The Story Of The Jews –
Finding The Words 1000BCE-1492CE
By Simon Schama
Bodley Head – £14.99
”Jewish reading is literally loud-mouthed: social, chatty, animated, declamatory, a demonstrative public performance meant to turn the reader from absorption to action; a reading that has necessary, immediate, human implications; reading that begs for argument, commentary, questioning, interruption and interpretation; reading that never, ever shuts up. Jewish reading refuses to close the book on anything.”
So writes Simon Schama in ‘Words,’ the second chapter of this altogether, brilliant, brilliant book.
Brilliant for a wide menagerie of reasons. One of which lies in the simple fact that The Story of The Jews – Finding The Words 1000BCE-1492CE is one of most inspiring books I’ve read in a disturbingly long time. So much so, that I found myself having to put the book down every now then just to absorb, fully enjoy, and appreciate what I’d just read.
Although this ought hardly be surprising because Simon Schama is, if nothing else, a most demanding, refreshing and enlightened author and historian. For which read: a terrific writer with surely one of the finest commands of the English language, currently writing. A (mere) few of his previous books include Rembrandt’s Eyes, A History of Britain Volumes I, II and III, The Power of Art, The American Future: A History and Scribble, Scribble, Scribble: Writing on Politics, Ice Cream, Churchill and My Mother – the latter of which I’ve reviewed in this site.
But in all honesty, what sets them apart from a plethora of safe’n’tired’n’limp-wristed, annoyingly cloying contenders, is the actual standard of his writing itself. It’s so good, it’s almost bloody embarrassing; as Schama writes with the utmost finesse and flair, panache and poignancy. It seems his every word and every description is so clearly, carefully, considered.
This is just one of the reasons why his writing is such an all round, embracing joy to read: ”’May be… blessed… the rebuker of evil… bless and make shine his face upon you and give you peace.’ That something is the gravitational pull of memory, the hurtling together of an ancient Then with the fleeting Now, that is the occupational hazard of anyone venturing into the Jewish story.”
A story so vast, so immense, so beautiful, yet all so tragic; that in its all encompassing complexity, it gleans even more than the truth itself ought dare to allow.
This is overtly substantiated in ‘Exile From Exile’ towards the close of the book, where Schama so accuratly writes of that notoriously odious time in world history, The Inquisition: ”The Inquisition was its own dominion of judgement, a state within a state, answerable to no one other than the Pope, the Crown and its own array of imposing bureaucratic regulations. As well as the inquisitors and those who staffed the tribunals of interrogation, a huge army of ‘familiars’ was responsible for handling the bureaucratic work that oiled the machinery of terror. So many carefully considered regulations surround the application of torture, for example, that those who oversaw it constituted the first systematically organised bureaucracy of pain […]. Notoriously, virtually unlimited powers of torture were granted to extract ‘full’ confessions from those suspected or relapsing or, worse, those who were impentitent, active Judaisers. Thus the snooping state made its entrance in history: servants, family members, neighbours frightened and cajoled into becoming informers and spies. Even in monasteries and convents, monks and nuns would report on brothers and sisters […]. And the Inquisition also invented, to a degree unseen since the Romans, the spectacle of public punishment as mass entertainment. Days of auto-da-fé were declared feast days and holidays so the maximum number could attend the procession of the condemned, who were barefoot and dressed in the conical hat and shapeless rob of the sanbenito, the garments of those impentitently unreconciled to the Church decorated with licking tongues of flame, for as the Inquisitors sanctimoniously reminded the unfortunate, better they should be consumed by the flames of this world than be doomed to burn eternally in hell. Grandees, often including the king and queen, would attend these elaborate ceremonies, nibbling at holiday daintees, pomanders to their nose when the smell became disagreeable […].”
The all round construction and blatant honesty of the above, along the choice of words used, reminds this reader of the elongated potential for continuing, abhorent, disgusting human behaviour. One need look no further than Syria in order to ask if we have actually learnt anything? Anything at all (about human nature) that is…
As stated on the back cover of this absolute marvel of a read, the subject matter herein ”is a story like no other: an epic of endurance aganist destruction, of creativity in opposition, joy amidst grief, the affirmation of life against the steepest of odds.”
In other words, The Story Of The Jews is one of the most profoundly moving books you will probably read in a very, very long time..