating limits. In “The American Future” there’s a chapter called “American Plenty” — and in the film, filmed in the year of the first Obama election in 2008 — and this year, as those years ago, the essential drive to remain special in the world and to keep a national community as driven by its extraordinary sense of creativity and determination and self-motivation, depends, also, on the calculation of what you can’t do as well as what you can do. This is not an election winner, of course, one has to say. But the same thing would be true of the irrational exuberance of the money markets, really, which got us into such catastrophic trouble. There is no limit to what we can do with derivative trading. You know, that cannot be true. So we’re wrestling with this dialogue between a kind of political language which says, “That’s capitulationism. That’s for the Europeans. That’s for these sorry addicts of government regulation, always telling you what not to do. We are American, and we can do absolutely anything.” And, on the other hand, gentlemen are saying, “No, we actually are all knitted together in this world, God help us. There are some things we have to calculate that possibly we can’t do, or we do with a more modest sense of what our horizons are.”
Because part of the American genius, I would argue, is that sense of no limits drives you to do amazing things that nobody else thinks you can do. But then there’s a sort of rigid reality.
Well, I think the way you project your military power — and, again, you know, this is a moment we’re talking on a dangerous day — I’m not a pacifist, I don’t believe in the dismantling, heaven forfend, of American military power. But you have to improvise. If Benjamin Franklin walks among us with his infinitely brilliant adaptability, by seeing, being very conscious of not being behind the curve, of seeing what the limits to an old way of doing things are — so you can have a particularly adaptive genius. Those that don’t have that adaptive genius will go the way, dare I say it, of IBM. Remember, we all used to have Big Blue computers, right? That’s what happens. So we have to think, as Americans brilliantly do, more nimbly, more cleverly, rather than just assume that the whole world is our oyster.
But isn’t the tough balancing act doing that without giving in to declinism? When the president [Barack Obama] tried to rally the international community in Libya and then again in Syria, and now, with at least more partners and more support, in Ukraine and Crimea, you’re seeing a different kind of projection of power. You can’t just simply speak power into being like you used to.
No, you can’t, but you can’t run away from it either. Is it tricky? It’s the most tricky thing of all. And for all his faults, there was a way — he didn’t have to cope with the sort of catastrophic recession we’ve just barely pulled out of, but Bill Clinton did have a way, as did Franklin Roosevelt, even the way Ronald Reagan did, too. They all had a way of saying what could be done in a new way without sounding stentorian and depressing. That was the problem. Jimmy Carter had very important things to say, but it was appallingly hopeless. The way he said it was just making everybody feel naughty and wicked and having to stand in the corner for their sins. Look, we have a very, very serious moment today, whatever happens as a response to the possible annexation of Crimea, there is a gigantic issue out there which America is supremely fitted to lead — namely, the definition of what free Europe is. This sounds a cold warrior of me, and I couldn’t be less of a cold warrior, but we need to say, we need to make it absolutely clear to the Russians that the days of reconstructing the Soviet Empire are gone, that there is such a thing as a free Europe now. We need to worry about where its borders are, but we need to do this. Americans, be it the Atlantic Charter, be it the Declaration of Independence, be it the Gettysburg Address, are very, very good at pithily articulated statements of principle which the world immediately understands.
There are probably some people picking up a paper, turning on this broadcast, hearing about it on the radio, and thinking, “Why is this my fight? Why is whether Crimea is Russia or Ukraine my fight?”
It turns out unexpectedly that the great issue of our time is how do people of different beliefs and different cultures share the same common space. And if the answer to that, to problems about sharing a common space is you invade a part of a country in order to sort out problems with minorities, you’re in an unbelievably, suddenly violently dangerous world. And we have, after all, along with Russia in this particular case — we are signatories to a treaty. They gave up nuclear weapons in order to be guaranteed the territorial integrity of the Ukraine. If that paper is worthless, we are truly in a 1930s situation in which none of the countries who feel close to a potentially expansionist Russia are going to feel safe. The Baltic countries are going to want to have their nuclear weapons, the Scandinavian countries. You know, all those countries that used to be part of the long reach of the Soviet Union into Europe are going to say we cannot possibly rely on American power. So the answer to our commuter in Duluth and San Antonio is to say if you believe that America is not just simply about our parochial, shared interests in the Western Hemisphere, but whether we like it or not, we’ve been saddled with this global role — which in some sense the world has benefited by an American presence, unimaginably so, since the Second World War — then this is a moment to, you know, stand up for what we believe. It’s a moment to step up to the plate.
Simon, you are, as they say, a man of many parts, not just sitting with piles of dusty notes and scribbling away. You like to sing. You like to dance.
I like to cook. I think a lot of people who sort of work with their heads and with writing need some sort of break from it and something that’s really — and in my case, you know, I’m a very impractical person. I wouldn’t know a carburetor if it fell on me from the sky. I was not great at various kinds of sport. But I knew instantly when I started to cook seriously as a student that I could do it. There was something about smell, flavor, the chemistry of it, timing.
There’s a bit of performance to that, too.
There’s a lot of performance to it. You’re giving pleasure, and there are a lot of antics. I’ve had more emails [asking for] my recipe for a mustardy cheese soufflé. I’ve had actually more than any history I’ve ever done. Schama’s cheese soufflé is why I was put on this earth, it turns out to be the case.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Tune in to see this episode Saturday March 22, at 7:30pm ET/4:30pm PT.