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The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000 BC-1492 AD (The Story of the Jews #1)

3.94  ·  Rating Details ·  748 Ratings  ·  90 Reviews
In this magnificently illustrated cultural history--the tie-in to the PBS and BBC series 'The Story of the Jews'--Simon Schama details the story of the Jewish experience, tracing it across three millennia, from their beginnings as an ancient tribal people to the opening of the New World in 1492 to the modern day.

It is a story like no other: an epic of endurance against des
Hardcover, 512 pages
Published March 18th 2014 by Ecco (first published 2013)
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Gustav Dinsdag The documentary is really good. A very personal approach it seems. I haven't read the book yet but I'm told it follows the same outlines as the…moreThe documentary is really good. A very personal approach it seems. I haven't read the book yet but I'm told it follows the same outlines as the documentary. I can recommend watching it!(less)
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John Carter McKnight
Simply the best book I've read in many years, due largely to the quality of Schama's voice. As a history, it's fascinating in its wide range - from the Mesopotamia of 1000 BC to the Spanish Inquisition, from a fort at the head of the Nile to the Tower of London, from Aramaic to Arabic to Ladino. That scope can be a bit dizzying, as the pace accelerates after the Roman destruction of the Temple: generations pass in the blink of a few pages.

But through it all, Schama's narrative voice is a guide:
Richard Epstein
May 05, 2014 Richard Epstein rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I thought, "I can't wait to see how it ends!" I should have waited. Volume 1 ends with the Inquisition burning, and the Crown expelling, Jews by the thousands. Schama writes with great brio and a distinctively conversational wit (though I just can't make myself as interested in architectural and holographic details as he is), but there is no way to disguise the the terrible sadness of angry Christianity in action. One wants to cry out, again and again, 'Have they never read that book of theirs?"
Christoph Fischer
I was somewhat disappointed by the book. Given the high profile of the author I had come to expect a very competent and thorough historical account but found myself confused from the first chapter onwards about the direction of the book. Although I appreciate that this is not meant to be popular science or Jews for Dummies the book expects a lot of prior knowledge in several disciplines, unless you want to continuously flick back to the index. I know some of the necessary background but not enou ...more
Howard Cincotta
I had never heard of Elephantine, and Simon Schama is betting that you haven’t either, as he opens volume one (“Finding the Words”) of his massive and massively entertaining history of the Jewish people from their puzzling origins to their brutal expulsion from Spain in 1492. Volume two (“When the Words Fail”) takes the story to the present.

In Schama’s telling, Elephantine, a Jewish garrison town on an island in the Nile River that dates from the fifth century BCE both reinforces and contradicts
Mal Warwick
May 22, 2014 Mal Warwick rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Can you think of any ethnic group that has been more closely studied than the Jews? I can’t. Thousands upon thousands of books have been written about Jews and Judaism; more than 53,000 are listed on Amazon alone — surely a small fraction of the total works produced over the three millennia that have passed since King David united the nation of Israel.

Why, then, does Simon Schama write yet another history of the Jews? The easy answer, of course, is that he was approached to produce a television
Richard Block
Tale of Woe

The brilliant, erudite and articulate Simon Schama produces a muddled, idiosyncratic history of his people (OK, our people). Using his usual trick of engaging you through people you may or may not have heard of to make general points, this first volume only pays dividends in the later chapters on the late middle ages and the inquisition. Until then, it's a mess.

Schama does not credit biblical history much, unless it is Christian or Muslim history. He thinks the Old Testament is pretty
Bob Breckwoldt
Jan 04, 2014 Bob Breckwoldt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
When I saw Simon Schama launch his book “The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words, 1000BCE-1492CE” at Manchester Jewish Museum it took 10 minutes of talking for him to realise he hadn’t switched on the microphone and not everyone could hear him. This very much encapsulates him and the book. It is like him, excitable and voluble, personal and academic, Jewish and learned, polemical and partisan, jokey and deadly serious. And everywhere there are words, words, words - yet images and artefacts abou ...more
Jul 30, 2014 Francine rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is outstanding! I am a fan of Schama's Citizen so I knew I needed to read this book.

I have a degree in European History and Schama, of course, filled in the gaps and illuminated things I had never heard before. Oh, the great women of Judaism, so many fine examples who are seldom highlighted in the teaching of History.

I an not Jewish but I know that much of my Catholic faith is built upon their faith. I know something of the historical missteps, and worse, that divide us and Schama taug
William Crosby
I saw the title and thought this would be a linear history. I should have paid more attention to the word "story" and the subtitle: "Finding the words."

So if you are looking for a strictly historical and linear account as I was you could be frustrated. It jumps around and includes discussion of archaeology and research and spends extensive pages on stories.

I found the jumping around distracting. Dwells extensively on a comparison of the mythology of the Jews (as told both in the Bible and in oth
OK as an intro, but not much more.

The main problems are twofold and related.

It's thin in places, and it's just wrong in a few. The latter first.

The main areas of errors are in events related to Jesus and his time. First, Schama indiscriminately uses the term "procurator" for the Roman governor of Judea when, in most the material covered by Acts, that person was a "prefect."

Second, he's too credulous on Suetonius and Tacitus and just how much, or how little, they knew what they were talking about
Dec 26, 2013 Jonathan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: judaism
Despite his occasional annoying habit of letting his television voice slip into the narrative, Simon Schama's work is a minor masterpiece, especially in his extrapolation of the latest archeological research into the history of the Jews of the Biblical era. He assumes a certain familiarity with the general themes of the topic (not a problem for me, but I can't speak for everyone) but, as is par for the course with Professor Schama, the language flows effortlessly as a seamless, captivating garme ...more
May 13, 2014 Rui rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Very good! It gives a good perspective about what is history in the Bible. And we get a feeling about how Judaism evolved.
Mar 18, 2014 Ariel rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: jewish, adult, non-fic, history
Finally done. I learned so much and so painlessly, thanks to Schama's erudition combined with a witty, irreverent, lively, sometimes poignant style. Longer review to follow.
May 14, 2017 Robert rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
Not so excited about Schama's book. Long and slow
Catherine Shereshewsky
What a read

An enormous undertaking made more so by the peeks into the everyday lives of the characters. The kings and potentates are surely there but also the very human presence of lesser mortals. Just wonderful story-telling on a very grand scale.
Adam Glantz
Sep 29, 2016 Adam Glantz rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
In this first volume, Simon Schama largely succeeds in attaining his two goals for a history of the Jews: It should tell the story of the Jews in their complex interaction with other peoples, and it should deal with a range of real Jewish character types, as opposed to the stock characters of the medieval rabbi and the modern Zionist. He starts out with a bold decision to begin his narrative, not in Palestine in the era of the patriarchs, but in Egypt around the time the Hebrew Bible was codifie ...more
Brigitte Alouqua
Sep 30, 2016 Brigitte Alouqua rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Lorsque l’on est étudiant, on apprend déjà pas mal de choses sur l’histoire. Malgré tout, il y a encore tellement de ces choses que nous n’apprenons pas, en même temps, sauf si nous nous spécialisons dans l’histoire, nous n’avons pas non plus des heures de ce cours sur la semaine. Il y a forcément des choix à faire dans les cours que nous donnent les profs.

C’est pour cette raison, que j’aime ce genre de livre, ou encore les documentaires. La plupart du temps, j’y apprend vraiment pas mal de chos
Jul 24, 2016 Vishvapani rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This vivid, heartfelt book trades a linear narration of the Jewish past for repeated plunges into specificity, led by texts and artefacts, informed by archaeology to create a sense of intimacy with the Jews of history and the events that shaped them. His focus switches from communities such as Elephantine, an island in the Nile in the C.5th BCE to Masada and Josephus, the records of first millennium Cairo Jews, the Hebrew poets of Jewish Iberia ... and so on, in vast, vibrant loquacious detail. ...more
Fills in the blanks, before and after the birth of Jesus for the Jewish people. Most of the book covers the origins of Jewish people before they were "Jews". They were Hasmoneans, Maccabees, many and other Jewish"tribes." Before there was a Yiddish language, there was Aramaic and Hebrew. Before there were Persians, there were the oldest tribes, Assyrians, Babylonians. At one time Jews were an integrated part of Greek and Roman societies. What separated Jews from Christians philosophically was th ...more
Todd Stockslager
May 31, 2015 Todd Stockslager rated it liked it
Shelves: history
Review title: Lost, but never for words
Schama has been a popular and prolific narrative historian covering topics as diverse as the French Revolution, American history, and now this history of the Jewish people. I've read all three of those, and they usually leave me wanting something missing.

This story starts strong as Schama describes the transition of the Jews from scattered wanderers to, well, scattered wanderers in different places but with a remembered homeland in Jerusalem. The early stor
Randall Smith
Apr 10, 2014 Randall Smith rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
What I most like about Schama’s book was the emphasis on the tangible. He concentrates on archeological discoveries, surviving papyrus letters and fragments, the ruins of ancient synagogue, their styles, locations and decorations, in other words, things that can be seen, felt, read. He does not start the history with Abraham, Moses and similar mythic characters for whom there is no real evidence. Since he deals mainly with the tangible, the history does not start as early as one might have thoug ...more
Michael Johnston
This book - a companion piece to the PBS documentary of the same name - vividly tells the early story of the Jewish people. Schama does an admirable job of not only telling the story of an evolving people and their faith, but of making the reader feel as if he/she were in the middle of the story.

His insights into the uniqueness of this new faith as compared to the pagan religions that surrounded it are insightful not only as history, but in explaining how current practice evolved. Of particular
I really enjoyed both Mr. Schama's multi-episode documentaries A History of Britain and The Story of the Jews, which this book is the first of a planned two-volume companion to that series, but I had never actually read any of Mr. Schama's works. I am pleased to say that Mr. Schama's style of telling history is just as good on the page as it is on the screen. This book spans the story of Jews and Jewish life from their earliest biblical days still being unearthed in Israel and Ancient Egyptian c ...more
Jul 11, 2014 Scott rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Last winter Schama's documentary of the same name aired on PBS and along with it the promotion of this two volume history. I enjoyed the series so well and the previous Schama book I read (Landscape and Memory) that I ordered volume one. And was not disappointed.

First, Schama is a skilled writer. Here are a couple of examples:
For a couple of hours after supper, the sages, false messiahs, poets and rabble-rousers came into our little company as we cracked walnuts and jokes, and drank wine and the
Emmanuel Gustin
This book left me in a quandary. I felt that I should have liked it more. It contains a lot of fascinating stories from the history of the Jewish people, some of it entertaining, much of it deeply tragic. It contains a lot of surprises and dispels many old myths. It shows the Jews in action, as mercenaries, parents, theologians, doctors, businessmen, parents, artists, philosophers, and poets, through the centuries until the end of the Middle Ages.

It is not a complete or logical history. The cho
Mar 27, 2014 Bettie☯ marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
In this magnificently illustrated cultural history -- the companion volume to the five-part PBS and BBC series THE STORY OF THE JEWS -- award-winning historian Simon Schama details the story of the Jewish people, tracing their experience across three millennia, from their beginnings as an ancient tribal people to the opening of the new world in 1492. It is a story like no other: an epic of endurance in the face of destruction, of creativity in the face of oppression, joy amidst grief, the affirm ...more
Apr 19, 2014 Michelle rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
I think Schama could make the history of dirt exciting, and gory. So when I saw he was taking on the history of the Jews I was excited. I'd somehow missed--or possibly just never thought about--his being Jewish when I read his previous books. If you are a very religious traditional Jew who believes the Biblical narrative completely, you may have some disappointments in the early chapters. I enjoyed the early chapters for the stuff I *didn't* know--like there was a colony of Jews in southern Egyp ...more
Alex Marshall
What's not to like, as Simon Schama would say in one of his yiddisher asides. Apart from these slightly overdone bits of the demotic, i found the writing a bit doughy. That's a pity, because he has a lot to say. I kind of wish I'd seen the TV series instead, or as well.

Then again, the central idea, that it is the Book, the words, that have kept Jews Jewish down the centuries, is a powerful one. How else to account for the survival of Jews, as Jews, in the face of resolute attempts to extinguish
Mar 30, 2014 Marleene rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Beautifully written prose as always, is characteristic of any book by Schama. Historical characters are given personality and emotion and life in this work and the reader can delight in his witty turns of phrase. He is primarily an art historian, and he devotes many loving pages to descriptions of mosaics and illustrated manuscripts, to architectural details and to those portions of Jewish history which he personally finds most telling but not necessarily those that other historians may find of ...more
Ameya Warde
I didn't realize how very little I knew about the history of the Jewish people until I read this book. And, despite it's extreme readability (some other reviewers complained about his 'tv presenter voice,' but I found that all the more engaging), this took me -months- to read, which is very unusual for me.

Significant time was spent, especially in the first half, wikipedia'ing the many things mentioned in passing that I wanted to learn more about. Schama balanced detail and sweeping overview rat
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Simon Schama was born in 1945. The son of a textile merchant with Lithuanian and Turkish grandparents, he spent his early years in Leigh-on-Sea in Essex. When his parents moved to London he won a scholarship to Haberdashers’ Aske’s School where his two great loves were English and History. Forced to choose between the two he opted to read history at Christ’s College, Cambridge. Here he was taught ...more
More about Simon Schama...

Other Books in the Series

The Story of the Jews (2 books)
  • The Story of the Jews: When Words Fail, 1492 – Present Day

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“It is already apparent that the ‘minimalist’ view of the Bible as wholly fictitious and unhooked from historical reality, may be as much of a mistake as the biblical literalism it sought to supersede.” 1 likes
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