“SOMETIME, somewhere, between Africa and Hindustan, lay a river so Jewish it observed the Sabbath.” “Belonging”, the second volume of Simon Schama’s story of the Jews, begins with this pious waterway, and continues with a cast of characters so extraordinary that some seem hardly more believable than the Sabbath-keeping Sambatyon river.
David Ha-Reuveni came to Venice in 1523 claiming to be the brother of a king who ruled beyond the Sambatyon over some of Israel’s lost tribes. He fired up Jews and gentiles with a plan to unite Christendom and the tribes to free the holy land from the Ottoman Turks. The unlikely emissary won an audience with a sceptical pope, who palmed him off on the king of Portugal, who nearly gave him eight warships and 4,000 guns before abruptly changing his mind. The king accused David of conspiring with Marranos (Jews who had formally converted to Christianity) to Judaise Portugal. The story moves on to Regensburg and a session with the Holy Roman Emperor, whom David may have tried to convert to Judaism. The documentary trail then stops; the impostor may have been burned at the stake.
“Belonging” is less a history than a portrait gallery. Mr Schama, who teaches art history as well as history, often prefers interesting Jews to the most famous ones. The Rothschilds get less ink than the house of Mendes, a rich family of secret Jews who fled Portugal. Among them was Beatriz de Luna, who starting in around 1540 helped other crypto-Jews escape from inquisitorial Spain and Portugal. She progressed grandly through Europe, squabbling with her sister Brianda (who has her own remarkable story). From Constantinople Beatriz organised a boycott of the papal port of Ancona to punish the pope for persecuting Jews who had returned to their faith. Her campaign emptied it of its ships for two years before the port finally failed.
Dan Mendoza (pictured), born in 1764, was seen as “a dirty little Jewish tough from Mile End”. He used his fists to teach Georgian England respect for his people. His rivalry with Richard Humphreys, the “gentleman boxer”, transfixed the country. Styling himself a “professor of pugilism” he “played the press like a fortepiano”, and was the first sportsman to publish his memoirs. Another battler against bigotry was Uriah Levy, an American navy officer, who bought and restored Thomas Jefferson’s home of Monticello, and devised alternatives to flogging sailors (suspending them from the mizzenmast, for example). Anti-Semites rewarded his patriotism by trying to block his promotion up the ranks.
Some of the figures before which Mr Schama pauses are themselves works of art, such as the circling hares that appear on tombstones in Satanow, now in Ukraine. Unlike lions and doves they are not a Jewish motif. This suggests to Mr Schama that they came to Satanow from far afield, implying that such settlements were more cosmopolitan than the “one-cow mudhole” shtetls of popular lore.
“Belonging” is also an allegory of the present. The modernising forces that freed Jews from old impediments also provoked unease and anger. The railways, which Jewish bankers helped build, “rode over ancient, noble boundaries of language, territory and nation”. The grand piano played to larger audiences than could earlier instruments. Such spectacles debased music with Jewish commercialism, or so thought Richard Wagner. The hounding of Alfred Dreyfus, a French army captain falsely convicted of being a German spy, sundered France over a basic question of national identity: would modern states “be grounded in ethics or ethnicity”? The unhinged hatred directed at Dreyfus “ruptured the fragile membrane of civility, and began to foul the body politic of the modern age.”
Mr Schama’s story ends with Theodor Herzl’s response to that hatred, a plan to move Europe’s Jews beyond its reach, to Palestine. His detailed blueprint, “Der Judenstaat” (1896), considered every factor except how the Arabs already living there might react. From the beginning Herzl’s secular vision faced a challenge from the spiritual Zionism of Ahad Ha’am, who thought that the Jewish religion needed to be at the centre of any Palestinian project.
Secular Tel Aviv still struggles with spiritual Jerusalem. Arabs and Jews are unreconciled. Mr Schama, as both a historian and a Jew, closes his wonderful book the only way he could: with love shot through with melancholy and foreboding.