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The Story Of The Jews With Simon Schama

Airs Tuesdays, March 25, 2014 from 8-10 p.m. & April 1 from 8-11 p.m. on KPBS TV

Above: Simon Schama at the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, Germany.

Prize-winning author of 15 books and Emmy Award-winner Simon Schama brings to life Jewish history and experience in a new five-part documentary series, THE STORY OF THE JEWS WITH SIMON SCHAMA, premiering Tuesdays, March 25, 8-10 p.m. (episodes 1 & 2) and April 1, 8-11 p.m. (episodes 3, 4 & 5) on PBS. The five-hour series follows Schama – who has written and presented 50 documentaries on art, literature and history and is a contributing editor of the Financial Times, as he travels from Russia and the Ukraine to Egypt, Israel and Spain, exploring the imprint that Jewish culture has made on the world and the drama of suffering, resilience and rebirth that has gone with it.

“If you were to remove from our collective history,” said Simon Schama, “the contribution Jews have made to human culture, our world would be almost unrecognizable. There would be no monotheism, no written Bible, and our sense of modernity would be completely different. So the history of the Jews is everyone’s history too and what I hope people will take away from the series is that sense of connection: a weave of cultural strands over the millennia, some brilliant, some dark, but resolving into a fabric of thrilling, sometimes tragic, often exalted creativity.”

Explore The Diaspora

Page through 3000 years of Jewish history, culture and experience in this visual timeline.

Interactive Map

Explore each stop along Simon Schama's epic journey on this interactive world map.

The Arts: 10 Innovators

Learn more about the the ten most influential Jewish-American artists you may not have heard of.

The Sepphoris Mosaic

Click on the illustrated panels to view detailed images and learn more about this richly symbolic religious artifact.

Share Your Journey

Many modern Jews can trace their roots back to distant lands far from their current home. These journeys permeate generations, passed down through treasured stories, objects and photographs. Where did your family's journey begin? What is your diaspora story? Share your journey and include a family photograph, home video or image of a special heirloom that represents your own "Story Of The Jews."

Enter Our Essay Contest

As part of THE STORY OF THE JEWS National Education and Outreach Initiative, WNET Education is launching an essay contest to encourage high school aged students across America to examine how stories shape our identities. To enter the contest, watch a video clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS and answer a question in 500 words or less. Get details and enter the contest>

The series is, at the same time, a personal journey for Schama, who has been immersed in Jewish history since his postwar childhood; a meditation on its dramatic trajectory; and a macro-history of a people whose mark on the world has been out of all proportion to its modest numbers.

"The Beginning" airs Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 8 p.m. - The story of the Jewish experience begins 3,000 years ago with the emergence of a tribal people in a contested land and their extraordinary book, the Hebrew Bible, a chronicle of their stormy relationship with a faceless, formless, jealous God. It was loyalty to this “God of Words” that defined the distinct identity of the ancient Jews and preserved it despite all that history could throw their way — war, invasion, deportation, enslavement, exile and assimilation.

The story unfolds with a dazzling cast of historical characters: Sigmund Freud dying in exile in London; Victorian evangelicals and explorers following “in the footsteps” of Moses; Jewish mercenaries living, prospering and intermarrying in the pagan land of Egypt; Messianic Jews dreaming of the Apocalypse; and a Jewish historian, Josephus, who witnessed first-hand the moment when the apocalypse finally came and the Romans destroyed the Jewish High Temple in Jerusalem.

"Among Believers" airs Tuesday, March 25, 2014 at 9 p.m. - Simon Schama’s epic series continues with the story of medieval Jews struggling to preserve their identity — and sometimes their lives — under the rule of Christianity and Islam. Whether labeled “Christ-killers” by the Christians or “dhimmi” (non-Muslim citizens of an Islamic community) by the Muslims, diaspora Jews built new lives and invented new ways of being Jewish in exile in the face of discrimination, blood-libels and persecution interspersed with periods of tolerance, protection and peaceful co-existence.

Drawing on some of the extraordinary documents they left behind, this episode offers a vivid portrait of Jewish bankers, merchants, doctors, poets and artists flourishing in Lincoln, Córdoba, Venice and Cairo and tells the heart-rending story of their mass expulsion from Spain in 1492.

"A Leap of Faith" airs Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 8 p.m. - Simon Schama explores the bright, hopeful moment when Enlightenment thinkers and revolutionary armies brought ghetto walls crashing down — allowing Jews to weave their wisdom, creativity and energies into the very fabric of modern life in Europe. One of the most of fruitful branches of this Jewish renaissance was in music, and the stellar careers of Giacomo Meyerbeer and Felix Mendelssohn established the enduring tradition for Jewish musical prodigies.

However, the remarkably successful integration of Jewish talent into the mainstream of European culture and commerce stirred up the ghosts of ancient prejudice, decked out in the new clothes of romantic nationalism and the pseudo-science of anti-semitism. The road to the hell of the Holocaust was paved by the diatribes of Richard Wagner, while the trial of Alfred Dreyfus led Theodor Herzl to conclude that without a homeland of their own, Jews would never be free of the millennia-old persecution.

"Over The Rainbow" airs Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 9 p.m. - Simon Schama plunges viewers into the lost world of the shtetl, the Jewish towns and villages sewn across the hinterlands of Eastern Europe, which became the seedbed of a uniquely Jewish culture. Shtetl culture would make its mark on the modern world, from the revolutionary politics of the Soviet Union to the mass culture of Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. It was also the birthplaces of Hasidism, the most visible, iconic and, arguably, most misunderstood expression of Jewish faith and fervor.

This episode travels from the forests of Lithuania, where Schama’s own family logged wood and fought wolves, to the boulevards of Odessa, where shtetl kids argued the merits of revolutionary socialism over Zionism. From the Ukrainian city of Uman, where today thousands of the Hasidim chant and sing over the tomb of the wonder-working Rabbi Nachman, to the streets of Manhattan’s lower east side, where the sons of shtetl immigrants wrote the American songbook. The program returns, with grim inevitability, to Eastern Europe in 1940, where the genocidal mechanisms of the “final solution” were beginning to grind the shtetl world into dust and ash.

"Return" airs Tuesday, April 1, 2014 at 10 p.m. - Simon Schama examines how the Holocaust and the creation of Israel have fundamentally changed what it means to be Jewish. Mixing personal recollection with epic history, Schama tells the story of the remarkable personalities and unprecedented events that turned the Zionist dream of creating a modern state of Israel into reality — and the consequences for the world.

With contributions from writer David Grossman, photographer Micha Bar-Am, kibbutz founder Freddie Kahan, West Bank settler Zvi Cooper and Palestinian villager Yacoub Odeh, the film explores the tension between the high ideals and dire necessities that led to the creation of a Jewish homeland and the realities of conflict, dispossession and occupation that have followed in its wake.

Follow @simon_schama on Twitter.

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The Story Of The Jews With Simon Schama Preview

Above: Noted historian, author and critic Simon Schama explores the Jewish experience from ancient times to the present day in this five-part series.

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The Jewish Diaspora in New York

Above: In this clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS, Simon Schama travels to New York City, considered THE iconic landing place in the Jewish-American story.

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Freud’s Passionate Conviction

Above: In this clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS, Simon Schama examines famous psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud’s fascination with Jewish identity and experience.

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Jews Under Islam

Above: In this clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS, Simon Schama visits Cairo to explore the historical relationship between Jews and Islam.

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Jewish Córdoba

Above: In this clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS, Simon Schama journeys to Córdoba, once the capital of the Islamic Umayyad dynasty, and under their protection, one of the great centers of Sephardic Jewish life in Muslim Spain.

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The Hebrew Bible

Above: In this clip from THE STORY OF THE JEWS, Simon Schama explores the origins of the Hebrew Bible, beginning with the emergence of the monotheistic Jewish God.

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