In Orange-Tawny Bonnets

David Nirenberg

  • Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 by Simon Schama
    Bodley Head, 790 pp, £25.00, October 2017, ISBN 978 1 84792 280 9

Simon Schama is devoting a trilogy to the 3000-year-long ‘Story of the Jews’. His attention, however, is not evenly distributed. The first volume, The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, spent 473 pages on the 2500 years between 1000 BC and 1492 AD. The second, enigmatically entitled Belonging, requires 790 pages to cover the 400 years between 1492 and 1900, and two characters who presumably attracted Schama because they both preached a Jewish return to Zion. Chapter 1, ‘Could It Be Now?’, begins with the appearance of David the Reubenite in Venice some time around Hanukkah in 1523. Calling himself ‘son of Solomon and brother to King Joseph’, ruler of the lost tribes of Reuben, Gad and Manasseh that dwelt in the far east of myth, beyond the Sambatyon (‘a river so Jewish it observed the Sabbath’), David sought (and even more surprisingly received) audiences with Pope Clement VII and Emperor Charles V, offering them the assistance of his (imaginary) Jewish armies to wrest the Holy Land from Suleyman the Magnificent’s grip. Chapter 16, ‘Should It Be Now?’, concludes outside Jerusalem’s Damascus Gate on 2 November 1898, with Theodor Herzl, the great impresario of Zionism, meeting Wilhelm II, the last German emperor, on the Street of the Prophets. Herzl urged the non-committal kaiser, grey-booted and riding crop in hand, to assist the Jewish people’s ‘return’ to Zion. Volume III will, I assume, bring readers more or less to our own day. Perhaps we will even meet Emperor Wilhelm again, after the First World War, blaming his defeat and abdication on the Jews, and urging Germany to exterminate ‘the tribe of Judah’ from its soil.

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[*] Yair Mintzker’s The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an 18th-Century Court Jew (Princeton, 344 pp., £27.95, June 2017, 978 0 691 17232 3).