Simon Schama is the kind of historian I want to be when I grow up.
His books transport you to 17th century Holland, the French revolution, and African-American slaves joining the British in the US War of Independence. He specialises in everything. Something will make him think of something else, which will lead to something else again. My favourite of his books is Scribble, Scribble, Scribble, a collection of essays on, well, pretty much everything from travel to movies to painting to historians to Shakespeare to current affairs to D-Day. And cooking – to know what he thinks about cheese soufflé we need to go right back to his mother’s cooking (“Wednesday brought a pungent sheepy smell emanating from the greyish lamb and barley soup my mother optimistically called Taste of the Garden of Eden. Expel me please.”).
Several years ago he produced The Story of the Jews for the BBC – the kind of documentary series you buy on DVD because, even though you know what he’s going to say, you want to look again at the images he’s chosen to make his point. Now we’re into the second book inspired by the series, Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900, which has already been shortlisted for the Baillie Gifford prize for non-fiction.
In person at the RNCM as part of Manchester Literature Festival, Schama covers a lot of ground. The book’s beginning is the date of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Some stand fast, and die; some convert, to become a permanent target for the Inquisition; some hit the ‘underground railroad’ north and east. This is Schama’s starting point for the many different kinds of belonging for Jews as the early modern era becomes the modern. We hear of migrations but also multiple identities, of Christians and Jews as neighbours and partners, of the ‘polyphonic choir’ of Jewish writing in the many European languages. Schama works through stories, among them Daniel Mendoza, the five-foot-seven heavyweight boxing champion of England in the 18th century, and Uriah Levy, the US naval officer who owned and restored Thomas Jefferson’s former home.
And there’s a passionate defence of the ways in which historical experience, and the lived stories it comprises, isn’t plotted toward a final and annihilating truth. Schama doesn’t do “lachrymose history”, as he calls it, in this book. In fact, deeply serious though he is, he can’t help telling jokes. We get a by-heart rendition of some of Stewart Lee’s UKIP routine. We get Jewish jokes galore (“Two Jewish ladies having dinner at the kosher restaurant, the waiter comes up and asks ‘Is anything all right?’”). And so our thinking about Jews and doing Jewishness and the Jewish voice jumps onto another track. And back again. And then off somewhere else (there’s a chapter on Jews in China in the book).
Question time is fun. After the usual quota of men saying “what I think is this, and this, and also this…what do you think?”, one audience member poses the positively rabbinical query “Is the Pope a Catholic?”. He gets the answer the question deserves, which is to say comic incomprehension followed by a response to the paradox about religious identity embedded in it. Sometimes, as Schama knows, smart questions look like dumb questions.
Sometimes we lose sight of the stories in Schama’s book. This is brilliantly summed up by his response to a wonderful final question, asking if there was a “silver thread” linking Jews from the earliest times to the present day. There is: Jews created a portable code of ethics, a storehouse of stories, to which they belong. And then he leans forward, conspiratorially, to initiate us into a higher level of understanding still. “The golden thread is” – and he claps his hands – “Comedy!”. And off he goes into another Jewish joke. Because the stories and The Story feed each other.
Schama accompanied his dad on textile-buying trips to Manchester as a boy, and tweeted “my heart goes out to the city, to all hurt by brutal horror” after this year’s bombing. He’d been signing books for nearly half an hour when I finally got to him with my copy of Scribble Scribble Scribble, and was looking a little tired. But when I asked him about his memories of Manchester in those days, he immediately sparked up and, after reeling off a list of highlights – including, naturally, Central Library – enthusiastically concluded that there was absolutely nothing he didn’t like about it.
Read the books, watch the TV series, but if you can, catch him live: there’ll be absolutely nothing you won’t like about it.
Belonging: The Story of the Jews 1492-1900 is available to buy now