‘Story of the Jews’ sneak preview planned

Simon Schama at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Tim Kirby © Oxford Film & Television 2012)
Simon Schama at the Temple Mount in Jerusalem (Photo: Tim Kirby © Oxford Film & Television 2012)

Prize-winning author of 15 books and Emmy Award-winner Simon Schama brings to life Jewish history and culture in a new five-part documentary series, “The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama.” To celebrate the series, airing on PBS 6 March 25 and April 1, the Tucson Jewish Community Center will host a sneak preview on Wednesday, March 19 from 6:30 to 8 p.m., cosponsored by Arizona Public Media and the Arizona Jewish Post. David L. Graizbord, associate professor of Judaic studies at the University of Arizona will lead a Q&A session following the screening.

Schama, a professor of history and art history at Columbia University, has written and presented 50 documentaries on art, literature and history, but as a Jew, he has a more personal stake in this story. Fascinated by Jewish history since his post-war childhood in England, in this series Schama travels to Egypt, Israel and Spain, exploring the impact of Jewish culture in the world — with particular emphasis on archaeology, music and the visual arts.

“Through many centuries the strict Second Commandment may have made us think there was no imagery in synagogues,” Schama told the AJP. “But Judaism has been very elastic. Judaism is full of blazing color. The Dura-Europos synagogue in Syria, one of the earliest synagogues we know of outside of [Israel], was covered with wall paintings. Pretty much all of the early synagogues had these ravishing mosaic floors.”

The imagery of human faces was “very common in synagogues all over the place until the beginning of the medieval period,” says Schama, adding that the Tzippori synagogue, built in the early fifth or sixth century in Israel, had paintings of four women that represented the four seasons. “The rabbis must not have taken that to be idolatrous images,” he says. “And by the seventh century A.D. there’s a more serious approach, which was probably influenced by Islam. We haven’t found any evidence prior to the seventh century of separation of the sexes, no divisions in synagogues.” But history is the story of change, he says.

Over the past 3,000 years, “if you were to remove from our collective history the contribution Jews have made to human culture,” says Schama, “our world would be almost unrecognizable. There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history, too, and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity.”

The series airs on PBS 6 March 25 at 8 p.m. (episodes 1 and 2) and April 1 at 8 p.m. (episodes 3, 4 and 5). To reserve seating for the March 19 event, call 621-5828.