First edition. A passage about a memory from temple when he was nice years old prompts this wonderful annotation: “So many childhood memories opened up again while writing this book—smells, textures, sounds – kosher Proust – more than Proust!” Schama has succeeded in reaching the broad, general audience outside academia, and it is fascinating to read him commenting on the artistic and literary choices he made in telling this story. It’s a reminder that the greatest historians share the novelist’s skill of narrative fluency and imaginative plotting. Before chapter five, “The Menorah and the Cross,” and his jump to the twentieth century, Schama writes, “I paused a little bit before switching time & place so extremely, but the story asks for it—Dura-Europos’s discovery for me—I wanted to recreate the original sense of shock…” At the beginning of chapter nine he says, “haunted by Gibbon, Macaulay here – not a Jewish wordsmith, but part of my apprenticeship.” Further on: “Colour – immensely important throughout the book – Judaism not black & white.” He shows us how parts of the story still move him. The massacre of Jews in Mainz by Crusaders in the 11th century prompts him to write: “still unbearably painful passage to write.” Of the hanging of 269 Jews in London in 1279, he writes: “no one remembers this in English history books.” He takes note of the reviewers in several annotations, and not always to disagree with them. On the issue of the Mishneh Torah, Schama says, “I still have no idea why some reviewers thought this was a misdescription of M.T.!” But on the last page of the book he notes how “some reviewer (kindly) said of this ending, ‘at last Schama shut up & let someone else’s words sound out.’ Quite right!”
SCHAMA, Simon (b. 1945). The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE – 1492CE. London: The Bodley Head, 2013. 8°. Original gray cloth; dust jacket.