Telling ‘The Story of the Jews’


British author and historian Simon Schama brought to D.C. last week the love of storytelling that seeps in and out of his books and five-hour television show, The Story of the Jews.

Schama wrote The Story of the Jews, Finding The Words as part one of a two-part historical work that strives to explain how the Jews have managed to live so long despite widespread suffering, attempts at extermination and living in a contested land. Part One was commissioned by the BBC and was aired locally last week on two separate evenings.

While Jews are not unique to suffering and many groups “are going through the problems of sharing the same living space, they suffered most uniquely in the Holocaust,” he explained during a March 27 talk for the Hay-Adams Author Series. Millions of Jews died but their stories have been saved, he noted.

Schama’s work is the story of the Jews, not the history of the Jews, he stressed from the top floor of the Hay-Adams hotel overlooking the White House.

“We are wired to tell stories,” he said. Jews tell stories to remember, to explain to others and to interpret laws. The Talmud, which includes explanations from various rabbis in different years, comes across as one large discussion.

One can almost hear the rabbis discussing and arguing, he added, pointing to a widely held presumption that “all Jews communicate by mutually agreed upon interruption.”

In the Talmud, “a 14th-century rabbi can interrupt a 12th-century rabbi, just like my family,” he said.

This goes on even when Jews are being slaughtered, he said. “The word ultimately beats the sword.”

In a sometimes rambling speech, Schama touched on numerous topics and then hopped over to a totally different idea. He suggested that at least some of the Dead Sea Scrolls may have been written elsewhere, stored in a library and then moved to the Dead Sea during the revolt against Rome.

He pleaded for everyone to abolish the words social studies and bring back the teaching of history.

As for writing and even speaking, he advocated for the removal of all routine language and platitudes, begging for people to “be imaginative.”

The Columbia University professor also has written on such topics as the Rothschilds, the French Revolution, Britain’s history, art and baseball.

Schama was introduced by The Washington Post’s former Book World editor Marie Arana as a historian with “a novelist’s touch.” She marveled at how he could write such an involved story, adding that his message came across clearly.

“What ties the Jewish people together is a story,” said Arana, “and he tells quite a wonderful story.”

Rabbi Mordechai Roten, who lives in Israel, commented at the end that Schama’s speech was more entertaining than historic, and said, “I’m looking forward to reading his book. It is a challenge to put all those years in a book.”

As usual with the author’s series, the luncheon menu was designed to complement the speaker. Everyone’s table was decorated with Middle Eastern spices, vegetables and pottery.

As explained by Hans Bruland, vice president and general manager of The Hay-Adams, the first course – a house-cured Atlantic salmon pastrami atop a latke – was chosen to represent Ashkenazi Jews. The main course, a Mediterranean red snapper with Jerusalem artichokes, exemplified Sephardic Jewry. The dessert, an Angelino plum cake, symbolized the fruits and grains of the area.

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