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The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words

(The Story of the Jews #1)

3.98  ·  Rating details ·  1,700 ratings  ·  183 reviews

It is a story like no other: an epic of endurance against destruction, of creativity in oppression, joy amidst grief, the affirmation of life against the steepest of odds.

It spans the millennia and the continents - from India to Andalusia and from the bazaars of Cairo to the streets of Oxford. It takes you to unimagined places: to a Jewish kingdom in the mountains of

Kindle Edition, 512 pages
Published September 12th 2013 by Vintage Digital
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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 docume…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:
Excellent content but very dense prose. Mellifluous it isn’t, but then he’s chosen a story of immense complexity to cover in two volumes. 2,500 years covered here in 421 pages equals 5.9 elapsed years per page. I’m thinking back to Schama’s sprightly Citizens of 1990. What did he cover there in 750 pages, was it 60 years? By comparison volume one of The Story of the Jews is super concentrated. ...more
Richard Epstein
May 05, 2014 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 terrible sadness of angry Christianity in action. One wants to cry out, again and again, 'Have they never read that book of theirs?" ...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
John Farebrother
Everyone should read this book. Why? Because the Jewish experience of the 20th century has marked profoundly the world we live in today. The author, who has obviously dedicated his life to this subject, tells the story of Jewish history from after the exodus up to 1492, the year the Jews (and last Muslims) were driven from Spain - and the newly reunited Catholic power expanded into the New World.
The original Jewish state was caught between two superpowers, to the south Egypt, and to the east Ira
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
Mal Warwick
May 22, 2014 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
Adam Glantz
Sep 29, 2016 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 the 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 codif ...more
Luke Gardiner
Jul 06, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A very good book! Though at times I got lost in some of the minutia of Jewish cultural references, the book was well written and easy to read. Schama writes in a very engaging way and brings to light the horrors of suffering put on the Jews across the centuries, but also beautifully paints a picture of the rich culture and history that developed in spite of this. All in all a brilliant insight into an often forgotten aspect of history!
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
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
Bob Breckwoldt
Jan 04, 2014 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
The content of this book was very interesting, although the book itself was surprisingly poorly written. I'll start with the good stuff I guess. Thanks to the broad perspective the books offers, I think I gained some interesting insights about Judaism and the historical cycles that it has gone through. I'll list a few of them here:

1. The Holocaust was horrible, but it has happened before. Even though nothing matches the overall scale of the Holocaust, throughout Jewish history there have been se
Apr 19, 2014 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
Jul 30, 2014 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
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
Mar 27, 2014 marked it as to-read  ·  review of another edition
Description: 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 grie ...more
Marcus Bowman
May 24, 2018 rated it did not like it  ·  review of another edition
Schama himself is the word of God. It is hard to learn anything at all from 400 pages. It is written as if he was actually there. For every event going back 3,000 years. Schama knows EXACTLY what people did and what exactly they MEANT in those actions. Nothing to dispute. Was a rock found with an inscription? Schama knows exactly who wrote it, when and where they did, what type of people they were and what they were thinking and doing at the time. All of that will be neatly explained in like 1 e ...more
Jan 08, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, religion
How can history be so painful, and biblical exegesis so deadly... The details that Schama includes in this book help fill in the gruesome reality of the process by which anti-Semitism developed. I was somewhat frustrated by the amount of time spent early on describing Victorian archaeology since that was not what I was hoping for in this book, though I appreciated the payoff once it all came together to shape my understanding of how we interpret the stream of discoveries today. I had hoped for m ...more
Dec 26, 2013 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
Mar 18, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fic, jewish, adult, 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. ...more
Jul 03, 2020 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
Simon Schama's masterful The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words covers the period 1000 BCE to 1492, marking the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. I had a lot of gaps in my knowledge, and this book did a great job giving me a more complete picture. Schama uses a huge variety of sources, from inscribed potsherds to Talmudic writings, from the Aramaean stele at Tel Dan to Toledo's Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca, telling of Jews all over the ancient world. He cameos Jewish communities from Elep ...more
Michael Burnam-Fink
Jul 24, 2020 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, 2020
For a supposedly educated Jew, I'm actually pretty week on my own culture. Schama's magisterial history cultural history is triumph of ordinary Jews across the millennia. He begins, not with the Torah or the Patriarchs, but with the Egyptian town of Elephantine, a frontier garrison with a thriving Jewish community, their lives recorded in garrulous Hebrew potsherds and a semi-heretical temple.

Then it's off through the Iron Age, the Second Temple, Herod, and so on. This was a period of exile, of
Jan 23, 2021 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
I mean, it's a very good and very sad book and you should probably read it, but Schama writes the most dense prose I have ever come across. ...more
Todd Stockslager
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
Jason Wilson
Schama’s style has huge strengths and some huge weaknesses . His thesis is that Judaism as the first great book driven faith is codified in the time of the Babylonian exile when modern scholarship holds that Genesis etc were written down ( I see no Christian objection to this ; the important part is divine inspiration not timing) . Hence the Jewish faith is about finding and preserving these words against all odds .

From here he looks back through the era of the biblical books of kings and then
Mar 28, 2018 rated it it was amazing
This history includes the little people, often living far from the centre of action, thanks to archeological discoveries of recent times (the last 200 years or so). The preservation of papyri archived by the Jewish people in far flung communities, of documents which were important to them, at that time, and being gradually analysed by scholars reveals the lives of those history generally ignores- like those living on the island of Elephantine, in the Nile, possibly centred on Jewish mercenaries. ...more
Mark Schlack
Aug 27, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
No matter where you come from, you will learn something from this book, be it about the Jews, antiquity, philosophy, religion or the history of Christian Europe. Shama takes us through the allotted time period on the edge of our seats, full of deep history and deep insights into what shaped the history of the Jews, but also how anti-semitism evolved. You will hear many echoes of today's world (and not just anti-Jewish sentiment, but anti-anyone) in these pages.

I stopped short of five stars becau
David Mytton
Apr 02, 2019 rated it liked it
This is not a history book in the usual way I would expect. It does indeed explain events over the time period of the title but does so in a narrative, almost fiction-like manner. Shama's writing style is enjoyably descriptive and personal, but tends to ramble somewhat. This makes it very much "the story of the Jews" rather than just a timeline of facts and events. I do like this approach but I think it is perhaps taken a bit too far at the expense of clear, concise explanations and analysis of ...more
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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

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