The first two parts of a new five-part PBS documentary about the history of the Jews aired this week. “The Story of the Jews,” produced by British historian Simon Schama, brings 3,000 years of Jewish history to millions of people in a way that has never been done before. I know that when you read “PBS documentary” you may not be as into it as if I had said it was on Showtime—it is a historically packed, dense and possibly overly didactic PBS-style documentary. But for those of us who love arts and culture, it was really cool to hear Simon Schama relay our collective story through an honest and open cultural lens. (You can watch the first two episodes online here. The final three episodes air April 1 at 8 p.m.)
I’m no historian, and remembering dates and facts isn’t my thing. And by that right, reading Schama’s lengthy “The Story of the Jews” book before watching this documentary was, admittedly, a bit trying. But like so many of us, I relate to history through music, food and other cultural elements that have real relevance to my life. The book is an in-depth historical account, and I found myself wishing it had more art and pictures to illustrate our rich history. I was happy to discover that much of what the book lacks Schama makes up for in the documentary with his personal touch and a real focus on art and culture. Unlike so many lofty and historical documentaries, Schama’s honesty is endearing and intriguing. He grabbed my attention right from the start when the series begins with the line: “Who are we as a people? We vary in our languages, our colors, our many opinions, foods….” As a people, we all agree that we disagree on many topics, an aspect of our culture that Schama illuminates as one of our strengths.
By highlighting artists like Ethiopian refugee Aviva Rahamim, Schama puts a real face and personality to the story of the Ethiopian Jewish community. As a kid, I remember when we had an influx of the stereotypically rare “black Jews,” but Rahamim’s personal story and beautiful embroidery made me feel a connection to this story in a way I had never felt before. Rahamim vividly describes the exodus of her own family and community from Ethiopia, and I was completely struck when she said, “I feel as if we came up with Moses!” She and her community had literally walked the route of the Exodus from Egypt in my lifetime. And equally amazing was hearing her say, “We didn’t walk on the Sabbath, we kept kosher while we were walking….” As a Jew who has the luxury of being Jewish without keeping kosher or Shabbat, this really made me think about the strength and value of these traditions.
Aside from Rahamim’s striking embroidery pieces and moving story, there were many moments that hit me in these first two parts of the documentary: learning that “godless Jew” Sigmund Freud’s prized possession was a beautiful menorah; hearing that even back in ancient Greece Jews were so desperate to assimilate that men were willing to perform “reverse circumcisions”; and learning that Sephardic poets like Yehuda HaLevi used biblical Hebrew to describe the “earthiness of life,” a phrase Schama uses to describe the realities of “war, friendship, death and sex.” These lesser-known facts are relatable because they aren’t perfect stories of Jewish life; they are real-life accounts that show us that the issues our culture and community face today are challenges we have faced for all time, and that it truly is our story and we are striving to continue it, which makes us who we are. As Schama boldly states, “We are our story,” a story he tells through history, artists and himself.
I love that Schama, who is best known for a diverse array of historical and artistic books and documentaries, chose to bring himself to this project. He told journalist Penny Schwartz, “I knew I had to have a go at this before I died.” And if not now, when? At 69, Schama isn’t getting younger, and in a society in which we’re all vying to represent our cultural uniqueness and beauty, it’s pretty special that someone of his stature would take this on.
As for the PBS goal of educating those who are not Jewish, I have some thoughts and questions—I’m not fully convinced that someone who is not Jewish can relate to certain aspects of this series, but it does present a dynamic and interesting picture that sparks conversation. Most important to me, I appreciate the honest and deep look at Judaism as a full culture that has thrived not just in spite of, but possibly because of, the challenges we have continually faced.