cover image The Story of the Jews: Belonging: 1492–1900

The Story of the Jews: Belonging: 1492–1900

Simon Schama. Ecco, $39.99 (800p) ISBN 978-0-06-233957-7

The second volume of Schama’s accessible epic history survey follows the successful model of the first, Finding the Words, 1000 BC–1492. While well-known figures, such as Baruch Spinoza, Alfred Dreyfus, and Theodor Herzl, appear in the narrative, much of the story is recounted through the experiences of more obscure people, such as David Ha-Reuveni, a self-proclaimed warrior prince of the 16th century, and 18th-century British boxer Daniel Mendoza. Despite the book’s ambitious scope, Schama keeps the reader rooted in the lives of the individuals whose choices brought Jewry from the trauma of their expulsion from Spain to the dawn of Zionism. He does so by adopting a novelist’s storytelling approach. “It was when the rabbi carried the Torah scrolls into the women’s section of the Frankfurt shul that the congregation knew something dramatic was in the offing,” Schama writes. He also presents unique details to bolster the narrative, for instance noting the crucial role of Antwerp New Christians—who were suspected of still practicing Judaism—in the burgeoning 16th-century spice trade. Similarly, New Christians financially buttressed the Portuguese maritime empire, exemplifying how “the misfortune of dispersion was turned into a trading opportunity.” Schama closes by focusing on the Dreyfus Affair and the origins of Zionism, dramatically setting the stage for 20th-century developments. (Oct.)