TODAY I have a piece in the Los Angeles Times about a new documentary, commissioned by the BBC but playing in the US on PBS, The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama. (The first part broadcasts Tuesday night.)
Schama, the British-born, Cambridge-educated historian who now teachers at Columbia, is likely known to many of my readers for his books and documentaries on the history of art, the French Revolution, Britain, the Dutch, and so on. Here he dives into his own Jewish origins for the first time in four decades, and the result drew raves when it showed in England last fall.
Here’s how he describes this project, which goes back to the desert tribe of about 1000 B.C. and follows up to the more or less present, including the state of Israel.
“I wanted to say, without putting on a ridiculous smiley face or making light of the tragic aspects, that there is a story to be told beyond one clearly framed by the assumption of catastrophe,” the British historian said in Pasadena. “No one’s going to accuse me of doing this program as light entertainment.”
Some of this material will be familiar to American audiences, especially those with Hebrew school educations. For many though, the tale will be fresh and gripping. I include myself in that latter category: Despite my Austrian-Jewish name, and a grandfather who worked in the classic Jewish spheres of vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley, I am mostly a goy with little background in Jewish history pre-Marx Brothers, and almost no religious background.
Much of these docs, then, I found fascinating. I especially enjoyed talking to Schama about the roots of the Jewish sense of humor — he tracks it back to Renaissance-era jesters — and theatricality.
Even more, I was interested in the larger issue of historical documentary, and the role of the scholar in the public square — what we used to call “middlebrow” cultural transmission. I’m fond of popularizers like Kenneth Clark, Jacob Bronowski and Carl Sagan, a childhood hero. Schama lit up when I brought up the topic, and took some extra time with me to discuss it.
I’m back, by the way, from a few days out of town, and should be back to posting just about every day.