Review: The Story of Jews-Finding the Words by Simon Schama

August 27, 2014

Author: Simon Schama
Publisher: Random House
Year: 2013
ISBN: 9781847921338
Rating: ★★★☆☆
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Simon Schama’s ‘The Story of Jews – Finding the Words’ is a detailed account of the Jewish people. The author has dealt with various controversial issues in Jewish history in a knowledgeable and scholarly manner. 

Albert Einstein, Steven Spielberg, Mark Zuckerberg, Michael Dell , and Adam Sandler are all Jews.

Hitler killed 6 million Jews during the Holocaust in World War II.

According to Christian theology, Jesus Christ was killed by the Jews, as they did not consider him a Messiah since He was born without a father. They rejected his miracle birth.

These are some of the thoughts that come into my mind when I hear the word ‘Jew’.  Like many Indians, before reading this book, I knew little about Jews and their religion. This is what prompted me to pick up The Story of Jews – Finding the Words. This is a two-volume book whose first volume was launched this year describing Jewish history from 1000BC- 1492 CE. The second volume is expected to release in 2014.

The book gives a detailed story of Elephantine Jews. Also explained is the lifestyle prevalent before the Diaspora from Jerusalem (after the Babylonian Army under Nebuchadnezzar besieged over their territory) and life in exile. The author delves into the intricacies involved in the advent of the Bible (First five books known as Pentateuch are Jewish scriptures referred to as Torah) and takes the liberty of delineating his views through the lens of history.

Simon Schama is a renowned historian who has written several books on similar subjects. However, it doesn’t take long to figure out that his books are structured for a pedantic audience. Since I’m a student of comparative religion, I’ve acquired a nodding acquaintance with the Bible, Quran, Torah, Talmud and other Jewish Scriptures. Hence, I could perceive the historical pertinence of this subject. The book may strike the literary chords with fastidious historians, theologians and journalists, but among the novices it will be an aberration with strong potential to be a dud. In fact, some may find this book abstruse, boring, and controversial.  There is a very bright chance that such an idiosyncrasy may compel the reader to give up reading this book.

The book is replete with pictures which offer some sort of consolation, but the writing is grandiloquently recondite. At times, you would have to research on the internet to learn about elliptical terminologies like Elephantine Jews, Sephardic Jews, Hellenistic Jews, Seleucid, Ptolemy etc. Thus, I have to conjecture that one has to perform a considerable level of mental gymnastics to understand this book, especially the non-experts in this domain. This book is an amalgamation of information, knowledge and enlightenment; assimilating and masticating all of it is like drinking water from a fire hose.

But, there are certain amazing facts worth mentioning. The invention of the first synagogue referred to as Proseuche by Hellenistic Jews, the establishment of Tamid – homicidal gas chambers to sacrifice animals as burnt offerings referred to as holocaust in Greek and the aristocratic lineage of the Kings and prophets does manage to keep the reader glued. The conquests of Alexander the Great, ascendancy of Romans for two hundred years and the history behind circumcision have been vividly expressed. The surgical role of Khazars has also been neatly inked.

The second half of the book is a lot more intriguing. The character of the choleric Constantine promulgating isolation of Jews post the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and the role of Augustine in the unification of Jews and Christians have been well laid out. The persecution of Jews and Christians and the subsequent tolerance of Jews in Islamic Arabia have been disinterestedly and correctly portrayed. Perchance, my only grouse is the failure to explain why the Jews rejected the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He does point out the diabolical accusations from both religious sects and the friction caused due to the rejection, but still leaves the reader wanting. The expulsion of Jews from England, France and Portugal has a decisive bias towards the Jews, provoking the reader to get under the skin of the subject. I pen down this criticism treading on the thin rope of being called an Anti-Semite.

Historical reality does not detract from faith; it only humanizes it. The author surely deserves applause for this scholarly piece of literature, but it fails to qualify as a masterpiece. I do not see this as a thorn, as some books are for the masses and some for the classes. This may be categorically scripted for the latter, it is a niche product that underscores the historicity of Jews at a microscopic level with scintillating attention to detail. This book cannot be understood after one reading; it begs to be taught by a teacher in a classroom.

You can follow Simon Schama on Twitter, and read more about him here and here. Also, read about the BBC documentary by Schama on the same subject here.

Farrukh Kidwai

Writer at IndiaBookStore
Love to read Non-Fiction, Auto biographies, A software programmer but not a very good one, an adventurist

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