Acclaimed historian and Columbia University professor Simon Schama’s newest history series delves into the Jewish experience, from the start of their story 3,000 years ago to the present day, in the five-part PBS program The Story of the Jews With Simon Schama. The series is mesmerizing, and beautiful, especially considering the fact that Schama, an art historian and critic, often uses artwork as a gateway into many of the stories. Jewish history is sometimes thought of as black-and-white, and text-based, with not much colorful art, partly due to the fact that the people were often on the move. Schama himself was a little moved by the extent to which he found strikingly colorful art throughout Jewish history, as he told me in a recent conversation.
“You’re doing television, so you want to be seeing something. That whole side of the ‘feast for the eye’ aspect of Jewish [history] was moving, because it wasn’t full of doom,” Schama said.
A trailer for The Story of the Jews calls the project Schama’s most personal journey yet. Upon viewing the program, it was clear that this was not hyperbole. Schama is always masterful at connecting with audiences while simultaneously passing along fascinating information, but in The Story of the Jews, the historian — himself of Jewish descent — is noticeably emotional during certain sequences. I asked Schama about the challenge of remaining scholarly in the midst of a project for which he feels such passion.
“You have to be careful, I think,” Schama said. “There are all sorts of elements. I know Jewish history very, very well. So it becomes a kind of surprise when you’re in a location, and the ghosts come alive for you. … This seems to me a deep truth in the kind of television I do. People wouldn’t watch you if you weren’t, to some extent, an authority. They trust you to actually deliver scholarship and thought, as well. On the other hand, you can’t be a professor sending them class assignments. So you need to be, in some sense, a companion. … And you’re constantly negotiating that in any really good history program. But with this one, because I grew up in this tradition, revisiting it on camera, in the script, was much more — I knew it was going to be intense, but it was more intense than I thought.”
The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama airs March 25 and April 1 on PBS. Two episodes air starting at 8pm ET on March 25; the final three episodes air starting at 8pm ET on April 1.
Simon Schama photo courtesy of Tim Kirby © Oxford Film & Television 2012