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Belonging: The story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama

13 April 2018

Anthony Phillips reads the second volume of a historian’s trilogy

IN MY review of the first volume of Schama’s trilogy on “the story of the Jews” (Books, 29 November 2013), I commented that “Schama’s genius is to bring events and people he describes vividly to life, so that the reader becomes the spectator.” In this massive second volume, more than 300 pages longer than its predecessor, he does not disappoint.

Schama begins his narrative with the fantastic tale of two frauds who were received by cardinals, monarchs, the Pope, and Charles V, the imperial sovereign of Catholic Christendom, whom they attempted to convert to Judaism. It ends with Theodor Herzl’s recognition that, after the failure of assimilation, only mass emigration to Palestine and the establishment of a Jewish state — “a place where being a Jew was the norm rather than a problem” — would bring an end to anti-Semitism.

In between, we are introduced to a succession of extraordinary characters, among them the fabulously rich Mendes family; the Mantuan actor Leone de Sommi; Menasseh pleading to Cromwell for the return of Jews to England; the false Messiah Shabbetai Zevi; Moses Mendelssohn, “the first intellectual darling of the Gentiles”; the pugilist Dan Mendoza, friend of royalty; Commodore Uriah Phillips Levy of the US Navy, purchaser of Jefferson’s Monticello; and the actress Adah Isaacs Menken.

The details of the narratives astonish. We learn that Joseph Saralvo was the only mohel (circumciser) to be martyred; that Mantua was the last Italian city to herd its yellow-badge-wearing Jews into a ghetto; that rabbi Leone Modena wrote the first true autobiography; that Uriel da Costa was the martyr of free thinking; that Marischal College, Aberdeen, was the first and only institution in Britain to accept Jews as medical students; that, in the American Civil War, Jewish and Gentile soldiers shared the same camp diet.

The accounts move across Europe, where, with the exception of Holland, new Christians (converts from Islam) are constantly under suspicion from the ever-watchful Inquisition, to China, where, in sharp contrast, the emperor confirmed the naturalness of a fit between Chinese and Jewish life. Cochin in south India proved another haven.

There are exhaustive chapters on the emancipation of French Jews as a result of the Revolution; on the birth of the Hasidim in pre-partition Poland; and on the settling of Jews in America, where in general they were treated like any other immigrants. The description of the rise of anti-Semitism in reunited Germany is chilling, presaging what was to come.

There is, of course, an irony in Schama’s chosen title, Belonging; for what this volume reveals is that, with few exceptions, wherever the Jews found themselves, they knew that they did not belong, though they were not above making the best of it, some very successfully. Yet even these were under threat through the powerlessness of unbelonging. Always there was the question of Jewish loyalty to the state: were they a nation within a nation?

It is this vulnerability of being a Jew which permeates the narratives, reaching its climax with the Dreyfus affair, leading in 1897 to the first Zionist Congress, after which Herzl commented: “At Basel I founded the Jewish State.”

But the downside of Schama’s approach is that it is difficult to grasp, among the extensive collection of always spellbinding incidents, an overall picture of Judaism in the four centuries covered by this volume. For instance, there is limited reference to statistics and not much mention of the poor, but a lot about money.

Further, there is an over-concentration on Europe, with very little on Jews in Muslim countries. Indeed, this is not so much the “story of the Jews” as some stories about some remarkable Jews and Jewish communities: an anthology rather than a history. None the less, these accounts make such fascinating reading that, through Schama’s extraordinary gift for storytelling, even at its considerable length, his book was difficult to put down.

Canon Anthony Phillips is a former headmaster of The King’s School, Canterbury.


Belonging: The story of the Jews 1492-1900
Simon Schama
Bodley Head £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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