While praising the second volume of Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews for its “infectious energy and its readability,” and admitting the “impossibility” of covering 408 years of the history of a people scattered across the globe in a mere 800 pages, David Abulafia finds the book’s omissions nonetheless inexcusable. In particular, he writes, the volume—which covers the years from 1492 to 1900—puts far too much emphasis on the Sephardim (descendants of those Jews who fled Spain before and after the expulsion) at the expense of the more numerous Ashkenazim, not to mention those Jews who fall into neither category.
Schama does . . . devote some space to the fascinating Jewish community of Kaifeng in China, and mentions the black and white Jews of India; but vast swathes of the Jewish world barely appear: North Africa, Iraq, Iran, Bukhara, and so on, though Yemen earns some space when a French Jew named Joseph Halévy goes out there to collect early Semitic inscriptions and comes across sword-bearing Yemenite Jews with limited knowledge of the outside world. . . .
The reason Schama says so little about these places appears to be that he considers that nothing happened in them: he talks of life in Yemen as an almost timeless history of subjugation and poverty—not that the Yemenite Jews with their silver swords quite fit that image. There were indeed cycles of persecution in Yemen, but so there were in Europe, as he shows. Meanwhile, in Baghdad, wealthy Jewish businessmen emerged, some of whom played a key role in the rise of Bombay, Hong Kong, and Singapore.
And that’s not all Schama misses:
[The book contains] virtually nothing about the schisms in Judaism that saw, in the 19th century, vigorous challenges to traditional orthodoxy, especially in Germany and the United States. In the U.S. the great majority of professing Jews belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, not Orthodox ones. This reflects changes in the conditions of Jewish life in the New World and the need to find an accommodation with surrounding society. But Schama is not terribly interested in the religious dimension to Jewish history. Sure enough, there is something about the Sephardi kabbalists of Safed and about the ḥasidic movement, which owed a great deal to Safed mysticism; but, as one can see from Shama’s chaotic transcriptions of Hebrew words, he is a bit confused about the holy.