'The Story of the Jews': From the beginning

The five-part series ‘‘The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama” premieres on PBS in five one-hour installments on consecutive Tuesdays, beginning at 7 p.m. Tuesday on OETA-13.
By Jacqueline Cutler, Zap2it Published: March 22, 2014

The five-part series “The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama,” a brilliant take on history, premieres at 7 p.m. Tuesday on PBS.

An intricate look at a people who endure, it will continue in one-hour installments on consecutive Tuesdays on OETA-13.

Schama, who has racked up awards for his books and documentaries on history, art and literature, talks about how he initially shied away from tackling the subject.

“I had a slight sense, a residual sense, that I was at my best when dealing with cultures not my own,” Schama says.

He let the concept percolate for a while, and the result is the series and a companion book.

“This is a Jew, and so is this,” Schama says in the series’ first moments, as the camera pans to people who look very different.

“This is a Jew, and this, and so am I. So what, if anything, do we have in common? Not the color of our skin, not the languages we speak, the tunes we sing, the food we eat. Not our opinions — we are a fiercely argumentative lot. Not even the way we pray, assuming we do. What ties us together is a story, a story kept in our heads and hearts, a story of suffering and resilience, creativity.”

The first episode, “In the Beginning,” chronicles the Bible. “What a moment in literature that was,” Schama says as a Torah scribe dips his quill into the black ink and painstakingly writes the block letters onto the treated parchment.

In the second installment, “Among Believers,” Schama tackles the question of “How do you live without a temple, without an institution?”

Schama does not tell the story in a linear method, relying strictly on dates, texts and talking heads. Rather, the Columbia University professor of history and art history walks through the ruins of antiquity and weaves in history, showing art and interviewing people.

By the end of the second episode, he talks about how the Romans despised the Jews, and this was after centuries of attacks by the Egyptians, Syrians and Babylonians.

“There would have been scant reason to suppose that the Jews would survive,” he says. “And yet 2,000 years later the Jews are still here. How?”

On April 1, the third hour, “A Leap of Faith,” examines “urban modernity,” when in the 18th century the worlds of gentiles and Jews came together. Prejudices were supposedly swept away with the promise of enlightenment.

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