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The Story of the Jews

Sun Sep 1, 9-10pm, BBC2

Episode one
Location, location, location. If the Jews hadn’t built a temple next to the Egyptian temple of Khnum, ram-headed deity, on an island in the Nile, and then proceeded to sacrifice rams to their one and only true god in it, who knows how Jewish history might have been changed? As Simon Schama says: ‘not tactful’.

As a guide to this five-part series exploring the story of the Jewish experience from ancient times to the present day, Schama is of course perfect, a man of words whose religion stems from a tribal people’s fierce loyalty to a formless, faceless ‘god of words’, which, as the first singular god, raised quite a few heckles 3,000+ years ago. Rather than simply offer a linear, child’s history book guide to Judaism, the complex story Schama sets out in this first episode flits back and forth.

He goes roving over millennia to show us fragments of 2,000-year-old bible scrolls and Victorian photographs of evangelical Christian explorers hunting the sites of Book of Exodus events, interviewing a twentieth century artist who made her own terrifying exodus from war-torn Ethiopia to Israel, and evocatively weaving in ancient historical stories that shaped the centuries of persecution, war, invasion, deportation, enslavement, exile and assimilation to come.

It’s a demanding construct, but one that makes for a rich, layered experience – assuming you don’t have ADD. Pay attention at the back.