……….is quite an experience. We heard him speak last night at 6th and I Historic Synagogue in connection with his five part “The Story of the Jews” (currently showing on PBS, but telecast last fall on BBC), and his new book “The Story of the Jews: Volume I”, also published last year in the UK, and now available here. This volume of the book goes from 1000 BCE to (through?) 1492 CE, or in other words, I assume from the Kingdom of David until the Spanish expulsion. The second (and final?) volume is due out this fall and is, he says, on schedule. I assume that we will watch the BBC series (although we have missed the first two installments), and that I will not read his multi-volume history. But who knows……..
Schama is a very charming speaker, a bundle of energy, appearing to have a hard time controlling himself, obviously very bright, and undoubtedly thinking pretty highly of his ability. At least this is how he appears – of course he may be masking great anxiety and feelings of inferiority…..but I doubt it.
He is a personality of great accomplishment. To my knowledge, at 69, he still holds a chair in both History and Art History at Columbia. He has previously taught at Harvard, and for a number of years was the New Yorker magazine’s art critic. According to his Wikipedia publications list, he has written 16 books. The topics are extremely broad: “A History of Britain” in three volumes put out over three years; “Citizens”, a history of the French revolution; “Patriots and Liberators” and “The Embarrassment of Riches”, both histories of the Netherlands; “Rembrandt’s Eyes” and “Power of Art”, both books on art history. He has written about America; he was written about Israel. And now he is writing this multi-volume history of the Jews.
But he has also written and/or produced 8 documentary series for the BBC, as well as others, including one for PBS. He calls his books and his documentaries his “hobbies”.
So who does he remind me of? Kenneth Clark? Richard Attenborough? Both who combined cultural writing with TV productions, but they were both more oriented towards the visual perhaps? What about Martin Gilbert, whose historical writings bridge Churchill and the Jews? But he is perhaps more focused on the historical. It might take Simon Schama to do both, and do both equally well. I am just not sure.
His talk last night was not a narration of his BBC series and it was certainly not a narrative on Jewish history. It started with a series of Jewish jokes (Schama says that he has recorded Jewish jokes on Youtube. I sense that Jewish jokes are very important to Schama. If you look up Simon Schama and Jewish Jokes on Google, you get 36,000 hits. At least that used to be a lot.). From then (in self-deprecating British professorial fashion), he segued into some statement about something that occurred in the Jewish past. Who knows exactly what he said? But it was erudite and made just enough sense to be intriguing, but was not so clearly stated to be memorable. And then he went on to a “that reminds me of” followed by a “but I am digressing” followed many more “that reminds me ofs” and many more “I guess I am digressing again”, now interspersed with “I really should stop talking and let you ask some questions”, but always leading back to another not quite understandable allusion, some new names to drop, some more soft humor, and around and around he went. He seemed to be having a good time. I had a good time. But did he say anything that I can remember as being of the “I didn’t know that” or the “Now, that’s interesting” variety? I don’t think so, but I just don’t remember. It was sort of like being under some feel good narcotic – once you wake up, you still feel pretty good, but you don’t really know what happened.
But you were impressed. And I think that’s exactly what Schama wants you to be. And maybe that’s OK. Because he is awfully smart and accomplished. I think.