The Jews, a History in So Many, Many Words






Simon Schama, the prolific and protean British historian whose topics have included the French Revolution and the history of art, arrives now with a history of the Jewish people, and it’s a multimedia happening: two books and a five-part television documentary being broadcast on the BBC and PBS.

The first volume, “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD,” is before us. The second, out this fall, takes us up to the present day. It bears a rather more somber subtitle: “When Words Fail: 1492-Present.”

It’s no accident that the subtitles alight on language. Mr. Schama is a wordy, frequently witty writer about a wordy, witty culture. Considering the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, he can’t help summarizing a bit of the implied content in one of them this way: “We are going to write the enemy into capitulation! Surrender to our verbosity or else!”

Mr. Schama’s own verbosity offers deep pleasures. If he occasionally writes the reader into capitulation — there are more zealots and harlots, uprootings and assaults, curses and hymns, doves and asses, and parched throats and sacrificed goats in this book than you can easily keep in your head at one time — he mostly wears his erudition lightly....



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