Historian Simon Schama this week described his new five-part BBC series, The Story of the Jews, as “enormously epic”, writes Francine Wolfisz.

The series, which begins on Sunday, crams 5,000-years of Jewish history into just five hours, from the origins of the Ancient Israelites to the present day.

London-born Schama, who teaches history and history of art at Columbia University in New York, said the project had “enriched” his own sense of Jewishness and added: “It’s made me clarify the relationship between culture and traditions, both religious and less religious. It’s made me think again in a sharper and historically enriched way about Jewish life and it’s made me rethink the norms of what Jewish life was like.”

Simon Schama's Story of the Jews begins on Sunday

Simon Schama’s The Story of the Jews begins on Sunday

In the opening episode, the 68-year-old academic looks at the importance of the Torah to the Jewish people and how their relationship with the word of God helped them survive war, enslavement, exile and assimilation.

As Schama notes, even psychotherapist Sigmund Freud, a “Godless Jew”, recognised that the “Jews had received both the blessing and the burden of the Torah, for that is what they carried with them – and that was the key to their survival.”

Other episodes in the series will look at the struggle of medieval Jews to preserve their identity in the face of persecution and blood-libels and a brief moment of hope during the Enlightenment of the 18th and 19th Centuries, when Jews were allowed to leave their ghettos.

The series will then look at shtetl life in Eastern Europe and the birth of Hasidism, before ending with the Holocaust and its relationship to the creation of Israel.

“This issue will be dealt with frankly, clearly and intensively,” added Schama.

The well-known historian has also written a two-volume book to accompany the series, the first of which will be published on 12 September.

 The Story of the Jews begins on Sunday, BBC 2, 9pm.

Watch the trailer for The Story of the Jews below

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