Belonging, The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 – Simon Schama

BelongingI read the first part of this two part history nearly 5 years back and remember being completely mesmerized by Simon Schama’s story-telling. I vowed to read the second part as soon as it is available but somehow missed its 2017 release, only to pick up the book at the very end of 2018. This second part does not disappoint. This is how history should be told. It is history that is painstakingly researched but not lost in academic referencing. It is history that is clearly opinionated but not lost in self-righteous justification. It is history that captures a sweeping narrative across time and geography but does not lose the human element. It is this last point – that is Schama’s stylistic trademark. He has the brilliant ability to build a grand historical picture through the tale of a sea-faring merchant or the determined struggles of a family matriarch or the conflicted faith of an orthodox rabbi. It is these stories that make you smell the smells of a Kosher kitchen on Rosh Hasanah or feel the dread of a mother as she hides her children away from a lynchmob outside the synagogue or hear the incomprehensible sorrow of a father dutifully reciting the Kaddish.

Schama weaves the tragic tale of the Jews over 15 centuries, starting from their expulsion from Spain in 1492 where the first part finished, and culminating into establishment of Zionism around 1900 – just on the eve of the first world war. It is a story of wandering, of expulsions, of hatred, of murder. But it is also a story of enterprise, of guile, of hope, of survival. Above all, it is a story of a quest of a people to belong. The sheer absurdity of more than two millennia of persecution of an entire race for real or imagined crimes of individuals is incomprehensible. That anti-semitism still persists today and shapes the political narrative of Europe defies all logic.

Schama tells all these stories based on an incredible amount of research. The book is absorbing and unputdownable, but never trivial or sensationalist. And that is truly an achievement.

What also stands out is the geographical scope of the book. While most of the action happens in Europe, the book also follows the wandering Jews into China and India, US and Argentina. And in these far flung stories – there is often the discovery of some unexpected gem. Like when the book goes to my home town Surat in Western India – set in 1663:

“…Twenty years after the siege , Mosseh Pereyra de Paiva – from a family of Sephardi diamond and gem traders based both in Amsterdam and Surat in the Mughal dominions – came to Cochin and was royally entertained by local Jews…When the time came to depart (Presumably back to Surat, since he seems never to have left India), he was treated to another farewell throng gathered on the jetty…”

I am not aware of any significant Jewish presence in Surat today. Surat is the diamond polishing capital of the world and I have often wondered what makes it so. The global Diamond business today is dominated by jewellers either from Surat or from Israel and I recently saw them working side-by-side rather incongruously in the Diamond district of Antwerp. I could never have imagined that this partnership started at least 350 years back!

London, my current home (also Schama’s hometown) plays a very role important role at various junctures in the history as well. His description of the Rag Fair – second hand clothes bazaar – in mid eighteenth century City and Whitechapel is beautifully evocative. I found myself walking the streets of London along with the door to door Jewish hawker of odds & ends as he looks for this first sale of the day.

No Jewish history can ever stray too far away from tragedy. Every hope given by an enlightened ruler is quickly dashed by the irrationality of the mob. Amidst multiple false dawns, the stories of individuals, families, whole villages even are chilling and heart rending. They are neatly entwined by stories of heroes – both men and women – who managed to survive and even thrive with determination, talent and often guile.

Words

The book broadly follows a straight chronology – right from expulsion from Spain to the birth of Jewish nationalist identity in the form of Zionism. Through the journey, it weaves in the evolution of Jewish theology, music, art and theatre. It also weaves in tales of enterprise and innovation. It also talks of philanthropists and administrators. It talks about rabbis with unshakeable faith in the coming of the messiah as well as several fake messiahs who have emerged over the centuries. It finally talks about the Zionists – who believed that assimilation was unachievable and the only solution was an independent Jewish homeland. I am not quite sure why Schama decided to end the book around 1900 rather than bringing it upto the present day. Perhaps, the horrors of the 20th century would be difficult to fit into a few chapters; perhaps, that story has already been told. I did find the end a little abrupt and would have really like to see how the preceding 15 centuries culminated into the holocaust and the creation of Israel.

Anybody looking to understand the story of Jews – should look no further!

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