Judge Gordon Sullivan was working on a Mormon project, until those South Park guys beat him to the punch.
An epic five-part series exploring the extraordinary Jewish experience.
One of the more interesting aspects of the adjective "Jewish" is the sheer number of things it refers to. There's the Semitic people, those with a genetic heritage hailing from the region around Israel. There's the religious aspect in which Jewish is a term for those who follow the religion of Abraham. Finally, there's the cultural aspect where traditions and artifacts are passed down or circulated through Jewish culture, whether that's a smattering of Yiddish words or the wider tradition of Jewish involvement in 20th century pop culture like stand-up comedy and movies. That's a lot of ground to cover, if you want to paint a portrait of what it means to be a Jew, but it's a heroic task The Story of the Jews undertakes to express in five short hours. Though necessarily incomplete, this PBS series is an admirable bird's-eye view of a culture and history that has impacted most of us at one time or another.
With each episode, narrator Simon Schama takes us through the history of the Jewish people, starting with the Biblical word several thousand years ago, and ending with contemporary contradictions of the state of Israel. Along the way, he traces the movement, isolation, and influence of Jews across the Near East, Europe, and finally back to Israel; visiting historical sites, interviewing notable experts, and musing about his own history as one of the Jewish people.
The Story of the Jews is terribly generic title for a program about history, but it's also a pretty smart one since it's impossible to cover several thousand years of history in five hours with any hope of being complete or largely coherent. What The Story of the Jews presents is just that: a story. The series original broadcast title in Britain was Simon Schama's The Story of the Jews, which is more accurate. What we get is Schama taking us through one path that traverses a few thousand years. We as and audience might take different paths and emphasize different moments, but Schama hits many of the expected highlights. His own particular path starts with the writing down of the Torah and the unnamable word for God. From there much of his work is geographic, showing how the word of God kept the Jewish people together despite persecution. Finally, he ends on his interpretation of the modern Jewish state of Israel, finding a morally ambiguous moment in the way that settlement is being handled.
The other thing the series' original title makes clear is that this is Schama's story. Most of the runtime is spent with him in front of the camera, and when he isn't in front of the camera he's narrating, coming across as affable and sincere. Unlike so many historical television narrators, Schama allows his personal feelings to surface quite frequently. Whether it's the traumatic past evoking his own life difficulty, or his own conflicted feelings about modern Israel, Schama doesn't seem to hold back from involving himself in the story he's telling. Though some may quibble with his choices, he's never overbearing or too self-centered.
The Story of the Jews gets a fine DVD release from PBS. The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is clean and bright, with no significant problems. The material doesn't lend itself to stunning visuals, but the images here get the point across perfectly. The Dolby 2.0 Stereo track similarly offers easy to understand narration and interview segments, even if there isn't much directionality. There are no extras.
As with anything having to do with the Jewish people, there will be controversy. There will be those who find Schama's emphasis on persecution to be overbearing and melancholic, while others might think he under-emphasizes the role of persecution in the history of the Jews. His discussion of Israel is likely to ruffle feathers, as pretty much any stance on the state tends to do . As someone far outside the debate, Schama's position seems moderate; he sees the logic and necessity for a Jewish state, but finds the treatment of the Palestinians unsettling. Then again, the debate around Israel and Palestine is not often a place for moderation. There's also the question of breadth. Those looking for a more substantial and factual historical program should look elsewhere. In his limited trip through Jewish history, Schama peppers in his own recollections and interpretations. That's not a problem for those prepared for it, but those looking for a drier and more factually-focused history could find his asides excessive.
The Story of the Jews is fine, though incomplete, look at the history of a people. Some may argue with the choices Simon Schama makes in telling 3000 years in five hours, but for most this will be a highly watchable overview of some of the issues the Jewish people have faced over the years.
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