Home Culture Books & Authors Simon Schama resumes his story of the Jews

Simon Schama resumes his story of the Jews

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama, Allen Lane, Penguin Random House Company, 2017

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 is the second volume of a two-volume work on the history of the Jews by renowned British author Simon Schama. It follows by three years the publication of The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BCE. – 1492 CE.

The wait was worth it.

Schama resumes his unique narration of how Jews lived in Europe, the Middle East, Asia and the United States. Belonging begins in the immediate aftermath of the Inquisition. Its predecessor volume ended as the Inquisition began.

Schama seizes our attention and holds it in the vise of our increasing interest until the very last of the book’s nearly 700 pages. The chapters move chronologically forward, each focusing on a different community. Schama casts a high beam of light on each of the various communities, with comprehensive explorations into the personal stories of a broad, representative cast of individuals, some widely known to readers, some less so, some not at all – that is, until Schama tells us who they were and how they lived.

Schama immerses the reader into myriad intricate details of his subjects’ lives. The research that underpins the work is vast and impressive. Schama includes 40 pages of footnotes, seven pages of recommended further reading and 14 pages of an “unauthorized” glossary of Hebrew and Yiddish terms found in the book, that he wrote and compiled.

Schama’s exceptional literary abilities and his deep knowledge across a number of scholarly disciplines enable us to imagine ourselves inside the shaky, glorious, dangerous, exciting world of the many memorable characters he has magnificently fashioned. And it is not merely a handful of characters we meet. On the contrary: Schama places us at the centre of a human honeycomb of countless passage ways and chambers where we observe an infinite geometry of interconnected Jewish lives of which, Schama remind us, we are also part.

Perhaps the most remarkable quality of Belonging is the sheer beauty of the writing. Schama is masterful. By turns rhapsodic, sarcastic, tender, sharp, narrative and descriptive, Schama’s literary and journalistic talent are on full display.

For example, in the first pages of the book we meet Beatriz Mendes (Benveniste) escaping the cruel arm of the Holy Inquisition in Portugal. Schama informs us that by the mid-1500s, she was “the wealthiest woman in Europe.” Once safely decamped to the Ottoman world, we know her as Dona Gracia Nasi. This remarkable woman contends with men and governments, recoils from no insurmountable challenge, and saves countless lives of Jews from the insatiable sadism of the Inquisition.


At one point, Schama describes her thus. “The modern Jewish matriarch who many times later would be the difference between life and death first makes her mark in these pages of [historian Samuel] Usque and in the person of Beatriz-Gracia. But she is not just the tender, womanly healer of Jewish woes and fears. She is to be reckoned with, she is strength personified …the very eagle prophesied by Moses which ‘hovering over her young and spreading her outstretched wings bears and carries them aloft’. And she is something else. Usque had described the sorrows of Jewish history as akin to living in a perpetual winter, while elsewhere others enjoyed the blessing of spring. Gracia, the Messiah in skirts, on the other hand, was the source of warmth. For she was, perpetually, ‘a beautiful summer.’”

Schama is an original thinker who generously shares his wide-ranging knowledge and penetrating ideas. In the chapter featuring Moses Mendelssohn, Schama writes about Mendelssohn’s excitement about the personal and societal possibilities for good that were unleashed by the Enlightenment. “Such a place of diverse utterance was the only one Mendelssohn thought where Jews could truly thrive, for it meant they could sustain their observances unintimidated by a religious or political majority and without drawing the accusation of disloyalty. Liberal pluralism was the only system that could be truly good for the Jews. But they would give back, for this new blessing cut both ways; it was the only system which would also be good for mankind.”

But Schama does not leave Mendelssohn’s enthusiasm for the Enlightenment as the lingering or predominant thought on the subject. By book’s end, in the chapter dealing with the era in which Theodor Herzl lived, Schama leaves us without any delusions concerning the ultimate course of the Enlightenment in European society.

“As anti-Semitic rhetoric caught fire,” Schama writes, “Liberals who had been the champions of Jewish emancipation refrained from any criticism of anti-Semitism lest the protest lose them votes – much good it did them.

“For Herzl, this was deeply chilling. He had already come to the conclusion that Emancipation had failed…Its promise had been that…Enlightenment would banish the remnants of the ancient paranoias about Christ killers, child murderers, and the rest. But none of this had happened. Blood-libel accusations recurred every few years.”

Throughout the book, Schama introduces the reader to new names and new people of Jewish history. Most of them are less known to us. Some, indeed, are the centerpieces of university courses. Schama meticulously – and one can add lovingly – shows us how all of them pressed forward through adversity and oppression to protect those whom they loved but also to affirm Jewish life.

Usque, one of the individuals described by Schama in the book, was a contemporary of Dona Gracia. He was a Portuguese Marrano who settled in Ferrara, Italy and a chronicler of the Jewish condition. Schama is quite taken with him, for he deftly notes Usque’s chief skill. “The secret of Usque’s readability is that he writes as if he were a personal witness to the medieval tragedies, the slaughters and the suicides, a Jewish history that flows through his veins.”

Very clearly, Jewish history – in all its lachrymose and joyful splendour – also flows through Schama’s veins.
The breadth and sweep of Belonging are simply remarkable. It is a book to be savoured.