There are several moments in Simon Schama’s new five-part documentary series, “The Story of the Jews,” when the British historian’s stiff upper lip begins to wobble.
Schama says the series would not have worked if he had not made it personal.
“I wanted it to be hot television, not cool television,” Schama said as he sat in the light-filled kitchen at his home in Pleasantville, N.Y. “I wanted it to break through the formulae of aired opinions, of a measured approach to the narrative.“
Of the 45 documentaries and 16 books that Schama has produced during an academic career that has taken him from Cambridge to Oxford, then Harvard and then Columbia, “The Story of the Jews” is by far his most intimate.
Schama traces 3,000 years of Jewish history, from 10th-century BCE Egypt to 21st-century Israel. Along the way, he shares his personal connection to Judaism, his family’s roots in Lithuania and his views on Zionism and on Israel’s separation wall and West Bank settlements.
Schama, 69, is a passionate narrator on the screen and on the page. In real life, without an editor to hold him back, he is even more excitable. He speaks in long, fluid, sentences that pop with detail. During an anecdote about his dealings with Victor Rothschild, Schama describes Rothschild as “very charming, very brilliant and very dangerous.” He sets the scene for one of their meetings as taking place at “some dark, miserable, rainy moment in the calendar of Cambridge.”
Although Schama has spent almost half his life in the United States, he remains the consummate Englishman. He emphasizes words by rolling out the vowels, so that events are “sooo faaaan-tastic” and an audience can seem like the “en-tiiiire Jewish community.”
When he is on a roll — which is often — he is uninterruptible. As a student at the private Haberdashers’ Aske’s Boys’ School, in Hertfordshire, Schama says, he held the record for the most consecutive detentions because of his constant talking and joking in class. His French teacher called him “Gasbag.”
Schama inherited this gabbiness from his father, Arthur Schama, an East End Jew whose own “horrible” father forbade his son from pursuing a career on the stage. Simon Schama says his father read Dickens aloud two or three evenings a week after dinner. “I read the whole of Shakespeare with him over a four-year period with the two of us taking all the parts, every Sunday afternoon,” he said.