Simon Schama's history of the Jewish people concludes with the Holocaust and the creation of the modern Israel, both of which fundamentally changed what it means to be Jewish. Included: the tension between the ideals and necessities that led to founding the modern Israel; and the realities of conflict, dispossession and occupation that have followed in its wake.
Recalling the lost world of the shtetl, Jewish towns and villages in Eastern Europe that gave birth to a uniquely Jewish culture; and that made its mark in the revolutionary politics of the USSR and the pop culture of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. It was also the birthplace of Hasidism, one of the most misunderstood forms of Judaism. Included: Simon Schama visits the forests of Lithuania, where his family logged wood and fought wolves.
The Enlightenment era, when Jews integrated into mainstream European life, is recalled. One area that proved fruitful: music, as exemplified by the careers of composers Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn. The integration stirred up ancient prejudices, however, which were often cloaked by romantic nationalism and pseudo-science. Included: the trial of Alfred Dreyfus, which led Theodor Herzl to conclude that Jews needed a homeland in order to be free of persecution.
The medieval era, when Jews struggled to preserve their identity—and even their lives—under the rule of Christianity and Islam is recalled. Included: diaspora Jews who built new lives and invented new ways of being Jewish in the face of discrimination, blood-libels and persecution; the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.