(Art) Story of the Jews (Simon Schama) (PBS)


I wasn’t sure if or how I was going to make it through the entire Simon Schama “The Story of the Jews” on PBS, but I’m glad I did. And while I don’t think I’ll read the book, the television program turned out to be the perfect medium for Schama. A cultural historian and an art historian, Schama has written books about and “starred” in television programs on the French Revolution, the Dutch Golden Age, the history of western art, and Rembrandt. Not a “professional historian of Jewish history,” Schama brings two things to the subject that often goes missing in the field. The first thing is the trained eye of an art historian. The second thing is Schama himself, a star academic, whose wit is elegantly crisp and tailored. Impeccably dressed up for broad public consumption, the story of the Jews has been transformed by Schama into a stream of images and objects. The story told is oriented as much if not more primarily by space than by time. Basing the narrative story upon visual materials puts the focus on Schama’s two big themes: [1] suffering and endurance [2] beauty and place.

I’m pretty sure that many of my colleagues in Jewish Studies will object to the blatant pathos which Schama brings to the story. Marc Sapperstein has weighed in here. But what makes the PBS program worth watching is the art historical approach to the study of the story. You can see this in the formal design of the episodes, the collusion shown in each one between natural and urban landscapes, architecture, objects, art, and the way these get distilled into images. While this story is lent all the necessary moral meaning and purpose, what makes the presentation more radical, if that’s the right word, is the way in which the aesthetic presentation of history and idea gives the story a “sense” or “sensibility.” It is impossible to subtract from Schama’s telling the performance of his own subjective pathos, which inundates the object-character of the story.

Did I learn anything new? Probably not, apart from, and this is the big deal, the form of a presentation. As a historian with deep investments in the history of art, Schama brings to the story objects and things that I bet most or many experts in the fields of Jewish Studies have never seen before.

Episode 1:


11 minutes into first episode, I’m afraid for the entire series. Unbearingly, Schama performs his own Jewishness with elegant British grit in order to tell us a story about survival through story. In the opening shots, the camera points at people and then at Schama himself. This is a Jew, that’s a Jew, I’m a Jew. An then there we are, stuck at the Schama family Seder, listening in on intellectual conversations about peoplehood, distinction, suffering, and “the text.” It turns out “we Jews” are a pretty smart set, a decorous people. At the Schama family seder, they’re doing Jewish things with serious intent. Everybody is well dressed and everything is in beautiful taste. As I begin to figure out by episode’s end, that’s part of the apologetic thrust to what starts off as this too self-involved story. These were my first unpleasant impressions.

But then I began to notice something more interesting, which is how the images, objects, and landscape are used to tell the story. The first objects worth mentioning in the first episode are all in Freud’s study in London. They include idols from Greece and the Ancient Near East, and Hanukah menorah, which then brings us to modern-ancient Israel, where we are given see the valley of Elah, ancient little house shines, letters superimposed on shifting blue, crystalline surfaces to present the names of an invisible God, scribes at work, Ethiopian embroidery art used to frame a modern day Ethiopian exodus story to Israel, or the framing of exile in Babylonia before the Ishtar Gate, a lovely cruise down the Nile to ruins at Elephantine, more Greek statuary and columns, the Coliseum in Rome. Bringing back the first episode full circle, the final object in episode 1 is a postcard from Freud in Rome with the motto inscribed by Freud on the Arch of Titus, “the Jew survives it.”

Thinking about it this way, I would put more weight on a more penultimate moment in the first episode, one that relates to the history of ancient Jewish apologetics. Schama tells us how the ancient Jewish historian  Flavius Josephus underscored in his polemic Against Apion the character of Judaism as a “religion” built on enduring foundations of law and story. No mere “superstition,” the story of Judaism and the Jews is as if designed by Schama to be an apologetic. With Josephys, Schama sets out to refute the judgment of the Roman historian Tacitius that the so-called superstitions of the Jews was tasteless and mean, perverse and disgusting. So that’s what this PBS series is about? To present Jews (Jews like Schama himself) with taste, whose very words and appearance are mannered and beautiful? Deciding to press on to episode 2, the Jew will have to survive it.

Episode 2


Schama shows us gorgeous things like the Kennicot Bible full of color and figure to tell this part of the story. Schama brings us back to the town of Sepporis in Israel, to the emergence of the synagogue and the Mishna, and to that antique town’s architecture and mosaic art. There are some very beautiful things from the Cairo Geniza like grade school primers with child’s doodles, and then the lush life, gardens and mosques and synagogues in Cordoba Spain. The entire ambience is saturated by physical and spiritual values full of sex and poetry. The collapse of al-Andalus is shown by the Gothic towers and spires of church architecture in Lincoln, England, where we see in the cathedral the diminutive shrine to Little Hugh, for whose unhappy fate the Jews of England suffered the murderous blood libel. Black-hooded and gilt gold pageantry of Holy Week in Seville frames the expulsion from Spain, and then we go to the Venice Ghetto and the Spanish Portuguese Synagogue, where the camera comes to a rest. There it takes in the beauty, pathos, grandeur of the place. It’s Schama’s stated desire to stay and dwell there for a moment. Beauty turns out to be a mitzvah. Choked up and at a loss for words, that’s how Schama feels and wants us to feel as he turns to walk out of the synagogue and to end the episode.

Episode 3


To tell the story of the modern Enlightenment, Emancipation, and the promise of cultural citizenship, Schama walks us through an old baroque German library owned by I did not catch which member of German nobility. We admire modern day Berlin skyspaces before jumping into the Moses Mendelssohn story. We are meant to imagine walking through a narrow gate, entering Berlin, and there are paintings of Mendelssohn and of Lessing, of Mendelssohn playing chess with Lavater, and a placard for a 20th century (?) production of Nathan the Wise. Schama sits down with a perfectly preserved first edition of the Biur, the translation project which Mendelssohn organized. Schama reads to us the opening lines of Genesis, pointing at the Hebrew text and reading the German translation of the text in Hebrew script. Still with Mendelssohn, there’s a gorgeous Torah ark curtain with embroidered delicate flowers, carnations, roses, lilies in full color woven into the cream white of Fromet Mendelssohn’s wedding dress. Into the nineteenth century, the camera takes us in to listen to the world of assimilation and music, conversion to Protestantism, and the inability to suppress memory as it bursts out in Felix Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor. There are the salon women and Biedermeier furniture, and the composer Giacomo Meyerbee and bits from a contemporary performance of his Robert The Devil. The opera is full orgiastic nuns and a hero at the brink of hell and rather liking it, as does Schama himself. Again and always for Schama, the emphasis is on the big gesture represented by grand opera and fantastic entertainment.

We know how that story ends. On cue, it takes on more sinister tonal color with a quick meditation on the social exclusions performed by Wagner in his notorious screed “Judaism and Music.” And more big gesture, the over-the-top neo-Moorish Neue Synagog in Berlin and photographs of Bismarck, and the Jews in Germany throwing in their lot with the new German power under Prussian leadership. From our historical vantage, we know it won’t turn out well. We are shown bits of Paris built by Rothschild and then anti-Semitic, anti-Dreyfusard poster art. This part of the story ends full circle. The camera stops in Vienna with Herzl and Zionism, cafes and the acrid music of Schoenberg (String quartet 2) and Kandinsky, whose ultimately unhappy relation with Schoenberg frames as a negative foil the more felicitous one between Mendelssohn and Lessing towards the start of the episode.

Rich in objects and music, the episode concludes with a historical meditation at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, designed by Peter Eisenmann. It’s a performance, of course, one that is both deeply felt and deeply considered. Seriously strained, Schama wants to reaffirm the Enlightenment optimism of Mendelssohn and others, because to do otherwise is to give “posthumous victory” to the murderers. (I don’t know if he knowingly took this phrase from post-Holocaust philosopher Emil Fackenheim). At the same time, Schama grieves for those Jews who continued to believe they could be citizens in these lands and cities of their birth and who could not imagine the end.

Episode 4


The episode opens with a close art historian’s look at the Zvonarska Synagogue in Košice Slovakia, blues and reds and the marking out of death and destruction, documentary footage invoking the memory of the shtetl and the Holocaust, and the boat ride to Lower Manhattan, Lithuanian roads and wooded landscapes, photos from Ansky’s expedition, wooden synagogues, Schama doing shtetl shtick, Jewish gravestone art with hares and bears and lions and other animal emblems of Jewish life, a baroque looking fortress-like synagogue, modernist Yiddish Film stills, and then a close look at the architectural interiors of Temple Emmanuel in New York with its marbled and colored mosaics, palimpsets of Lower East historical and contemporary footage, the Forwards Building juxtaposed with the Yarmulowsky Bank, Depression Era footage and Yip Harburg’s explaining the social conscience behind the song he wrote, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” and  Hollywood Golden Age footage. Again and again, Schama goes for the big and spectacular effect before returning the camera back, back to Lithuania where he interviews Jakovas Bunka the last Jew in town of Plunge, and the wooden sculptures he sculpted of figures from the old Jewish world. The story picks up elsewhere, back in New York and ordinary life, but the last note of the episode remains heartbreak.

Episode 5


More things, more pictures, more story. Israeli street scenes, Yom Ha’Shoah and footage of (almost) an entire country as it stops still when the memorial sirens go off, the Separation Wall, footage from Warsaw and the Warsaw Uprising, a plaque in London marking the suicide of Szmul Zygielboym protesting allied indifference to the slaughter of the Jews in Europe, ruins of a DP camp at Atlit and graffiti carved into wooden walls, back to World War I and photographs of Balfour, Weizman, and Feisel, and Schama handling documents in an archive, in particular Feisel’s letter to Felix Frankfurter  in 1919, searching for clues of what Arab-Jewish rapprochement  might have been, rare old color footage of Zionist settlement in British Mandate Palestine, photographs of British police officers or soldiers dispersing Palestinian Arab rioters (1929?), happy faces of Jewish people on the boulevards of Tel Aviv or New York (?) in 1948, shots of modernist urban street scenes in Tel Aviv circa 1949 and abandoned Lifta, a ruined Palestinian village outside Jerusalem, inside the Eliyahu Ha’Navi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt, Zionist poster art, photographs by Micha Bar-Am, close shots of the Separation Wall. The episode and the series end on the tension between power and ethics to sum up the story of the Jews and the bridges between Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. The last object we’re given to see is a copy of the so-called Survivors Talmud printed in Heidelberg, Germany in 1947 just after the war. The illuminated title page reflects the unfinished book and story of the Jews as told by Schama.

Like all of Schama’s work, but especially here, because the tell is so personal, the series as a whole is saturated by affect, history, aesthetics, philosophy, music, and religion. For a very funny spoof of all things Schama, see here. Kitschy yes, but so what? It’s too easy to make fun of this kind of public (!!) performance that few others could accomplish with such brio. In the age of Warhol, we should know how to negotiate these kinds of things and simulacra. What Schama’s critics might want to consider is the form specific nature of this project. Through the medium of film, the streaming image and sentiment gives sense of a qualia, the story of the Jews as the lived experience of a (Jewish) historian with an eye for art in the first decades of the 21st century. That on its own is very much worth the watch. Would a more “critical” series, on public television, come up looking any less ridiculous to the trained eye than Schama’s at its worst? Are there any other historians out there trained in the study of Jewish history who understand as well as Schama the nature, art, and value of a public performance? Would they know what kind of objects to show us and how to shoot them, and with what dramatic gestures? I can think of only one or two, but none as seasoned as Schama.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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5 Responses to (Art) Story of the Jews (Simon Schama) (PBS)

  1. Pingback: You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap! Simon Schama and Dolly Parton | sethlsanders

  2. My non-Jewish fiancé found it very engaging and learned quite a bit. I liked it but felt like it was mainly a repetition of what I had learned in my Reform Jewish Hebrew school. But watching it with him was great – I could teach along with the show, and argue with it when I disagreed.

  3. libraues says:

    Reblogged this on Lev Janashvili and commented:
    Schama really sounds like a captivating storyteller.

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