Belonging: The Story of the Jews, 1492-1900

Written by Simon Schama
Review by Sarah Bower

This is the second book in Schama’s magisterial history of the Jews, following the Jewish people from the expulsion from Spain in 1492 to the beginning of the 20th century. Schama writes with his usual lucidity and erudition, but this book is distinguished by something else. His love for his own people shines through the narrative, and he claims his place among them not only through a passing reference to the history of the Schamas themselves but in the tone and rhythm of the writing. The language is enlivened with Yiddish and Hebrew, the narrative sparkles with Jewish jokes. Schama nevertheless shows how the history of the Jews is intertwined with the wider story of these 400 years. We see Protestants and Jews allied against the Catholic Church during the Counter-Reformation and great church architects building synagogues. Jewish trading houses are the sinews which bind the old empires of the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs, Jewish communities in India and China connect to the imperial adventures of emerging nation states. A fabulous cast of actors, musicians, pugilists, conmen and false messiahs pop up at skilfully managed intervals to keep the reader entranced; a wonderful read. Huge, but highly recommended.