Historian and award-winning author Schama majestically syntheses 2500 years of Jewish history in The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words.

Why did you decide to open with the Jewish community on the Egyptian island of Elephantine?

Because the papyri recording the life of that 5th century B.C.E. community is the first true archive of a “Judean,” if not yet wholly Jewish society. Its records are contemporary with the lives it records. The Bible on the other hand narrates events centuries after they might have happened. The first two chapters both happen in the Persian era of the 5th century B.C.E. One documents the daily lives of a quasi-Jewish community complete with an unauthorized temple, and the second chapter is set back in Ezra and Nehemiah’s Jerusalem with the self-conscious writing and reading of the Bible. As the title implies, the book is all about telling the story of the Jews and these are two very different kinds of storytelling, both in their way eloquent. It’s revelatory I think to get close to Jews living in Egypt, koshering up slave girls, squabbling over property, pre-nups and wills, not yet caught in the obligations of Torah Judaism. And, for most readers, Elephantine will, I think, come as a surprise. It’s always good to begin with a surprise.

In writing the book, what did you learn that you least expected?

The integral importance of imagery to Judaism, notwithstanding the Second Commandment, which I came to realize was interpreted in the first five centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple as a ban on sculpture and statuary, but not paintings or mosaic. The synagogues of late antiquity and the early medieval period were built around imagery: imagery of remembering the Temple but also of the celestial zodiac too. They seem so very classical in a way which makes it clear that the traditional distinction between image-allergic Judaism and classicism is historically false. Imagery comes back too in the spectacular illuminated manuscript Bibles, prayer books and Passover haggadot. So it seems to me you can’t write about Jewish culture in this period without being, to some extent an art historian.

What was it like to write about your own people?

This is my second book of Jewish history. The first, Two Rothschilds and the Land of Israel, was the second book I wrote, published in 1979 and I never felt quite comfortable in the skin of a Jewish historian, possibly because it was drummed into us as students that distance and objectivity was the holy grail of history writing. Paradoxically it was writing about the French Revolution that made me value closeness and personal engagement. But as the preface to the book says it’s taken me four decades to have the nerve to get back to the subject.

Which writers are your role models?

For the reanimation of past worlds I take a lot of inspiration from the greatest writers of historical fiction—[Giuseppe Tomasi di] Lampedusa’s The Leopard, Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March. The challenge for a nonfiction writer is to achieve a poetic precision using the documents of truth but somehow to make people and places spring to life as if the reader was in their presence. I deeply admire the work of Richard Holmes and the Columbia historian Garrett Mattingly’s Spanish Armada—based on bedrock archival scholarship but written with the grip of a novel—is pretty much a perfect book. I should say that I also love the broken-faceted surfaces of W.G. Sebald’s books, which are in their way histories.

How is the writing of Jewish history changing?

The history of the Jews has been written overwhelmingly by scholars of texts—understandably given the formative nature of the Bible and the Talmud. Seeing Jewish history through artifacts, architecture and images is still a young but spectacularly flourishing discipline that’s changing the whole story. The same would be true of Jewish music and even drama—the first non-Biblical Hebrew play we know of was written in mid-16th century Mantua! A great deal of the most interesting Jewish history now being written makes the case for a culturally elastic Judaism and Jewish life, one which owes a great deal to its surrounding culture. Jewish history turns out not to be an either/or story—as in either pure Judaism detached from its surroundings or else assimilation—but rather for the vast majority, the adventure of living in between.