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The Story of the Jews: Finding the words 1000 BC - 1492 AD

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A history by Simon Schama
1 review about The Story of the Jews: Finding the words...

Lost, but never for words

  • Aug 9, 2014
Schama has been a popular and prolific narrative historian covering topics as diverse as the French Revolution, American history, and now this history of the Jewish people.  I've read all three of those, and they usually leave me wanting something missing.

This story starts strong as Schama describes the transition of the Jews from scattered wanderers to, well, scattered wanderers in different places but with a remembered homeland in Jerusalem.   The early story is as much about archaeology as history and Schama shines in describing the early diggers looking to prove the Biblical accounts, the modern correction to extreme "minimalist" skepticism, and the most recent correction to the center as the latest findings have proven the core of many geographical and political accounts once thought impossible.

At the core of the story is not the architecture, though, but the words.   It was fascinating to learn that the early Jewish places of worship are distinguished and even solely identifiable by the absence of statues and alters of stone to gods of stone; they are instead storehouses and display cases for--just words.  The scrolls of the Hebrew Bible, the written words (some of them spoken words transcribed) themselves, are the focus of attention, memory, and worship.  The writer of Deuteronomy told the Jews to write these words on their hearts and even wear them; the "New" testament writer John would say with the certitude of centuries and a new revelation (that the Jews would reject) that in fact the "Word was God" (and God was in the Words).

Rather than a continuous narrative, Schama stays with his theme of words as he time hops through sometimes obscure events and archives, and there is where he lost me.  Not that the writing flags or fails to tell the history he wants to tell, but that for a casual reader like me wanting and needing in my inexpertise  to know the ligaments connecting the bones of the history, I was left studying bones in isolated detail without seeing the full body.  The text of the book was written as a companion to a PBS/BBC television series, so in the context of the accompanying visuals such an episodic approach may work better, but as an isolated text I was a little disappointed.

And that is the key to my review.  "A little disappointed" doesn't mean a book that can be bypassed by those with interest in the topic.  Indeed, the early sections (roughly the first four chapters comprising Part One) are well worth reading for those who don't understand the devotion to the Word by the peoples of the Book.

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