It is a story like no other: an epic of endurance against destruction, of creativity in oppression, joy amidst grief, the affirmation of life against the steepest of odds.
It spans the millennia and the continents – from India to Andalusia and from the bazaars of Cairo to the streets of Oxford. It takes you to unimagined places: to a Jewish kingdom in the mountains of southern Arabia; a Syrian synagogue glowing with radiant wall paintings; the palm groves of the Jewish dead in the Roman catacombs. And its voices ring loud and clear, from the severities and ecstasies of the Bible writers to the love poems of wine bibbers in a garden in Muslim Spain.
Within these pages, the Talmud burns in the streets of Paris, massed gibbets hang over the streets of medieval London, a Majorcan illuminator redraws the world; candles are lit, chants are sung, mules are packed, ships loaded with spice and gems founder at sea.
And a great story unfolds. Not – as often imagined – of a culture apart, but of a Jewish world immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have dwelled, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Christians.
Which makes the story of the Jews everyone’s story, too.
Award-winning Columbia Univ. historian Schama, NBCC Award winner for Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution, brings to bear his gift for synthesizing mountains of information into a well-crafted, accessible narrative in this impressive volume that spans nearly 2,500 years and serves as a companion volume to a PBS series. His aim is to incorporate the telling details that make the past, and its people, live and breathe for a modern audience "the prosaic along with the poetic: a doodle on a child's Hebrew exercise page from medieval Cairo; battling cats and mice on a sumptuously illustrated Bible from Spain... the aggravation of an NCO sweating it out on a hilltop fort while the Babylonians are closing in." He opens with a Jewish soldier on Elephantine in 475 B.C.E., known from a letter sent by his father, discovered again after two-and a-half millennia, and continues through the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. Throughout, Schama offers cogent arguments for the credibility of numerous sources, including the controversial Josephus, and supports the notion advanced by Rabbi Gershon Cohen that assimilation had its benefits, by stimulating growth and creativity for the Jews. Maps & Illus.