First the derision and the sorrows, then the years of exile. Kicked out of anti-Semitic Spain in the 1490s, Jews were among the first to arrive in the New World. They were Iberian immigrants or Sephardim (after Sefarad, Hebrew for Spain) in search of refuge.
Officially, Jews were not allowed to settle anywhere in New World territories with Catholic orthodoxies. Judaism, if it was practiced at all in pre-British Jamaica, was practiced in secret. After the island was wrested from Spain in 1655, however, Sephardi Jews began to arrive from Brazil, Holland, England, Guyana and Surinam. By the mid-18th century, Jamaica had become a thriving outpost of Diaspora Jewry in the Caribbean, with infusions also of Ashkenazi Jews from northern Europe.
In the Jamaican capital of Kingston one evening I attended Sabbath. The synagogue floor was strewn with sand, muffling one’s tread in symbolic memory of the enforced silence Jewry had to keep under Spanish rule. At either side of the ark, two perpetual lights flickered red to symbolize the unity of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi communities: and in tall, golden letters across the ark was the Old Testament injunction in Hebrew: “Know before Whom You Stand.” It was a place of wonder and reverence.
Simon Schama’s wide-ranging history of early Judaism (the first of two projected volumes) ends with the brutal expulsions from Spain in the 15th century. Streams of Jews made homeless were seen to move toward Portugal. An uncertain future awaited them in the New World and elsewhere. Any Jews left behind were “manhandled into Christianity” by the Inquisition or else burned.
The Inquisition set up by the Spanish crown in 1478 was integral to the drama of Sephardi Jewry. Its methods of intimidation and control foreshadowed those of totalitarian secret police, says Schama; with horrific frequency it persecuted Jews and Muslims (those twin ogres of nonbelief) as Queen Isabella swore to flush out the last Moorish and Semitic enclaves from her dominions. Other countries had their inquisitions and papal courts of inquiry, but the Iberian equivalent was uniquely cruel to Jews (and lasted for three and a half centuries until its dissolution in 1834).
Throughout northern Europe, too, Ashkenazim were indicted as slayers of Christ and (typically) of Christian children. Jewish communities in Poland, Germany and northern Russia, like Jews anywhere in the world, refused to recognize the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and for that they had to be punished. In the Rhineland cities of Mainz and Worms, in the 11th century, Crusader hordes murdered thousands of the “infidel Israelite.”
Anti-Semitism had become the oldest prejudice in the book. Five centuries later, the Protestant theologian Martin Luther railed against the “arrogant, vengeful, foreign presence” within Germany and vowed to restore biblical Christianity through a virulent Jew hatred.
Of course, Jewish history is more than just a history of uprooting and assault. Schama chronicles the origins of Jewish identity in territories somewhere between the Nile and Euphrates. After the destruction of the Temple by Romans in A.D. 70, Jews were banished from Jerusalem and dispersed to far-flung places. For many Jews today, the return to Jerusalem is linked to the anticipation of the Messiah. Israel could not have been born in the way and when it was without Hitler.
Yet Schama’s preference, I would guess, is for Jews of the Diaspora who have not abandoned their pride of origin, but who remain supranational citizens of the world, rather than of Israel. Schama reflects movingly on his north London Jewish upbringing, where his parents instilled a love of words and music and debate.
Judaism did not come out of nowhere; elements of Judaic imagery and ritual can be traced to Hellenic and pagan practice, Schama tells us. Hanukkah may correspond to the winter solstice period that celebrated the “return of light,” while images of deities resembling Diana, Venus and Apollo have come to light in Jewish catacombs excavated in Rome. These images would seem to belie the stated Jewish aversion to decoration. Quite when Judaic law proscribed the use of graven images is unclear but, like much else assumed to be “immemorial” Jewish practice, the prohibition was most likely instituted centuries after Judaism was born.
(The separation of the sexes in synagogue likewise finds no sanction in the Torah, says Schama, though it makes sense if you believe that prayer can be upset by thoughts of women.)
For centuries, Jews have been “anciently planted” in Arab lands. Babylonian or Iraqi Jews had lived untroubled in Baghdad for about 25 centuries until they were expelled by anti-Semitic decree in 1950-51. These Arab Jews had been so integrated into Muslim society as to be virtually indistinguishable from the Shiite and Sunni communities.
Yet their integration was no guarantee of their safety. So many thousands of Iraqi Jews have become exiles, or sought that status, that fewer than 20 of them are believed to be left in Baghdad today.
“The Story of the Jews” offers a poignant testimony to a people who have come close to annihilation many times but survived. It is an inspiring story and professor Schama tells it with panache, weaving facts and anecdotes into a vivid history that ought to be read by Jews and non-Jews alike.