I was aware that Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews was a television series before I knew that it was also going to be a book, and that may be why I didn’t even look at the first volume, which covered the years from 1000 B.C.E. to 1492 C.E., when it came out a few years ago. But I found it more difficult to resist the second volume. It was hard not to be curious about what a historian of his caliber would have to say about the Jews of an era he knows so well. Before I opened the book, I have to admit, I also experienced a bit of anticipatory Schadenfreude. I more than half expected that Schama would prove to be as dilettantish in his treatment of his own people’s history as any number of other prominent Jewish scholars who have turned aside from their main concerns to concentrate for a while on more parochial matters. Although I’m not proud of it, I looked forward to making a joke or two at the expense of a man whose literary accomplishments dwarf my own.
And, in truth, there are some real bloopers in The Story of the Jews, Volume Two: Belonging, 1492–1900. In a section devoted to the ill-fated early-18th-century messianic agitator Judah the Hasid, Schama misnames his deputy Hayim Malakh (angel) as Hayim Melech (king). This wouldn’t have been so bad if Schama hadn’t gone on to say that “Hayim Melech turned out to be king in name only.” Elsewhere, placing too much weight on the severe animadversions in the Talmud and kabbalistic writings against masturbation, Schama wrongly maintains that “the deliberate spilling of semen was regarded in Jewish law as a far more serious transgression than adultery.” But these and other missteps, errors, and omissions are not really egregious, and they are outweighed by the book’s many virtues.
As readers of Schama’s previous books know, he is a first-rate raconteur with a very broad reach. The Jewish story, he enthusiastically told his readers in the brief foreword to Volume One, has “a lot more to it than pogroms and rabbinics, a chronicle peopled by ancient victims and modern conquerors.” This sounded like an announcement that he was going to steer clear of the old-fashioned, much denigrated “lachrymose history,” with its focus on suffering and scholarship, along with more recent tendencies to lionize the commanders of the IDF. To see how Schama will treat Moshe Dayan and Yitzhak Rabin we will have to wait for Volume Three, but in Volume Two at least he gives ample coverage to all sorts of persecution of Jews from one end of the world to the other and has a lot to say about the Jewish study-house as well. His best stories, however, in tune with the volume’s subtitle, are about more or less successful attempts at “belonging.”
Several of the book’s principal episodes unfold in Great Britain, where Schama himself was born (he now teaches at Columbia). One story he tells is that of Daniel Mendoza, the London-born Sephardi boxer who in the late 18th century began “an entirely new chapter” in modern Jewish history—that of “the Jew who fights back.” Using contemporary newspaper accounts as well as Mendoza’s own book, The Modern Art of Boxing, Schama colorfully describes the highlights of his career, including his ongoing rivalry with Richard Humphreys, who was “at that time England’s paragon of pugilistic grace, force and elegance.”
The two fighters’ third and final battle took place on September 29, 1790, and “it became a commonplace of the writing of the time that no British eyes or ears paid the revolution in France much heed for they were all on Humphreys and Mendoza.” After all the blows were exchanged, “Mendoza laid Dick Humphreys on the floor of the ring as though he were putting a child to sleep.” Mendoza was never the same again after this tough fight, but his fame endured, and when he went on a countrywide tour with a circus, “[t]he whole of Britain wanted to see the wonder who was ‘not the Jew that Shakespeare drew.’” The boxer had always wanted to “show his countrymen that a Jew could be a ‘manly’ Briton too,” and nothing fulfilled this wish better than the friendly and admiring reception he received from the king and the royal family. He had, in Schama’s words, shown that, “He was the best of the British, and still every bit Mendoza the Jew.”
Across the Channel at the same time, Jews were engaged in a different kind of struggle for acceptance. Schama knows this period of French history as well as anyone, but in his rightly celebrated Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (1989) he had little to say about French Jews’ battle in the years after the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen to be counted among the people who benefited from it. Now, however, he emphasizes that the fate of the Yiddish-speaking majority of Jews in France constituted an important “test case, both of the nation’s promised homogeneity, and its capacity to ‘regenerate’ even those it judged unpromising human specimens.”
Schama more than makes up for his earlier neglect by supplying us with a vivid and illuminating account of the debates over the Jews’ eligibility for citizenship in the French National Assembly between 1789 and 1791. More than any other Jewish historian’s treatment of these debates (and there are many), it rests on a deep knowledge of the key participants in them. Everyone quotes Count Stanislas de Clermont-Tonnerre’s statement that, “We must refuse everything to the Jews as a nation and accord everything to Jews as individuals,” but who else notes that he came from an old military family and observes that this “gave him first-hand knowledge of just how much the royal army owed to Jewish contractors and purveyors for their effectiveness in the field”? And other Jewish historians, their eyes pinned solely on the Jews’ ultimately successful struggle, all dispense with Clermont-Tonnerre as soon as he finishes his December 1789 speech. Only Schama reminds us that his failure to keep pace with the revolution’s radicals led to him being chased in August 1792 by a “howling mob” into his library, where his assailants “took him amid his books, pulled open one of the elegant windows and heaved Stanislas Clermont-Tonnerre out, where he died after smashing his head on the cobblestones below.”
The longest stories that Schama tells in his chapter on American Jewry are those of two cousins who flourished during the first half of the 19th century, at a time when the officially free and equal Jews of the United States still had to cope with “an anti-Semitic undercurrent so deep and strong that no constitutional amendment was ever going to dispel it.” Both Uriah Phillips Levy and the considerably more famous Mordecai Manuel Noah defiantly set precedents and stood up for their own rights and those of other Jews.
Levy fought his way up the ladder in the U.S. Navy in the face of what he called “a large share of the prejudice and hostility by which, for so many ages the Jew has been pursued.” He had to fight even to stay on the ladder in 1855 when a deeply biased “Plucking Commission” sought to rescind his commission as an officer, but he eventually became Commodore Levy, commander of the United States Mediterranean squadron. From 1834 until a year into the Civil War (when the Confederate government seized it as the property of an “enemy alien”) he was also the devoted proprietor of Monticello, the former and for a time decrepit home of the president he regarded as “one of the greatest men in history,” in large part because of what Jefferson did “to mold our Republic in a form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.”
In 1815 Secretary of State James Monroe removed Mordecai Manuel Noah, America’s first Jewish diplomat, from his post in Tunis on the grounds that his Jewishness was a liability, but that didn’t lead this “unapologetically public Jew” to retreat to private life. By 1818 he “had become (at least by his own lights) the unofficial tribune of American Jews.” In 1820 he was elected sheriff of the city of New York. The highlight of his career was his noble but quixotic effort in the early 1820s to create for persecuted Jews “an asylum within America.” Schama quickly but evocatively describes the odd dedication ceremony on Grand Island, in the Niagara River near Buffalo, characteristically singling out the fact that Noah, who wanted “a quasi-priestly robe,” for the occasion could come up with only “a Richard III costume borrowed from a local theatrical group.”
When Schama crosses the Rhine, his story of the Jews’ steps toward “belonging” has fewer heroes, Jewish or Gentile. Moses Mendelssohn and his progressive circle of Jews and Gentiles receive their fair share of attention, but when he is finished with them Schama focuses much more on those Jews who didn’t want to belong in Germany, and those Gentiles who didn’t want them, than those who felt otherwise. He talks about Karl Marx, “who defined Judaism as gold-madness”; Richard Wagner’s “biologising of Jew-hatred”; and Moses Hess’s publication in Leipzig in 1862 of his Rome and Jerusalem, in which he declared “the liberal experiment in integration and assimilation” to be a failure and called for the Jews’ return to Palestine. But Schama doesn’t even mention Gabriel Riesser, the proud fighter for Jewish emancipation in Germany who served as the vice president of the revolutionary Frankfurt Parliament that outlawed religious discrimination in 1848. The tragic turn in the German Jewish story in the 20th century seems to have precluded any celebration on Schama’s part of some of its ephemeral successes in the 19th.
Schama’s story of the Jews in the modern world isn’t entirely about belonging or failing to belong. Much of it is about Jews who struck out on their own. I knew, for instance, of Rabbi Adolf Jellinek as a scholar, preacher, and leader of the Viennese Jewish community in the second half of the 19th century, but I had no idea that the Mercedes was named after his granddaughter. From Schama I learned of the rabbi’s wayward son Emil, who dropped out of school and went to work for a railway company that fired him when “he was discovered to be organising nocturnal locomotive races.” Emil subsequently moved to Morocco, where he and his Sephardi wife gave their daughter “the pretty name of Mercedes.” After moving to France and making some money in the insurance business, Emil “became intrigued by a motorised four-seat carriage and its inventor Wilhelm Maybach.”
Emil sought out Gottlieb Daimler, named the development team “Mercedes”, changed his own name to E.J. Mercedes, and began to design racing cars with Maybach. By 1909 he was producing six hundred Mercedes cars a year, a future his fretful rabbinical father could not have anticipated.
On balance, I think, there is more in Schama’s second volume about how the Jews were fitting into the world than how they weren’t. The overall framework of Schama’s journey through more than four centuries of Jewish history suggests however that the author himself sees things from a somewhat different perspective. The book’s first chapter, entitled “Could It Be Now,” retells the sad story of the 16th-century messianic adventurers David Ha-Reuveni and Solomon Molkho, who died in the process of promoting “the grand design of Jewish redemption.” The last chapter, which follows a fairly lachrymose account of the emergence of modern anti-Semitism in Central Europe, the Russian pogroms of 1881–1882, and the early stages of the Lovers of Zion and the First Aliyah (the subject of Schama’s second book), is entitled “Should It Be Now,” and contains a highly sympathetic treatment of Theodor Herzl and the creation of the Zionist movement.
Bucking one of the regnant trends in Jewish historiography, Schama says not a word about the origins in late-19th-century tsarist Russia of the socialist Bund (the General Jewish Workers’ Union in Lithuania, Poland, and Russia) and its alternative ideal of doikeit (hereness), a diasporic solution to the “Jewish problem.” But if there is a Zionist teleology here, it isn’t uncritical. Schama’s account of the early Zionist movement is sprinkled with hints of the problems the whole enterprise would ultimately face as a result of its internal tensions as well as its failure to give due consideration to the presence of a significant Arab population in the land it was trying to obtain. I’m curious to see how he will deal with all of this in Volume Three.
Schama clearly draws on the research of a lot of modern Jewish historians, and he cites a handful of them by name, but only once does he praise a living practitioner of Jewish studies. He credits the Bar-Ilan historian Shmuel Feiner with having “brilliantly” shown how among traditional Jews “the lure of worldly knowledge was resisted as if it were sexual temptation.” Feiner himself, as it turns out, has just now published (in Hebrew) a new volume that bears comparison in some respects with Schama’s book. Et Hadashah (A New Age: Eighteenth-Century European Jewry, 1700–1750) is a big book; at close to 600 pages it’s more than 100 pages shorter than Schama’s, but when it’s translated into English it will no doubt grow. And it’s also an installment of a larger project, a two-volume history that will eventually make its way up to 1800. This points of course to major differences between the two works; Feiner’s recent volume focuses on only a half of one of Schama’s four centuries, and he restricts himself to only one part of the Jewish world. Yet the two historians share a refreshingly old-fashioned determination to tell the story of the Jews as a story.
Unlike Schama, Feiner is not a born storyteller, but in his previous, path-breaking, deeply researched work on the Jewish Enlightenment he has skillfully blended together the criss-crossing biographies of his protagonists and accounts of the birth and development of their transformative and often clashing ideas. In his The Origins of Jewish Secularization in Eighteenth-Century Europe he introduces us to a gallery of forgotten skeptics and subversives who bored away at the foundations of traditional Jewish society decades before Moses Mendelssohn appeared on the scene. His biography of Mendelssohn delves as deeply into the philosopher’s everyday travails and the crises of his life as it does into his ideas. But in his new book, Feiner looks through a wider lens, one that enables him to see and describe a world populated not only by thinkers but by other sorts of people who reflect the spirit of a new age, even if they themselves are not particularly reflective. Drawing as much as possible on their own written testimony, while situating them within their disparate political, social, and intellectual environments, Feiner paints a comprehensive and compelling picture of a relatively neglected period of Jewish history.
Of the key figures in Feiner’s narrative the first to emerge is Glückel of Hameln, the well-known German Jewish diarist. Schama, in his rather brief and cursory treatment of the early 18th century, refers in passing to her famous memoir as the “notable exception” to the general rule that “Jewish autobiographies had been the exclusive province of rabbis, philosophers,” and other “men of mind and faith,” but he doesn’t stop to explain who its author was. Feiner, however, has as much to say about her as he does about just about anyone else.
It is not the details of Glückel’s busy life as the mother of a dozen children and a sharp businesswoman that interest Feiner but her consciousness of herself. He notes how Glückel’s life took a turn for the worse in 1700, with an unfortunate second marriage, and how this left her downcast. “Writing about her life,” Feiner says, “enabled her to raise a voice of private protest for the benefit of herself and her children.” In this protest, Feiner continues, “in the sense of enslavement brought about by the chains of matrimony, and in the very unusual act of telling her own story in such a personal way, Glückel lifted herself, at least inwardly, out of the larger group of the community and the family and defined herself as an independent individual.” And while one has to take seriously her expressions of resignation in the face of disaster and her theological proclamations that this “world of vanity” is of little consequence, it is obvious that her enjoyment of earthly prosperity was wholehearted enough.
Feiner follows several of Glückel’s descendants as they pursue happiness in their different ways. Some of her children had strong ties with leading court Jews such as Samuel Oppenheimer and Samson Wertheimer and, with mixed success, used these connections. One of her grandchildren, the English-born, wealthy, and well-educated Moshe Marcus, converted as a young man to Anglicanism, which for him represented not so much a rejection of the world from which he came as an affirmation of one in which he could be himself. One of the last characters to appear in Feiner’s book is yet another grandson, Aaron Gumpertz, an early thinker of the Jewish Enlightenment who was one of Moses Mendelssohn’s first mentors.
Large as it was, however, Glückel’s progeny did not include representatives of all the early-18th-century trends and tendencies of Feiner’s new age. There do not appear to have been among her descendants, for instance, any charismatic mystical leaders or any heresy hunters. While people of this sort might seem at first glance to be throwbacks to an earlier era, not avatars of a new one, Feiner is alert to the extent that even these Jews had inhaled the modern zeitgeist.
In a variety of new Christian movements throughout Europe and the American colonies, “the aspirations of individuals to express themselves religiously in an independent way and the hopes of believers for self-improvement, satisfaction and happiness meshed with Enlightenment thinkers’ optimistic expectations of a better life, even if their vision of happiness was a different one.” Even if there was no direct connection between these phenomena and developments within the Jewish world, Feiner says, it is impossible to ignore the similarities. They are evident in the case of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, the Italian Jewish mystic and messianic visionary, who in 1727 wrote in a letter to an elderly kabbalist that God “in his mercy chose me . . . and the Holy One, Blessed be He, made of me the tool that he desired.” They are likewise evident in the slightly later case of the Ba’al Shem Tov, the founder of Hasidism, who wrote in a letter to a rabbi in another locality that the Lord “gave me eyes to see from a distance” the danger that faced him, and who showed a great deal of ambition in his early career.
Jacob Emden is most famous for his relentless effort to track down secret followers of Shabbtai Zevi, but he also had a private life. In his autobiography he reports a couple of occasions in the 1720s on which he came close to succumbing to sexual temptations. These experiences reveal, according to Feiner, “the depth of Emden’s awareness that his opportunities for his self-realization as an independent individual, tested by life and capable of undermining communal, familial, and religious supervision, were broad and open.” Examining Moshe Hagiz’s tirade during the previous decade against Sabbatean heretics, Feiner observes how “he disclosed . . . his ego as a stormy and tempestuous individual personality,” and “constructed his self-image as a hardened warrior” against evil.
Even readers who might have their doubts about Feiner’s accentuation of what the profound innovators and the staunch traditionalists populating a “new age” of individualism somewhat paradoxically had in common will find his new book both illuminating and absorbing. Feiner wears his learning very lightly, but it is extremely impressive. Yet, as thoroughly attentive as it is to all of the current scholarship, Et Hadashah seems to be designed less to synthesize the work of the historians Feiner frequently cites than to bring to life the entire picture to which they have made their piecemeal contributions and to lend it a kind of unity.
Like Schama, Feiner attempts not to relate the whole history of the Jews during the period covered by his volume but to tell their story—indeed, to a large extent, to let them tell their story in their own words, culled from their letters, diaries, and autobiographical works. The chief difference between Schama and Feiner is the story they consider it most important to tell. Schama, the general historian whose work has in the past (with one early exception) had little to do with the Jews, constructs a narrative that is focused mostly on the drama of diaspora Jews entering or being excluded from the society around them. Feiner, a historian of the Haskalah, is more concerned with telling the story of how 18th-century Jews conceived of themselves and lived, as individuals, in relation above all to Jewish tradition and their fellow Jews, and only secondarily to the world around them, even if it left deep marks on them.
The difference between the two books is clearest where they overlap. In the small number of pages that Schama devotes to the period with which Feiner is exclusively concerned, the main characters are court Jews and early maskilim, although he does devote some attention to more insular figures such as Judah the Hasid and Jacob Emden. Schama comments wryly on the fact that at virtually the same time Judah was “leading his thousands to Zion,” the palatial home in Vienna of the court Jew Samuel Oppenheimer was being torn to pieces by a mob. Feiner too notes this coincidence, but he also connects the dots. He reports that Oppenheimer, motivated by genuine piety and presumably unaware of the secret Sabbateanism of Judah and his group, had purchased transit permits for them and supplied them with two ships, food, and money. His son Mendel, he adds, served as their treasurer.
Schama mentions Jacob Emden’s pursuit of secular knowledge and the limitations that he himself placed upon it, but says nothing of his inner struggles or struggles with covert Sabbateans, subjects that Feiner discusses in depth. Figures such as Moshe Chaim Luzzatto and Moshe Hagiz are just too far from any significant association with the Gentile world to merit Schama’s attention.
But why should one expect a diaspora-based historian of Europe and European art attempting to tell his people’s story to a broad audience and a historian of the Jewish Enlightenment living in Israel who is now ready to repaint the picture of a whole century to share an agenda? Examining the Jewish past from their differing vantage points, both have brought their subjects to life with far more success than many of the specialists in Jewish history of whose works they make very profitable use.
A historical novel about the Spanish Expulsion tells us as much about current reading trends as it does the lives of Jews in 15th-century Spain.
Is human dignity a "useless concept" Does it obscure more than it reveals? Two important new books seek to defend strong versions of human dignity.
There are at least two problems with the widely repeated narrative about Rosenzweig's sudden commitment to Judaism: It’s historically false and philosophically pernicious.
Two new books on sin and temptation.