Seated at a Seder table during a Passover celebration he is hosting, the historian Simon Schama asks the assembled guests, “Is Jewish culture always expecting the worst?” A diner responds, “The Jewish imagination is paranoia confirmed by history.”
“The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama,” a five-part documentary series beginning Tuesday, March 25, on KUED at 7 p.m., is a dramatic and lyrical introduction to Jewish history, from its origins in biblical times down to the latest developments in the State of Israel.
But the program is not a chronological history or a typical historical document. Like other good historians, Schama is a grand storyteller. Through his spellbinding stories, he dissects what it means to be a Jew. His intriguing discussions include a review of the Jewish faith and a personal examination, from his scholarly vantage point, of the Jewish people and the Jewish culture.
As an indication of the unconventional structure of the series, the Passover dinner opens the first hour-long segment, “The Beginning.” Then viewers enter the library of Sigmund Freud, the father of psychoanalysis, who described himself as a “completely godless Jew.” The third scene is within a London synagogue during Simchat Torah, the Jewish holiday that marks the conclusion of the annual cycle of Torah readings.
“This is the moment when Jews feel most Jewish,” Schama narrates. “The ark opens, the Torah scrolls ... are held up and you smile. At least, I always smile at the pure beauty of it all.”
While traveling with Schama as the tour guide may be frenetic, it’s a fascinating journey. The study of history, he has said, should not be “like quaint strolls down memory lane.”
Schama is a professor of art history and history at Columbia University in New York City, but that only scratches the surface of describing the scholar. He has also published 15 books with topics ranging from the French Revolution to landscaping, from Rembrandt to the slave trade and from painting to the history of Britain (in three volumes) — although he is best known for “The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age.”
With this Oxford Film and Television production, 69-year-old Schama is returning to his Jewish roots in his most personal work. The series is a companion to his volume of Jewish history, the lavishly illustrated “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD,” which documents ancient times through the expulsion of Jews from Spain. The sequel, subtitled “When Words Fail: 1492-Present,” is due out this fall.
“If you were to remove from our collective history the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable,” Schama says in the show. “There would be no monotheism, no written Bible and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history, too, and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity.”
Join Schama on his journey, and enjoy the ride.