The persistent survival of Jewish hopes

Simon Schama reveals some basic truths of Jewish history.

‘EXPULSION OF the Jews in 1497,’ a 1917 watercolor by Alfredo Roque Gameiro (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
‘EXPULSION OF the Jews in 1497,’ a 1917 watercolor by Alfredo Roque Gameiro
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Don’t be fooled by Simon Schama’s contagious exuberance. Beneath his zest for life lies the confessed feelings of an outsider and a bewildered Jew.
His new work, The Story of the Jews, Volume Two: Belonging, 1492-1900, is spellbindingly good. Schama understands that history is best told through a series of glimpses at individual lives that reveal deeper truths about the conflicts and troubles Jews faced at various times in their history, as well as the compromises and sacrifices they were forced to make.
He is attracted to stories about Jews like himself; those that struggled with how to remain Jewish while still partaking in the seductions and intellectual provocations of the modern world.
Schama grew up in London during the 1950s. His father worked in the rag trade and had trouble keeping the family afloat. His mother was a lively woman who liked to belt out show tunes during breakfast.
They kept a kosher home and attended London’s Golders Green Synagogue, which Schama remembers with great tenderness, though he is no longer religious. Schama’s ancestors were Lithuanian Jews who worked as lumbermen who floated logs down the river to the saw mills of Grodno.
Schama begins his story in Mantua in 1567, where he introduces us to Leone the Jew, an actor, producer and playwright known for creating moments of enchantment. Leone was a member of the esteemed Portaleone family and was not forced to wear the yellow patch on his coat as other Jews were required to do. Leone’s great-grandfather had been doctor to the Stupor Mundi, Emperor Frederick II, and had remained a devout Jew throughout his life. Leone would do the same.
But Leone’s lavish productions were met with scorn from the rabbis, who saw theater as “adulterating the purity of Judaism from a misguided sense that it might learn something from pagan Greek philosophy.” Schama believes Leone’s life serves as a prime example of the struggles Jews wrestled with, particularly those drawn to the arts.
“These questions, put with renewed force at the beginning of modern Jewish history in the 16th century, have never gone away,” he writes. “Is Judaism a self-sufficient or an open culture? Is it heedless of time or marked by history? Were Torah, Bible, Talmud, and the myriad interpretive texts obsessively commenting on them and being in turn commented upon enough unto themselves for leading an authentically Jewish life? Is that life necessarily diluted and compromised by immersion in gentile culture or deepened and enriched by it?”
Schama writes about the Jews of Mantua and their desire for change.He tells us about Rabbi David Provenzali, who wanted to erect a school that would allow students to pursue studying the Talmud while learning Latin, Italian, rhetoric and astronomy, as well as mathematics and logic.
Things seemed to be changing, but this never seemed to last. By the second half of the 16th century, Jews were once again ghettoized and the victims of brutal assaults.
In Amsterdam in the 1640s, Baruch Spinoza, whose father was an esteemed member of his synagogue, came to the conclusion that the Torah was not of divine origin. The Jews were shocked by his assertions. If what he said was true, how could they make sense of or endure the tragedies they and their brethren had endured for centuries, or their belief in a “future divine historical appointment?”
However, some Jews were tantalized by Spinoza’s bold declarations, which revealed to them that “once the clutter of inherited fictions and superstitions had been cleared away, and once prophetic visions could be seen as products of the inspired imagination, yielding an inferior kind of knowledge to that of natural, scientific inquiry, then the uncaused God could be seen as simply identical with the totality of created nature.”
Jews were growing weary. When Judah ben Samuel of Regensburg (also known as Judah Hehassid, the pious) announced in 1700 that the end of days was upon them and the Messiah’s arrival was imminent, many left their Frankfurt homes and followed him to Jerusalem. Some believed he was a prophet, but others were tired of living crammed in the Judengasse, where thousands of Jews were pressed upon each other with little room to breathe.
They were not allowed to leave on Sundays or permitted to work in any of the trades controlled by the guilds outside the ghetto. Some of the Jews who followed Judah Hehassid remained in Jerusalem and converted to Christianity or Islam, others tried to survive as Jews, and others returned to Frankfurt. Judah Hehassid died six days after arriving in Jerusalem.
Moses Mendelssohn was disturbed by the feverish antisemitism that seemed to have taken hold by 1750 in Germany. He had spent his life trying to straddle the world of the Jewish scholar while participating in the universal debates of the day, but near the end of his life he was attacked in Berlin while walking with his children.
In earlier years, gentiles had been wooed by his charm and intellectual prowess, but he recognized that beneath their smiles and genteel acceptance lay a fanaticism and evil that would destroy all reason.
Schama, ever the optimist, manag- es to find stories of joy amidst all this distress. He relishes the story of Dan Mendoza, born in 1764, who became the first successful Jewish boxer in 18th century England. Mendoza was a short man who weighed only 160 pounds; yet he was a tiger in the ring.
He also tells us the life story of Myer Lyon, who remained unapologetically Jewish while still managing to work in the theater, where he was revered for his elaborate cantorial flourishes.
Schama is impressed by the creative genius and tenderness of Marrano Jacob Rodrigues, who was born and baptized in 1715. He fled from the Portuguese Inquisition to Paris, where he worked wonders with deaf mutes using new approaches he developed to help many of them speak. He returned to Judaism as an adult and had his two adult sons circumcised in their 20s.
Schama also examines how Jews tried to reshape Judaism to reflect their changing desires. Israel Ben-Eliezer, known as the Ba’al Shem Tov, believed Judaism must become more joyful and less legalistic.
Another Jew, Adolph Jellinek, who was a scholar of Midrash and Kabbala but also a virtuoso of formal rhetoric, delighted Jews in Vienna in 1856 with his sermons. Jellinek believed that when a tradition was indefensibly archaic or inhumane it must be abandoned. For example, the custom of halitza, which instructs a widow to throw a shoe at her new husband, in order to be released from the obligation to marry her brother-in-law, was something widows no longer needed to feel compelled to follow. Schama explains that Jellinek was a “defender of the Talmud without being enslaved to it.”
Some Jews were able to ingratiate themselves to royal courts. Samson Wertheimer was a prime example. The Hapsburg emperors often counted on him to come up with the cash they needed at crucial times. He was able to do so since he made a fortune in several business enterprises that including tobacco and salt mines.
He became a “Protected Jew,” someone the emperors could count on for funds when they needed some in order to hold on to their power. “Protected Jews” like Wertheimer were allowed special privileges, such as being allowed to reside in places like Berlin, Budapest, Vienna or Prague.
But eventually we sense that even Schama’s cheerfulness has its limits. As he delves deeper into the dark and violent reality of Jewish history, we can hear his muted pain and confusion. Joanne Eisenmenger’s Judaism Unmasked spoke about Jews being the spawn of Satan determined to destroy Christianity. Wagner wrote maliciously about the sounds a Jew makes: “a croaking, wheezing, buzzling snuffle... an entirely inhuman expression.”
German Wilhelm Marr wrote how Jews had ripped “the heart out of the traditional world of German artisans.” Edouard Drumont’s writings are filled with vicious false stereotypes of Jews as “Christ-killers, economic vampires, sub-humans... reptiles dripping with slime and engorged with their victim’s blood.” Paul Cezanne, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, and so many others chimed in with filthy antisemitic utterings.
It seems that Jews were just starting to understand the intractability of their predicament. Schama believed Dr. Leon Pinsker was the most eloquent in expressing the Jews’ impossible dilemma. Pinsker, wrote Schama, innately understood “how ancient fantasies cohabited with modern habits.
The particular madness, “a demonopathy,” he identified as the fear of ghosts and zombies. The Jews walked through the fears of the non-Jewish mind as alien beings, neither wholly alive nor satisfyingly dead; both there and not there; mercurial, slippery, immune to exorcism through banishment, conversion, or any number of brutal bashings.
Worse, they kept coming back as successes, master of the modern world; hobgoblins of capitalism. The Jews themselves were not without responsibility for this phobia, because they refused to gather themselves into a physically recognizable national existence, an entity that would demand respect. “Instead, they left their destiny in the hands of the Almighty, stuck forever waiting for a messiah who never showed up. Meanwhile, the blows rained down on their heads.”
One finishes Schama’s book sad and mournful and in awe of this writer’s immense talent. At times, the stories of Jewish hopes repeatedly extinguished is too much to take, but Schama is able to because he is not a broken man. On the contrary, he seems to grab on to life with the deepest joy and wonder.
This seems to be a miracle in itself. He loves good food, wine, and rousing conversations. He enjoys his wife and children, as well as his friends and students. His love of Judaism and his worries for the Jews are present on every page of this book, and his memories of being moved as a child when the Torah scrolls were revealed in synagogue are heartfelt.
He has spent his life teaching at Cambridge and Harvard, and writing books about diverse topics. But this project is personal and he is unafraid to expose his deeper feelings, which resonate throughout his narrative. He seems baffled by Jewish history and by the ferocity and tenacity of anger and hatred thrust upon us by the non-Jewish world.
But he has refused to allow this insanity to destroy him. Instead, he has presented us with this masterwork, whose rigorous research and creativeness and empathy deserve the widest attention and the highest praise.