Preview: The Story of the Jews

Prize winning author and Emmy-Award winner Simon Schama brings to life Jewish history and experience in this new five-part documentary series, The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama, premiering Tuesdays March 25th 8-10 p.m. ET (episodes 1 and 2) and April 1st, 8-11 p.m. ET (episodes 3, 4 and 5) on PBS (check local listings).

The series is, at the same time, a personal journey for Schama, who has been immersed in Jewish history since his postwar childhood; a meditation on its dramatic trajectory; and a macro-history of a people whose mark on the world has been out of all proportion to its modest numbers.

“If you were to remove from our collective history,” said Schama, “the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable. There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history too and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity.”

The Story of the Jews draws on primary sources that include the Elephantine papyri, a collection of 5th-century BC manuscripts illuminating the life of a town of Jewish soldiers and their families in ancient Egypt; the astonishing trove of documents — the Cairo Geniza — recording the world of the medieval Jews of the Mediterranean and Near East; the records of disputations between Christians and Jews in Spain; correspondence between the leader of the Arab revolt during World War I, Emir Feisal, and the leader of the Zionist movement, Chaim Weizmann.

Schama talks about the turning points of the drama with living witnesses like Aviva Rahamim, who, as a 14-year-old, walked across the Sudanese desert to try and reach Israel; Yakub Odeh, the Palestinian whose village was destroyed in the war of 1948; and Levana Shamir, whose family members were imprisoned in Egypt at the same time. He debates the meaning of new archaeological discoveries of the Biblical period with Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University; the Dead Sea Scrolls with their chief curator Pnina Shor; the character of the Talmud with Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of the New Republic; the photographic record of Israel’s history with Micha Bar Am; German cultural treasures from Enlightenment Germany and the music of Felix Mendelssohn with the critic Norman Lebrecht.

The series, first broadcast in the United Kingdom on BBC in fall 2013, was acclaimed in the British press as “an astonishing achievement, a TV landmark, idiosyncratic, accessible but always authoritative.”  It includes new archaeological research that is transforming our understanding of the earliest world of the Jews, and highlights evidence from the visual arts — synagogue mosaics, spectacularly illustrated Bibles, the brilliantly colorful decoration of synagogues (contrary to impressions of a monochrome religion), as well as the glorious music that carried Jewish traditions through the centuries.

  • Popeye Sailorman

    Mazel Tov

  • Tamarangel

    L’ Chaim!

  • Rebekah Dowd

    Can’t wait to see the documentary series! I was honored to hear Simon Schama speak at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford, as he spoke about the book and upcoming television series. Magical! If the series is as excellent as the book it will be superb.

  • Edithmae Alkire

    My great-grandparents came from Germany to America in 1903. As the years passed our heritage was lost amid the new life here. I was educated in Catholic schools because they were the only private schools in my town. But, I never, even as a 6 or 7 yr old, could see any merit in what I was taught about religion. In my young heart, you couldn’t put God in a box. I read later in the Scriptures that God said, “What building can hold me?” I know nothing about keeping a Jewish home or about the rituals. But, in my heart I worship the True God, the One who said in the 1st Commandment, “I am the Lord thy God and thou shalt not have false gods before me.” That is all I need to know.

    • Nancy Balest

      My story is very familiar. Blessings!

  • Schiffeler

    Humankind would be far better off without religiosity or any other forms of faith-based reasoning. Man’s inhumanity to man is not infrequently bound to his religious beliefs, with such convictions applying equally to all be they atheists, agnostics, or theists.

  • mjwsatx

    Edithmae – The Jewish belief is that the flame of Judaism is present in the soul of every Jew – just waiting a time for it to be kindled into a fire. The first Commandment and the Shema is a foundational belief, but there is so much more to know and learn. I would encourage you to explore your Yiddishe neshama (your Jewish soul) especially since it is so easy to do with the wealth of information on the internet. I would recommend for a start. B’haltzlacha! Wishing you luck.

  • mjwsatx

    Schiffeler – Just wondering if you know how many people have been murdered by the G-dless nations and movements. Do you know how many souls were murdered by the Soviets, the Communist Chinese and the K’mer Rouge? Look it up. The answer might surprise you.

    • Skrunklesthepig

      Excellent point but the sheep aren’t informed nor interested about these details…they are too busy Catching up with the Kardasians ;)