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Editor’s Choice: The great Simon Schama begins a two-volume ‘Story of the Jews’

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD by Simon Schama; Ecco, 496 pages ($39.99). The great historian Simon Schama begins his tale with typically cozy informality, 40 years ago at Cambridge University’s Christ’s College. He has agreed to complete a history of the Jews left unfinished by scholar Cecil Roth, “whose entire life had been devoted to the subject.” Schama and a colleague hold informal seminars for his students. “For a couple of hours after supper, the sages, false messiahs, poets and rabble-rousers” of Jewish history “came into our little company as we cracked walnuts and jokes and drank wine and the brimming cup of Jewish words.”

“Outside of rabbinics there seemed to us no other place for history or literature students to meet and discuss Jewish culture, and that itself was a sign of how separate the subject had become from the academic mainstream.”

After 40 years of what he calls “wanderings” through his great work, Simon Schama is about to bring his history and discussions to the most mainstream branch of “academics” in the Western World – prime time television. The five part series begins at 8 p.m. Tuesday on Channel 17. The first of the remarkable two-companion volumes to the series is published this week to take the story from the millennium before Christ where “Jews were made in hill country” to the beginning of another exodus, this one across an ocean, when Columbus made sure to “take with him the Jew Luis Torres skilled in Arabic, as a translator and interpreter” because “the lingua franca of the Indian Ocean was commonly known to be Arabic.”

“What the Jews have lived through, and somehow survived to tell the tale, has been the most intense version known to human history of adversities endured by other peoples as well: of a culture perennially resisting its annihilation, of remaking homes and habitats, writing the prose and the poetry of life, through a succession of uprootings and assaults. It is what makes this story at once particular and universal, the shared inheritance of Jews and non-Jews alike, an account of our common humanity.” From a great historian and an ideal teller of “the tale.”

– Jeff Simon