Monday 11 April 2022

The Story of the Jews: Finding the Words 1000 BC-1492 AD

Absolutely outstanding.

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 southern Arabia; a Syrian synagogue glowing with radiant wall paintings; the palm groves of the Jewish dead in the Roman catacombs. And its voices ring loud and clear, from the severities and ecstasies of the Bible writers to the love poems of wine bibbers in a garden in Muslim Spain.

And a great story unfolds. Not - as often imagined - of a culture apart, but of a Jewish world immersed in and imprinted by the peoples among whom they have dwelled, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, from the Arabs to the Christians. Which makes the story of the Jews everyone's story, too.

I'm not entirely sure how I came to have this in my library, but it surpassed all expectation. I do enjoy my history, but it can be a little dry at times - not with this. It was incredibly easy to follow and fairly breathtaking in scope. From the Jewish communities at Elephantine in Egypt, to the horrors of Granada in Spain, and to my home country of England. It really is an amazing story. 

I did not know how deeply words are entwined with Judaism, and the place they hold within the creation story. This was beautifully brought to life in Schama's telling:

While Temple sacrifice was a hierarchically organised business in the hands of the priestly caste, reading was intrinsically a shared, common experience, the impact of its vocalisation not even dependent on literacy. What was said was now becoming a written literature..... The performance assigned to Ezra was all about mouth and ear, about the living force of words. It established, very early on, the Jewish philosophy of reading as unquiet. Jewish reading in the style of the Hebrew Bible, at the dawn of this people’s self-consciousness, is not done in silent solitude (the invention of monastic Christianity); nor is it done for the enrichment of the reflective conscience (though that is not entirely ruled out). Jewish reading is literally loud-mouthed: social, chatty, animated, declamatory, a demonstrative public performance meant to turn the reader from absorption to action; a reading that has necessary, immediate, human implications; reading that begs for argument, commentary, questioning, interruption and interpretation; reading that never, ever shuts up. Jewish reading refuses to close the book on anything.


God is, above all else, words.


...the essence of Jewish identity could not by definition be done away with. The words beat the swords, the words floated free from their material embodiment like the nefesh from the body. So long as someone committed them to memory, so long as someone, somewhere, had copied them, the words would survive the inhalation of everything else.


...a tradition that treated sacred books with as much respect as human bodies. The aged and the damaged books were send to a genizah or allowed to decompose slowly and peacefully, some were even buried in a formal ceremony. Judaism did not shred, tear or burn the word of God. To set fire to a book was as if a living body had been burned on the pyre.


Perhaps the ends of the earth were where the words reached farthest? For all the attempts to burn, expunge and blot them out, to excise and criminalise Hebrew reading, to beat the books out of the Jews, the words travelled on and on through space and time.

There was also a nice bit about the introduction of paper to the Islamic world, apparently recorded in a wonderfully titled book by Tha'ālibī, The Book of Curious and Entertaining Information. Apparently the secret of paper-making was drawn from captives of the Tang dynasty. By the 11th century there were two types of ink, brown made from gall and black from carbon. Official records were written on scrolls two feet long and seven inches wide, and a particularly thin type of paper, known as 'bird's paper' was used for messenger pigeons so as not to slow them down.

The other reason this book drew me in is because, for the past year, I've been pressed face-first into the Mesopotamian era, writing about the fall-out of lugal Zage-Si of Sumer and the semitic King Sargon of Akkad. It's a bit tricky, because 'semitic' is of biblical origin, from Shem, son of Noah, and both the biblical flood and semitic languages occurred about two thousand years earlier, before Shem existed, and therefore it's hard to know what to call that group of languages (Eblaite, Akkadian, Assyrian) before Shem. But, basically, the language group was there, as were the holy trinity of gods (An, Enki and Enlil) and the Seven, for Game of Thrones fans. It's all good fun.

So, although this book is about a period much later than the one I'm writing about, it really gives me a feel for the earlier times, and makes me think I'm on the right track. At one point, I take a city by stealth, where a few people infiltrate it and poison the king. I wasn't sure if I was overstretching things by suggesting you could take an entire city this way, but apparently not. In the Battle for Heibar (628-9), 'fake guests' would sneak into feasts and then turn on their hosts, assassinating them.

Men and women were not originally separated at prayer (a common pattern in all religions, where patriarchy appears to creep in later down the line), the female goddess was likely as important as the male - a celestial couple, date palms remained a symbol of everlasting life - 'the tree that never dies', and many Jews, like Sargon before them, were kick-ass warriors, hired as mercenaries by kings far and wide.

I do tend to enjoy the really ancient history. The further back in time we go and the closer to polytheism we get, the more interested I become. As with Pantalaimon and the concept of daemons in His Dark Materials, I like that people align to different gods, and that different gods bring out different personality traits. Things seem to lose a lot of their lustre when everyone is expected to conform to one divine being. One-size-fits-all might be on the label, but it never works in reality. The era of personal gods just feels a lot more relatable.

Other things I learned along the way - flipping the bird (giving the finger in the UK) was originally an antisemitic taunt, Samuel ibn Naghrillah sounds like an amazing poet and I must look him up, and it is impossible to hear the name Eleazar repeatedly without thinking of comedian Eddie Izzard, which I did throughout a significant portion of this book.

Given the sheer brutality of much of the story - it was quite upsetting to hear the same patterns of prejudice and persecution play out over and over - the book did take a moment to point out that episodes of brutality and massacre were the exception, not the norm. It was heartening to hear stories of Jews, Muslims and Christians living together in peace and harmony for many generations. It is a shame that, even today, such peace and basic human dignity is so reliant on whichever nitwit happens to be in power.

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