Schama leavens his tale with wit and charm, while also displaying remarkable breadth of research and erudition, ranging fluently from Sephardic merchant princes in the Mediterranean to fevered kabbalistic sects in Galilee. All that the book lacks is a proper analytical framework to connect the long and luscious anecdotes, so one learns much about what happened, but far less about why.
Although this is an ambitious doorstop of a book, Schama is not interested in history writ large. His signature method is to recount the plight of individuals against the swirling backdrop of events... Yet even in the midst of what might at first appear elaborate digressions, Schama maintains the attention with the vividness of his writing and his talent for unearthing gripping figures full of human contradictions. And it’s through this dazzling immersion in the preoccupations of the period that the bigger picture slowly emerges. History, you learn, is what happens to you when you’re busy trying to survive... It’s a narrative that could easily be rendered as a stirring tale of noble victims overcoming mindless victimisation... But Schama is too subtle a writer and historian to succumb to that temptation. He is not afraid to examine Jewish corruption and double-dealing, the kinds of misdeeds that attend all forms of power and influence, but that have been the subjects of so much myth and misrepresentation in the case of the Jews.
Schama is a remarkable storyteller. His approach is cinematic. He sets scenes with great vividness and writes, from street level, with an unflagging verve. His overarching title is “The Story of the Jews,” not “The History of the Jews.” Few statistics, let alone big-picture summaries, encumber, or anchor, the cascading, virtuoso narrative. The effect is kaleidoscopic, if occasionally disorienting... Like the Jewish peddler with his cart and wares, ever in search of a livelihood and a home, we shift from place to place. Our companion may be Leone de Sommi, a 16th-century Italian Jewish showman, or Daniel Mendoza, an 18th-century British Jewish pugilist of “long lashes fringing wide brown eyes.” Each tells a story of creative straining toward fragile, often ephemeral acceptance. The reader is ushered into a galaxy of Jewishness, from the Ottoman court to faraway China by way of Cochin in India. What emerges is a riveting picture, gorgeously rendered, of the stubborn, argumentative miracle of Jewish survival against the odds.