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“Jews Praying in the Synagogue on Yom Kippur”, 1878, by Maurycy Gottlieb

Few historians write with the energy of Simon Schama. His second volume on the history of the Jews shows that Schama has lost none of his vigour: the mixture of stories about people, ordinary but more often extraordinary, witty asides, Schama family reminiscences, schmaltzy views of Jewish life in past times — all this is there. But is it good history? Imagination sometimes takes over. French revolutionary soldiers eating carciofi alla giudia (Roman Jewish-style deep-fried artichokes) in the Campo de’ Fiori to celebrate the tearing down of the walls of the Roman ghetto might sound plausible; but I always understood that the restaurateur Piperno only invented this utterly delicious recipe late in the 19th century.

Schama has to confront the problem that anyone trying to write global history also has to face: weaving together disparate stories, taking one as far east as Kaifeng in China, and as far west as the Americas, means frequent changes of scene. Making this into a coherent and continuous history is therefore not just a challenge but an impossibility. So he rightly tells his story through a large number of principal actors, devoting a great amount of space (I would say too much space) to several of them: Doña Gracia Nasi and her son the Duke of Naxos, in the 16th century, the pseudo-Messiah Shabbetai Zevi in Smyrna and beyond in the 17th century, the prize boxer Daniel Mendoza in the 18th century, and so on.

Now, these examples all come from the Sephardi branch of the Jewish people, those Jews who can claim descent from the Jewish communities of medieval Sepharad, that is, Spain and Portugal. Much of Schama’s book is a history of the Sephardim after 1492. After their expulsion from Spain that year, the Sephardim spread across the seas and began to cohere in new ways. They asserted their nobility among the Jews, relying on an obscure text in the shortest book of the Hebrew Bible, Obadiah, that refers to “the exile of Jerusalem that is in Sepharad”, which probably meant somewhere quite different to Spain — but the point was that the elite obviously came from Jerusalem, so the Sephardim must be the elite. They rather forced themselves on other communities around the Mediterranean, importing their own 15th-century Castilian dialect (“Ladino”), so that even the Romaniot Jews of Greece found themselves speaking medieval Spanish. The Sephardim looked back on their life in Spain as a Golden Age of liberty during which the finest scholarship had been able to flourish; and, importantly, their scholarly contribution had been secular as well as religious, for instance the astronomical tables used by the early European explorers.

Schama observes the superiority complex of the Sephardim with wry detachment. Their ability to combine attachment to Judaism with an openness to the outside world characterised the Sephardi communities, whether within the Ottoman world (where many found refuge) or in western Europe, where Sephardim for long lived outwardly as Christians, nervous of the Inquisition and keen to find lands (such as Holland and England) where they would no longer need to pretend not to be Jews. This willingness to engage with the dominant culture had some significant results. Spinoza’s radical dissent can to be traced back to the battle going on in the minds of many of the Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam about their identity.

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October 11th, 2017
6:10 PM
Are you familiar with the Bitton Report, the one that was dramatized by holding a thick book of the Israeli Education Ministry's standard Jewish history by the nine pages acknowledging the Jews of the Middle East? I raise the question because while I share your concern about the lack of coverage of Jewish communities in Iran and Bukhara, there is no lack of sources covering the European Jewish history. If you were to watch many of the PBS documentaries of the Jews, you would think that knowing the full history of the Jews in Europe from the 16th to the 18th centuries would be knowing ALL Jewish history from the 16th to the 18th centuries. This perception creates fertile ground for the meme that Zionism is a European-colonialist project. It is about time that someone challenged this notion, even if the package is a bit flawed.

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