Off the shelf | Take a tour through Jewish history in two new books

Simon Schama is among the best-known historians working today — a prolific author, Columbia professor and the force behind a number of celebrated television programs casting a spotlight on European history and art. Returning to his own roots, he is directing his energies to Jewish history, and with a grand stroke.

His five-part BBC series, “The Story of the Jews,” will air on PBS beginning March 25. In conjunction with the program, he is issuing a far more detailed and beautifully illustrated account in print, with the first of two volumes, “Finding the Words 1000 BC–1492 AD,” being released this month.

Rather provocatively, Schama begins his investigation by turning not to the Bible, but to the ancient Jewish garrison community on Elephantine, an island in the Nile in southernmost Egypt. Through a close reading of letters written on papyrus that were preserved in pots for more than two millennia, he explores everyday life, attitudes and religious observances in this rather unlikely Jewish outpost. And this is largely Schama’s method in the book — by focusing selectively on a variety of settings and episodes known to us through archaeological discovery, documentary evidence and contemporaneous historical accounts, he offers, in his words, “little revelations that add up to a culture.”

Schama is particularly interested in Jewish interactions with the surrounding world. Seeking to undo the prevailing image of Jews as an inward-turning people, he asserts the “openness of Judaism to the cultures amid which it dwelled and prospered.” He finds this quality especially evident in artistic expression, such as in the synagogue floors at Tzippori, Hammat Tiberias and Beth Alpha, with their incorporation of pagan iconography; in the proliferation in medieval Europe of illuminated Jewish manuscripts, which adopted a non-Jewish form as an opportunity for Jewish self-definition; and in the rich poetic legacy of medieval Spanish Jewry, in which conventions of Arabic verse were transformed into vehicles for Hebrew expression.

Although the book does not claim to be exhaustive, there are omissions I found frustrating. And I was put off by Schama’s occasionally overly colloquial tone, marked by winking asides about Jewish mothers or calling Maimonides the “king of the kvetch,” but that’s a matter of taste. This is a very engaging tour through Jewish history for a world that needs one.

Where Schama looks at developments unfolding over the course of millennia, Yehudah Mirsky’s new biography of Rabbi Avraham Yitzhak Kook focuses on a brief but enormously significant period of modern history.

Born in Russia in 1865, Kook is best known for having been the first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of British Mandate Palestine. But from the early stages of his career, he was an outstanding religious scholar and original thinker, with revolutionary ideas about an evolving Judaism, and a passionate interest in mysticism and messianism. It is this last dimension that came into play when the burgeoning Zionist movement caught his attention at the end of the 19th century. Where most Orthodox rabbis were dismissive or contemptuous, Kook was welcoming, seeing the emergence of secular Zionism as having a role to play in the transformation of Judaism and the unfolding of the messianic drama he believed to be in motion.

Upon arriving in Jaffa in 1904 to take a rabbinic position, Kook sought to serve as a bridge between religious Jews and the socialists, nationalists, literary aspirants, farmers, and artists who formed the backbone of the Zionist movement.

His career then took an unplanned turn — attending a conference in Germany when World War I was declared in 1914, Kook found himself stranded and at risk because of his Russian papers. He took refuge in Switzerland and eventually accepted a rabbinic post in London’s East End. This phase ended in 1919 when Kook was notified that he had been nominated to serve as the Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Jerusalem. And two years later, he assumed the position of Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi for all of British Mandate Palestine.

Confronted with the zealotry of both the religious and secularist camps, Kook maintained his insistence on the value of unity and mutual respect.

However, as tolerant as he may have been toward others, the feeling was not mutual. When he ruled according to his traditional beliefs (Kook was fervently Orthodox throughout his life), he angered those to his left. For example, his refusal to endorse women’s suffrage earned a harsh rebuke from both the secular and religious Zionist camps.

At the same time, he enraged many of his fellow Orthodox Jews when they perceived him as facilitating the secular Zionists’ agenda, or when his unconventional religious formulations went too far for them. “Orot,” the now classic collection of teachings drawn from Kook’s journals, was banned by a number of Jerusalem’s most established rabbis upon its publication in 1920, and the book was burned in public.

In the end, Kook, too far out of step and lacking political savvy, turned out to be largely ineffective in healing the intense factionalism he bemoaned. But as the question of Jewish unity feels rather pressing in our own day, Kook’s belief in overcoming partisanship for the common good is worth recalling. And Mirsky’s excellent feat of scholarship is a great place to begin.

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in this column may be borrowed from the library.

“The Story of the Jews” by Simon Schama

(512 pages, Ecco, $39.99)

“Rav Kook: Mystic in a Time of Revolution” by Yehudah Mirsky

(288 pages, Yale University Press, $25)

Simon Schama will speak at 7 p.m. March 18 at Book Passage, 51 Tamal Vista Blvd.,  Corte Madera, and 7 p.m. March 19 at the JCCSF, 3200 California St., S.F.

Howard Freedman
Howard Freedman

Howard Freedman is the director of the Jewish Community Library, a program of Jewish LearningWorks, in San Francisco. All books mentioned in his column may be borrowed from the library.