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.

What lessons will Schama’s trilogy offer? The attentive reader of this volume, reflecting on its title – Belonging – and noticing a similarity between the titles of the first and last chapters, may well conclude that the book’s argument runs something like this: wherever in the world the Jews have lived, they have yearned to belong to that place as Jews. But in many of these places, non-Jewish society brutally rejected the possibility of Jewish belonging. (Schama exempts a handful of cultures from this brutality: Ming China, Kerala in India, and 17th-century Amsterdam, described as ‘a triangle of toleration where Jews could make a home without the cycle of terror that dogged them in Christian Europe’.)

Schama rarely gives explicit guidance on the way readers should think about the material he presents. He doesn’t spend much time on theses, arguments, explanations or musings about cause and effect. His stress is on ‘story’, not ‘history’: fascinating vignettes and felicitous formulations are his trademarks, and his gift is engagement through detail. ‘So much could go wrong if you wanted to shoot someone in Amsterdam in 1640, even if you were sound of mind, which Uriel da Costa was not,’ begins his treatment of one Portuguese converso, who trained in canon law at Coimbra before fleeing the country with his mother in 1614. Once away from Portugal and its Inquisition, Uriel (heretofore named Gabriel) had himself circumcised and ‘returned’ to Judaism, but found the going rough. His previous life of Catholic learning had coloured his religious sensibilities, and ‘instead of lofty ethics and spiritual realisation, all he could see’ in the Judaism of his neighbours ‘were trivial mechanical rituals, mindless hair-splitting and irrational injunctions’, and he did not hesitate to make his views plain. The result was a herem, a ban or excommunication, which did not prevent Uriel from writing another attack on the ‘Pharisees’ and their ‘superstitions’ in 1623. In 1639, Schama writes, Uriel ‘is recorded living in the Vloonburgsteeg, a stone’s throw from the newly unified synagogue on the Houtgracht, and transferring his worldly goods to his common-law wife Digna, the act witnessed by a gentile tobacconist and a Jewish maker of automata with swivelling eyes, necks and heads, designed for the amusement of fairground crowds’. And so on until 1640, when Uriel’s attempt to murder an inimical relative misfired. He fled to his study, where a second pistol and the manuscript of an autobiography would shortly be found beside his lifeless body.

A genius at painting portraits of individuals like Uriel, Schama tells their stories with a drama often lacking in the primary sources. His story proceeds person by person, prose portrait by prose portrait, curious detail by curious detail. In a single chapter on England you will visit boxing rings and mansions, spend a day working in the London rag trade, debate the meaning of fossils with the learned men of the Royal Society, and much more. Follow the Jews of Spain in their diaspora to Ottoman Constantinople and you’ll tour the sultan’s kitchens, taste his favourite confections, watch a Jewish cosmetics saleswoman gain influence through her customers in his harem, and witness her gruesome murder in a spasm of anti-Jewish violence. You will learn about the Jewish musicians, actors and impresarios of 16th-century Italy, about Mendelssohn and Meyerbeer, about Wagner’s love and loathing for the latter, about Meyerbeer discussing medical and musical matters with his friend Rossini when ‘the two composers were both in their early seventies and mortality was no longer just a melody for the cello section.’

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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).