The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE–1492 CE by Simon Schama - review by Miri Rubin

Miri Rubin

Book of Exile

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BCE–1492 CE


The Bodley Head 496pp £25

In a highly influential little book, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (1982), the American historian Yosef Yerushalmi argued that history writing had all but disappeared from Jewish culture for well over a millennium following the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. This was a dramatic rupture within a culture steeped in historical consciousness and injunctions to remember. While the feats of kings and their conquests were recorded in the biblical books of Chronicles, these were not the subject of ethical reflection. The 169 instances when the Israelites are commanded to remember concern not what happened – what the Romans would call res gestae – but how it happened: ‘Beware lest you forget the Lord, who brought you forth out of the land of Egypt’ (Deut 6:12). Memory was the unfolding of a relationship between a people, its God and the providential patterns of time. The loss of sovereignty and communal worship following the Roman conquest and the exile from Judaea inspired the last act of historical writing: Flavius Josephus’s The Jewish War and The Antiquities of the Jews (AD 75–9 and AD 93–4 respectively)

The following centuries were ones of deep and fervent remembrance, but not in the form of chronicles and histories. As the synagogue became the focus for Jewish life in Europe, North Africa and the Near East, so its liturgy was renewed and replenished with historical content and injunctions to remember.

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