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The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama
Episode Descriptions
Air date: 03/25/2014

The Story of the Jews with Simon Schama

Episode Descriptions

 

Episode One: In the Beginning

Tuesday, March 25, 8-9 p.m.

 

Prize-winning author and Emmy-Award winner Simon Schama explores the Jewish experience from ancient times to the present day in this new five-part series. The story of the Jewish experience begins 3,000 years ago with the emergence of a tribal people in a contested land and their extraordinary book, the Hebrew Bible, a chronicle of their stormy relationship with a faceless, formless, jealous God. It was loyalty to this “God of Words” that defined the distinct identity of the ancient Jews and preserved it despite all that history could throw their way — war, invasion, deportation, enslavement, exile and assimilation. The story unfolds with a cast of historical characters: Sigmund Freud dying in exile in London; Victorian evangelicals and explorers following “in the footsteps” of Moses; Jewish mercenaries living, prospering and intermarrying in the pagan land of Egypt; Messianic Jews dreaming of the Apocalypse; and a Jewish historian, Josephus, who witnessed first-hand the moment when the apocalypse finally came and the Romans destroyed the Jewish High Temple in Jerusalem.

 

Episode Two: Among Believers

Tuesday, March 25, 9-10 p.m.

 

Simon Schama’s epic series continues with the story of medieval Jews struggling to preserve their identity — and sometimes their lives — under the rule of Christianity and Islam. Whether labeled “Christ-killers” by the Christians or “dhimmi” (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic community) by the Muslims, diaspora Jews built new lives and invented new ways of being Jewish in exile in the face of discrimination, blood-libels and persecution interspersed with periods of tolerance, protection and peaceful co-existence. Drawing on some of the extraordinary documents they left behind, this episode offers a vivid portrait of Jewish bankers, merchants, doctors, poets and artists flourishing in Lincoln, Cordoba, Venice and Cairo and tells the heart-rending story of their mass expulsion from Spain in 1492.

 

Episode Three: A Leap of Faith

Tuesday, April 1, 8-9 p.m.

 

Simon Schama explores the bright, hopeful moment when Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary armies brought ghetto walls crashing down — allowing Jews to weave their wisdom, creativity and energies into the very fabric of modern life in Europe. One of the most of fruitful branches of this Jewish renaissance was in music, and the stellar careers of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn established the enduring tradition for Jewish musical prodigies. However, the remarkably successful integration of Jewish talent into the mainstream of European culture and commerce stirred up the ghosts of ancient prejudice, decked out in the new clothes of romantic nationalism and the pseudo-science of anti-semitism. The road to the hell of the Holocaust was paved by the diatribes of Richard Wagner, while the trial of Alfred Dreyfus led Theodor Herzl to conclude that without a homeland of their own, Jews would never be free of the millennia-old persecution.

 

Episode Four: Over the Rainbow

Tuesday, April 1, 9-10 p.m.

 

Simon Schama plunges viewers into the lost world of the shtetl, the Jewish towns and villages sewn across the hinterlands of Eastern Europe, which became the seedbed of a uniquely Jewish culture. Shtetl culture would make its mark on the modern world, from the revolutionary politics of the Soviet Union to the mass culture of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. It was also the birthplaces of Hasidism, the most visible, pr and, arguably, most misunderstood expression of Jewish faith and fervor. This episode travels from the forests of Lithuania, where Schama’s own family logged wood and fought wolves, to the boulevards of Odessa, where shtetl kids argued the merits of revolutionary socialism over Zionism. From the Ukrainian city of Uman, where today thousands of the Hasidim chant and sing over the tomb of the wonder-working Rabbi Nachman, to the streets of Manhattan’s lower east side, where the sons of shtetl immigrants wrote the American songbook. The program returns, with grim inevitability, to Eastern Europe in 1940, where the genocidal mechanisms of the “final solution” were beginning to grind the shtetl world into dust and ash.

 

Episode Five: Return

Tuesday, April 1, 10-11 p.m.

 

Simon Schama examines how the Holocaust and the creation of Israel have fundamentally changed what it means to be Jewish. Mixing personal recollection with epic history, Schama tells the story of the remarkable personalities and unprecedented events that turned the Zionist dream of creating a modern state of Israel into reality — and the consequences for the world. With contributions from writer David Grossman, photographer Micha Bar-Am, kibbutz founder Freddie Kahan, West Bank settler Zvi Cooper and Palestinian villager Yacoub Odeh, the film explores the tension between the high ideals and dire necessities that led to the creation of a Jewish homeland and the realities of conflict, dispossession and occupation that have followed in its wake.

 

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