Simon Schama, author of The Story of the Jews, Volume Two: Belonging, 1492-1900, is a distinguished historian of modern Europe who, although Jewish himself, had written little about the Jews until producing the first volume of this work. By contrast, Shmuel Feiner, author of Et Ḥadashah (“A New Age”)—the first of two projected volumes on 18th-century European Jewry—is a leading expert on the Jewish intellectual history of this period. Finding both books impressive in different ways, Allan Arkush compares them in his review:
[T]he two historians share a refreshingly old-fashioned determination to tell the story of the Jews as a story. . . . [Thus, both] attempt not to relate the whole history of the Jews during the period covered by their [respective] volumes but to tell these Jews’ story—indeed, to a large extent, to let them tell their story in their own words, culled from their letters, diaries, and autobiographical works. The chief difference between Schama and Feiner is the story they consider it most important to tell.
Schama . . . constructs a narrative that is focused mostly on the drama of Diaspora Jewry entering or being excluded from the society around them. Feiner, a historian of the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment], is more concerned with telling the story of how 18th-century Jews conceived of themselves and lived, as individuals, in relation above all to Jewish tradition and their fellow Jews, and only secondarily to the world around them, even if it left deep marks on them.
But why should one expect [Schama,] a Diaspora-based historian of Europe and European art attempting to tell his people’s story to a broad audience, and [Feiner,] a historian of the Jewish Enlightenment living in Israel who is now ready to repaint the picture of a whole century, to share an agenda? Examining the Jewish past from their differing vantage points, both have brought their subjects to life with far more success than many of the specialists in Jewish history of whose works they make very profitable use.