The documentary series “The Story of the Jews” has the well-spoken gentleman Simon Schama travel across historical sites, museums, and synagogues. He starts with the last days of Sigmund Freud, who, being a Jew himself, sought the stories at the foundation of the Jewish people. Schama follows Freud’s investigation into the historical origins of Judaism: the Commandments brought to the people by Moses. The historian tells stories about Christian archeologists that investigated the Mount Sinai area a century ago.
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He walks through the ruined streets of ancient Jewish cities, retells the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exodus, and reads the Dead Sea Scrolls. He seeks to answer the question: “What does it mean to be Jewish?” The first half of the episode seems to conclude that every Jew, be they religious or godless, finds their meaning. The second half, however, hints at persecution, exile, and impossible odds as the core tenets of Jewishness. Being Jewish, to the author, is being able to carry the words and the culture throughout time and hardship, so that the Jewish nation survives.
The film uses Schama and other people’s first-hand experience with the religion as one of its sources for the ritualistic part of the Jewish experience. The personal meanings that the practitioners extract from their traditions are not explained to the viewer, but the fact of their existence is. One of the scenes shows a dinner where the entire extended family engages in symbolic rituals and discusses what being Jewish means. Another important source of knowledge for the documentary is history itself, told through the cold dead stone of old ruins. The biblical stories are reflected by the destroyed Jewish cities, where Romans invaded and carved stones out of the temple.
Ancient early Jewish sacrificial slabs are also shown, as examples of how monotheistic faceless gods became prevalent. A significant piece of evidence is the Dead Sea Scrolls, along with other pieces of literature recovered at the same site. Flavius Josephus’ treatise on what Judaism is, which he wrote in Rome years after the Romans invaded Jerusalem, is also referenced in the film. It was one of the essential pieces of writing that explained to non-Jews what being Jewish meant.
If we assume that The Story of the Jews was created to explain the meaning of Judaism, the Jewish heritage, and the cornerstones of the religious practice, then the first episode is a serviceable start to the intellectual journey. The introduction to the series begins where the religion started in earnest. However, the episode on its own, separate from the rest of the series, does not illuminate much of what an average person does not already know.
The stories of the Promised Land and the destruction of Jerusalem have been known to everyone familiar with any Judeo-Christian sacred text. It would be more interesting to delve into the more obscure origins of the Jewish faith. Many religions are informed by the environmental factors and the societal factors that required certain lore and rules for people to survive and prosper. It is reasonable to assume that there are different cultures and religions of the ancient world that influenced or even gave birth to Judaism. It could be argued that these untold influences are just as important as the Exodus described in the Bible, yet they go unmentioned.
The film makes the point that Jewishness is all about hardship and perseverance through persecution. It impresses the importance of words and of carrying them within oneself to teach others. Even though many Jews perished, the survivors were able to teach others about their beliefs and history, so that their culture would live on. That grim heritage teaches modern Jews to be strong, hopeful, and wise.
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