Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900 by Simon Schama - review by David Biale

David Biale

Between States

Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492–1900


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Only a quotation, taken pretty much at random, can capture the charming but equally irritating quality of the second volume of Simon Schama’s highly personal and idiosyncratic history of the Jews:

There was a time when Jewish catering opened doors. Every Friday afternoon, following Muslim prayers but before the Jewish Sabbath, a caravan of confections from the villa of the Great Jew in Pera was delivered to Topkapi Palace. Seated upon silk cushions, the yellow-haired sultan, Selim II, awaited with keen anticipation the delicacies brought to him on Chinese porcelain: pigeon dainties baked in rose water and sugar, goose livers chopped with Corinth raisins and the spices which were, after all, the Jew’s to command; also some items preserved in the kitchen of culinary nostalgia, from the ancient Turkic days of tents and flocks and racing ponies; the sour yogurts and yufka, the unleavened bread that was wrapped around a pilaf. In the new style there was an array of zeytinyagli dishes, named for the olive oil (another Jewish import trade) in which they were cooked and served cold – a corrective, the physicians said, to the black bile that would come on the humid summers.

This passage is vintage Schama: lush in evocative detail, a veritable word picture, but also self-indulgently overwritten. The passage goes on for another page and a half before we learn the identity of this Jewish confectioner, Don Joseph Nasi, a refugee from the Iberian Peninsula, who became one of the richest and most powerful men (and certainly the richest and most powerful Jew) in the Ottoman Empire.

Schama’s gift is as a storyteller. The subtitle of the book is, appropriately, ‘The Story of the Jews’ (and not their history). Schama paints this picture of the Jewish experience in broad strokes, his account ranging from Portugal to the Ottoman Empire, China, France, London, Amsterdam, Germany, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and America. He is particularly good at evoking the complex legacy of the French Revolution (as one might expect from the author of Citizens), which not only emancipated the Jews but also unleashed a torrent of Jew-hatred, much like the Dreyfus Affair a century later, which is well narrated too.

Alongside the big picture are enchanting vignettes and anecdotes about individuals, some of them well known, others less so. Many of these figures serve as points of departure for discussions of particular aspects of Jewish culture. Thus Schama gives us the story of Leone de Sommi, an Italian Renaissance playwright and actor, ‘the first unapologetically Jewish showman’. This story poses the larger questions, which Schama might have considered, of why many Jews become entertainers and what this means for modern Jewish identity.

Later, we encounter Sarra Copia, a 17th-century Italian writer living in the Venetian ghetto, who carried on an epistolary affair with a Christian poet named Ansaldo Cebà. She was highly educated, far beyond what we expect for Jewish women at that time. His letters to her (the only part of the correspondence to survive) reflect deep intellectual engagement that became amorous. But when it dawned on her that Cebà desired her conversion, she broke off the correspondence. Schama labels this affair – and the culture it epitomised – ‘cohabitation without conversion’. The Jews may have been physically segregated from the rest of Italian society, but the educated elite among them took vigorous part in it without surrendering their identity.

In Georgian England, we discover Daniel Mendoza, a Sephardic Jew who was one of the great boxers of his time. This is a story that Schama researched for and wrote about in an earlier article. Mendoza certainly upsets our prejudices about the status of Jews in a society that still did not fully accept them. It might have been apposite for Schama to tell us about other Jewish boxers, from the time of Mendoza and from the 20th century (Wikipedia lists 115 and there may be more), who were often seen as literally fighting for acceptance for their people.

He also introduces us to the mid-19th-century American woman Adah Isaacs Menken, who was born a Christian but claimed to be Jewish – a Marrano – by descent (she added the ‘h’ to her first name to make it sound more Jewish). She was at one time the best-paid actress in America and had multiple scandalous affairs and staged provocative publicity stunts. Schama comments on how stories like this one demonstrate the way America liberated Jewish women. This is no doubt true, but had Schama read more deeply Ada Rapoport-Albert’s book Women and the Messianic Heresy of Sabbatai Zevi, 1666–1816, he would have seen how the messianic movement in the 17th and 18th centuries (a subject he covers quite well) provided earlier opportunities for assertive femininity. It should be stated in Schama’s defence that the library of books on his subject is so vast that he cannot be expected to have mastered them all, although he has generally read deeply in the most recent literature.

Schama rarely offers serious analysis of the importance of the figures he has chosen to highlight. Are they only there because of their piquancy? Or do they tell us more? A common feature of all of these stories is that their protagonists crossed boundaries. The Jews, Schama seems to say, never existed in isolation but were always interacting with surrounding non-Jewish societies. And these flamboyant characters were pioneers, as it were, of such crossings. The closest Schama comes to advancing a thesis for his long book comes in a question at the end of his chapter on early modern Italy: ‘[The Jews] could live, somehow, on the edge of the world. The question for the rest of modern history was could they live, happily, at its centre?’ He never answers his own question.

But it is possible that another argument is buried in Schama’s book. Although its subtitle says that it begins in 1492 (the date when the Jews were expelled from Spain), Schama actually starts some years later with the messianic adventurer David Ha-Reuveni. He ends with Theodor Herzl, seen by many as a messianic adventurer himself. He concludes the final chapter with Herzl in Jerusalem, imagining the new city that the Jews would build there:

Just want it enough and it would be no dream.
And that odd sensation he felt in his heart from time to time, along with a shortness of breath, that little catch and jump, the allegretto of his beating pulse? Well, it was hilly, this Jeruscholajim. It was nothing really … All would be well.

In the absence of any comment on this pregnant passage, we are forced to speculate as to its significance. Schama is obviously referring to Herzl’s heart condition, which would eventually kill him at the age of forty-four. But perhaps there is more. Herzl was right in prophesying the rise of a Jewish state and its transformation of Jerusalem. However, all is decidedly not well in Zion, for if Zionism imagined a messianic solution to the Jews’ wandering and persecution, it finds itself instead locked in seemingly endless combat. The cohabitation of the age of the Venetian ghetto has given way to walls that the Jews themselves have built. And so the long story that Schama tells is encompassed, he seems to be saying, by failed messianism at both ends.

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