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Schama and His Suitcase Jews Dazzle on PBS Broadcast

Simon Schama
British historian Simon Schama. The third segment of his five-part "The Story of the Jews," which looks at 3000 years of Jewish history, will air on April 1 on PBS. Photographer: Tim Kirby/Oxford Film & Television 2011 via Bloomberg

Tomorrow night at 8:00 p.m. Eastern Standard Time on PBS, Simon Schama opens an enormous door and steps into an ornate 18th-century library aglow with light, marble pillars and glittering ormolu.

The time had come for the Jews to leave the ghetto for the salons of Europe.

A Leap of Faith” is the third segment in the Jewish historian’s “The Story of the Jews,” a co-production with the BBC, which started last week on PBS. (Parts four and five air immediately afterwards and will be available for streaming).

By now, the Jews have hurried with their bundles and suitcases from Jerusalem, Babylon and Cairo to fragrant Andalusia and stinking shtetls.

Trailed by a lavishly financed camera crew, the mesmerizing and kinetic Schama traces this epic journey with his typical flair. Anecdotes abound; compelling personalities step into view.

In dour Lincoln, in the north of England, we meet Aaron, a 12th-century moneylender who financed abbeys and was richer than the king. Jealousy was his thanks though he was allowed to die in bed.

Blood Libel

Not much later, Lincoln’s Jews dangled from gibbets, framed for the ritual murder of “Blessed Little Hugh,” a nine-year-old discovered in a cesspool.

Blood libel was a handy way of stealing Jewish assets and killing undeserving owners. Over the centuries, greedy Christians uncovered an amazing number of Jews baking matzo with the blood of babes.

“Leap of Faith” follows young Moses Mendelssohn as he leaves the hinterlands for Berlin where he will learn proper German and play chess with blue-eyed Gotthold Ephraim Lessing.

The Enlightenment shone on both. Mendelssohn became the exemplar of an educated Jew who keeps his faith in a secular world; Lessing wrote “Nathan the Wise,” a play about tolerance that is still performed.

Schama quotes a melancholy line forgotten by later Germans: “It is enough to be ‘ein Mensch’ -- a man.”

A few thousand economically useful Jews lived inside Berlin’s walls when Mendelssohn arrived in 1743. Slowly the gates opened to those who entered a bargain of sorts with the ruling elite.

Ghetto Quitters

It goes like this: Leave your ghetto ways. Expose yourself to modern life and we will embrace you fully. You will become a citizen who happens to practice the Jewish faith.

Banks opened, the Torah was translated into German, and music echoed through the salons hosted by Berlin’s elegant Jewish hostesses. As a child, the prodigiously talented composer Felix Mendelssohn, grandson of Moses, was baptized (Queen Victoria still commented on his “Jewish” looks).

And in Paris, Giacomo (Jacob) Meyerbeer, who preserved the faith, ruled over the opera world with his popular operatic entertainments featuring dancing nuns and dying Huguenots. He graciously helped a sycophantic younger composer Richard Wagner, who later thanked him with “Das Judenthum in der Musik” (Judaism in Music).

Wagnerian Disdain

Jews are repulsive, Wagner wrote, though himself a gnomish example of the superior race. Jews cannot contribute meaningfully to German culture, he continued, since they are vulgar and superficial. He suggested baptism for those who refused to accept the obvious.

Schama describes this high point in the annals of anti-Semitism and clotted writing as he takes us inside the opulent Garnier Opera for a glimpse at Meyerbeer’s entertaining “Robert le Diable.” You can see why Wagner foamed at the mouth.

Then we move across the Seine to the military academy for a much greater display of anti-Semitism: the public degradation of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1894 on bogus charges of selling military secrets to the Germans. So much for Mendelssohn’s dream of a civil society.

This segment ends at Berlin’s Holocaust memorial, a shattering construction of blank rectangular slabs of stone evoking malevolence and murder.

The Book

Schama, endlessly prolific, has also written a history timed to the broadcasts. The published first volume starts in ancient Egypt and ends with the expulsion of the Jews from their Spanish homeland in 1492.

The writing is consistently superb -- witty, eloquent and filled with surprises. That parade of doughty Ashkenazi women bankers and traveling widows is fabulously entertaining.

“Such beautiful names, such terrible fates,” he notes, launching into a description of Licoricia who survived three (!) spells in the Tower of London only to be mysteriously murdered in her home along with her Christian servants in the year 1277.

(Manuela Hoelterhoff is an executive editor at Bloomberg News. Any opinions are her own.)

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