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Chronicles of heartache
British historian Simon Schama’s second volume
of Jewish history is a mixed bag of hits and misses By Tibor Krausz
THE HISTORY of Jews is a long series of A century later came another huckster nent British Jewish historian Simon Schama,
tragedies, punctuated by epic calamities and with messianic pretensions. Sabbatai Zevi, all three champions of Jewish emancipation
interspersed with occasional spells of rela- too, promised instant salvation for Europe’s and nationhood show up in due course. Yet
tive bliss that manifested itself in freedom long-suffering Jews. In the mid-17th centu- they do so confined to their own time and
from persecutions, discrimination, pogroms ry, right at the time of the appalling massacre social milieu with little, if anything, con-
and genocide. Now and again came periods of Jews in Ukraine by Bogdan Chmielnicki’s necting them. They’re joined by no ideolog-
of tragicomedy brought on by charismatic Cossacks, the mercurial Jewish mystic, who ical threads and they serve as no historical
rabbis and self-styled messiahs who trig- was fairly well versed in Lurianic Kabbalah, antecedents for one another. It’s as if they,
gered outbursts of fervent hope for redemp- pronounced himself to be the long awaited or the ideas that motivated them, came and
tion at last. Messiah, who would deliver his people from went in isolation without leaving much of an
One harbinger of imminent salvation the constant depredations of Christians and impact on successive generations.
fetched up in Venice in the winter of 1523, Muslims. Zevi promised to gather the Lost Therein lies the problem with “Belong-
soon after the mass expulsion of Jews from Tribes of Israel from their remote exiles and ing.” The book isn’t so much a coherent ac-
the Iberian Peninsula. Claiming to be a war- rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. count of Jewish history (perhaps Schama felt
rior prince from a Lost Tribe of Israel, David The self-deluded “holy man,” who hailed there were plenty enough of those already) as
Ha-Reuveni, a diminutive and enigmatic as- from Smyrna in Turkey, managed to trigger a colorful diorama of episodes handpicked,
cetic with plenty of tall tales to tell, found widespread messianic fervor far and wide in often seemingly at random, from Jewish life
a receptive audience for his assurances that European Jewish communities, but like his throughout the centuries.
the glorious ruler of a strong and prosperous predecessor he, too, ended his salvific career This approach isn’t without its merits, yet
(and hitherto unknown) Jewish kingdom in ignominy. Zevi was arrested in 1666 in it makes for a disjointed and overly impres-
was just about to come to the aid of Europe’s Constantinople on the orders of the sultan sionistic work. For long stretches “Belong-
beleaguered Jews and Christians who were and charged with sedition. To save his skin, ing” reads like a historian’s learned reveries
facing the constant threat of invasion and the Jewish mystic apostatized and converted strung together to relay, in stream-of-con-
subjugation from a belligerent Ottoman em- to Islam, living out the rest of his days out- sciousness fashion, whatever happens to
pire. wardly as a Muslim. catch his fancy as he hopscotches around
The Marranos were especially susceptible It would not be for another two centuries various locales in various decades through
to the siren call of this strange little man who when yet another prominent self-made Jew- the centuries to uncover telltale episodes of
dressed ostentatiously in an Oriental style ish liberator appeared on the scene. This one, Jewish history from across Europe as the
and professed to hail from a magical Jew- though, did manage to bring a form of sal- Late Middle Ages gave way to the Renais-
ish realm just beyond the edge of the known vation to European Jews, albeit only posthu- sance, the Reformation triggered the Count-
world where the Sambatyon River, whose mously. The Hungarian journalist Theodore er-Reformation, and the Age of Revolutions
waters rested on the Shabbat, flowed. This Herzl, the progenitor of political Zionism, birthed the modern world.
was an era where strange new lands were would succeed where both Ha-Reuveni and The book is the second volume in a
being discovered by seafaring Europeans Zevi had failed. A charismatic intellectual planned trilogy of Jewish history spanning
with amazing frequency so anything seemed with the mien of a modern Moses, Herzl three millennia from the first stirrings of
possible. created a movement that would go on to res- Judaism among tribes of desert dwellers
During his travels around Mediterranean urrect the Jewish state in Palestine after an to our own era. In this volume, four highly
Europe, where his newfound fame routinely absence of two millennia. eventful centuries are bookended by two
preceded him, Ha-Reuveni had an audience And so, thanks to Herzl and like-minded landmarks in Jewish history: the expulsion
with Pope Clement VII, met with the Emper- Zionists, Jewish millennialism, which had of Jews from Spain in 1492 and the dawn of
or Charles V, and parleyed with King John long been a province of pious mountebanks the 20th century, which would see the mass
III of Portugal. To all of these Christian sov- and delusional fabulists, found its true salvif- murder of European Jewry on an industrial
ereigns he proposed a grand military alliance ic power in the pragmatism of secular Jewish scale and the creation of a new Jewish state
with the Jewish warriors of the Lost Tribes nationalism that was shorn of time-honored in Palestine.
against the Ottomans in exchange for arque- religious superstitions and yet was inescap- In between these two transformative ep-
buses, cannons and battleships. Inevitably, ably inspired by them. ochs the Jews of Europe hardly had it easy.
the peripatetic fabulist came a cropper, meet- In “Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492- For centuries Jews tended to be, Schama
ing his end at the hands of the Inquisition. 1900,” a well-received new book by promi- surmises, “forever intimidated, abused,


publicly humiliated, marked with badges of It’s a fascinating panoply. Yet without ular humanism, and to its backward-gazing
identity; penned into ghettos, brutalised, im- cohesive thematic links and clear narrative antithesis in the form of religious obscu-
prisoned without cause; robbed, sent pack- threads it all adds up to a bit of a hodgepodge. rantism. The former was exemplified by
ing into the storm with barely the clothes on The book’s essence boils down to little more an unceasing parade of Jewish scientists,
their backs.” than “this happened, that happened, this Jew thinkers and artists, who took the world by
That just about sums it up. Yet now and did this, that Jew did that.” To be sure, his- storm with their groundbreaking ideas and
again, here and there, were moments of sud- tory isn’t a process with a clear direction (it peerless artistry. The latter manifested itself
den Jewish flowerings in self-contained mi- only seems so in hindsight) but a largely hel- in Haredi Judaism, which would end up im-
lieus of relative tolerance: a German duchy, ter-skelter mishmash of events that wind up prisoning Jews in self-imposed ghettos and
an Ottoman sultan’s court, a Dutch city, an leading to particular outcomes. Thus histori- locking their minds into a medieval milieu
Italian city state. It’s these episodes that ans cannot but be selective in their readings of received certainties as espoused by char-
largely occupy the historian, even if they of the past. Yet oftentimes Schama picks and ismatic rabbis.
invariably ended in blood and tears. These chooses his subject matters erratically, side- This schism has carried on unabated to
interludes of Jewish cultural, religious and lining larger trends in the process. this day. Then again, such pitched battles
social revival were assisted by what Scha- The Chmielnicki massacre, which saw tens of wits within Jewish thought are, in many
ma calls “the benevolence of the blind eye,” of thousands of Ukrainian and Polish Jews ways, merely replays of the ferocious ideo-
whereby Christians and Muslims tolerated murdered with appalling brutality within the logical tug of war that pit philosophizing
Jews in their midst, even if they tended to space of a few months in 1648-49, is afford- Hellenizers in ancient Judea against stead-
do so less out of avowed fellowship than ed only a few throwaway lines. And this in a fast Biblical literalists. Schama did well in
through mutually beneficial financial and doorstopper of a volume in which the author chronicling that ancient battle, which took
social arrangements. spends long pages on the minutiae of life in its toll on lives and reputations alike, in the
Yet Jews benefited handsomely just the 17th-century Amsterdam and on the biogra- first volume of his planned three-part saga,
same. Their fortunes waxed and waned with phies of minor local Jewish notables who end- “Finding the Words 1000 BCE–1492 CE.”
the mood swings of their Christian and Ot- ed up as subjects for the portraits painted by In that book the celebrated historian gener-
toman overlords. Tolerance facilitated self- the Dutch master Rembrandt. Likewise, for ally kept his focus and refrained from the
made prosperity and a flourishing of Jewish most of the book Schama shuns happenings in jarring hopscotches of his ever-wandering
life in relative freedom. Renewed persecu- Eastern Europe, focusing his attention instead attention. One wishes he’d done that this
tion drove them back into the cramped con- solely on the continent’s western regions. time around too. ■
fines of filthy shtetls and walled ghettos. Added to such puzzling omissions are
Outdoors they were forced to wear identi- equally puzzling errors of fact. The histori-
fying pieces of clothing, like cone-shaped an informs us, for instance, that Suleiman
yellow hats, to mark them out. the Magnificent, who built the famous wall
Schama, who teaches history at Columbia of Jerusalem’s Old City, died in September
University in New York, is an engaging writ- 1566 during a siege “in Transylvania.” The
er with a keen eye for telling details, and his militant sultan did die that year during his
fondness for colorful characters helps enliv- siege of a beleaguered Christian stronghold
en what might otherwise be a rather dreary but nowhere near Transylvania. He did so
tale of heartache and sorrow. at Szigetvár (“island castle”) in what is now
Judah Leon Abravanel, a poet, philoso- southwestern Hungary, during one of the
pher and dramaturge; Abraham Colorni, most famous pitched battles in that country’s
an engineer, inventor and magician; Dona history.
Gracia Mendes, a supremely rich Marrano That said, recurrent flashes of brilliance
spice merchant from Lisbon; Joseph Nasi, rescue the book from being a letdown. Scha-
a powerful factotum in the court of the Ot- ma is most in his element while discussing,
toman Sultan Selim II; Daniel Mendoza, in learned tones, the modernizing mission
a feisty bare-knuckle boxer in the reign of of brilliant minds like the 18th-century Ger-
the English King George III – they all make man-Jewish polymath Moses Mendelssohn,
cameos in “Belonging,” each hogging the whose ideas helped trigger the Haskalah, or
limelight for a while, as they ply their trades Jewish Enlightenment. It was a heady era
from Matua to Prague to Istanbul to London. when incipient Jewish emancipation and
There were also prominent Jewish physi- fledging Jewish self-assertion were rubbing
cians and apothecaries, adept Jewish jewel- up against reactionary tendencies, within
ers and goldsmiths, innovative Jewish tailors both Jewish communities and their larger The Story of the Jews
and perfumers, inspired Jewish thinkers and societies. Traditions pulled in one direction, Volume Two
kabbalists, famed Jewish entertainers and the appeals of new learning in another. Belonging 1492-1900
card sharps, lowly Jewish rag traders and In the end, this intellectually turbulent pe- Simon Schama
moneylenders, wealthy Jewish merchants riod gave rise both to Jewish modernism, HarperCollins
and bankers. with its eager embrace of science and sec- 800 pages; $17.89