The Story of the Jews


The Story of the Jews is a five-part, five-hour public television series written and presented by historian and critic Simon Schama. Drawing on Schama’s immense scholarship, his acute and original viewpoints, and his own family history, he offers a series that is both deeply historical and bracingly contemporary. As Schama travels the globe, he tells ancient and modern stories that illuminate the passions and perplexities of today. This collection offers you access to classroom-ready videos and articles drawn from the series' broadcasts and website.

  • The Emergence of Monotheism

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, host Simon Schama travels to the Valley of Elah to visit the site of the biblical story of David and Goliath. He meets with archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel to discuss his theory that the famous battle between the shepherd and the giant reflects hundreds of years of conflict between the hill-dwelling Judeans and the coastal Philistines. Garfinkel takes Schama to the site of an Iron Age Judean fortress where he has discovered an altar and two ceremonial containers, or arks, which may be clues to the origins of Jewish monotheism.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Dead Sea Scrolls

    In this video from The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama takes us to the caves of Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Schama explains that the Scrolls were comprised of 850 separate manuscripts, and included not only biblical texts but also other texts that reveal the religious diversity of the time. In the second part of the video, Schama visits the Israel Antiquities Authority in Jerusalem, where a team of specialists preserve, record, and publish these extraordinary ancient documents.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Cairo Genizah

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama explores the singular medieval phenomenon known as the Cairo Genizah, a repository of some 300,000 ancient documents preserved in a hole in the wall in a synagogue in Cairo. From approximately 1000-1500 AD, the Jews of Cairo deposited a wide assortment of documents, from sacred to secular, ancient bible texts to shopping lists, unwittingly creating a time capsule that offers modern man an unprecedented look at medieval life not only for the Jews, but for their Muslim neighbors as well.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The World's First Ghetto

    In this video from The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama discusses the consequences of the Spanish Expulsion, including Jewish immigration to the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Venice. Both the video and background essay describe the origins of the word "ghetto," the name of the walled district established in 1516 to house the Jewish population of Venice.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Moses Mendelssohn, a Jewish Link to Germany

    In this video from The Story of the Jews, Simon Schama takes us to Berlin, Germany, where the young Talmudic scholar Moses Mendelssohn arrived in 1743 at the tender age of 14. At the time, Berlin was still quite antisemitic, but Mendelssohn forged an unlikely friendship with several early Enlightenment philosophers. He quickly learned English, German, Greek, and Latin, and became well-respected for his philosophical writings in German. One of his best-known accomplishments is the translation of sections of the Torah from Hebrew into German – the first time this had been accomplished by a Jew.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Felix Mendelssohn and the Struggle for Identity

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, Felix Mendelssohn’s emergence as a major composer is placed in the framework of the era of Romantic Nationalism that launched the 19th century in Europe. During this period following the French revolution, ghetto walls were torn down and Jews were expected to forgo their Jewish identity in exchange for the privileges of full European citizenship. Many European Jews, including Moses Mendelssohn’s son Abraham and his family, converted to Christianity during this time.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Rise of Chasidism

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews examines the circumstances under which the Jews of 18th century Russia embraced a new form of observance known as Chasidism. Living under the constant threat of brutal persecution, this ecstatic and joyful expression of Judaism was a welcome alternative to hopelessness. Informed by mystical texts, like the Kabbalah, that revealed profound truths about God and the universe, and an observance characterized by song and dance, life became a spiritual journey. Leaders were believed to have godlike powers, surrounded by tales of wonder, healing and resurrection.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? and The Forgotten Man

    This enhanced video resource takes a look at the Great Depression, focusing on Yip Harburg’s song "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" and President Roosevelt’s famous "Forgotten Man" speech. The video segment provides background and context for the song, while the background essay examines specific elements of Roosevelt’s speech, focusing on his consistent allusion to and use of war metaphors. Ultimately, the resource helps connect the song to the speech, demonstrating the negative sentiment to President Hoover and the United States’ need for change following the devastation of the Great Depression.

     

    Grades: 9-12
  • Zionism and the Balfour Declaration

    This enhanced video resource for The Story of the Jews provides a look at the people and negotiations behind the Balfour Declaration and explains what was promised to Jews in this famous letter. The resource also explores Zionism and examines a text called "Auto-Emancipation," which argued for the necessity of a Jewish nation. The discussion questions and optional student activities ask students to summarize and analyze primary sources and historical events for context and meaning.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Partition of Israel and Palestine

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews explores the factors that led to the creation of the independent state of Israel. The segment describes the United Nations’ involvement in the partition of Palestine and Israel’s eventual declaration of independence, and the conflicts that followed. The video also explores the Palestinian perspective on the aftermath of the conflict and establishment of a Jewish state.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Story of the Jews: Visual Timeline

    Discover major events in the diaspora of the Jews through this visual timeline of the most notable related international events.  The timeline spans from 600 B.C.E., visiting Judea and Babylonia, to modern day Israel. Explore the chronology and impact of these events, as they collectively tell much of the story of the Jewish people.

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Story of the Jews: Interactive Map

    Learn more about the immense geographic scope of the Jewish diaspora with this interactive map following Simon Schama's journey through 3,000 years of Jewish history.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Shtetl Life

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews explores Jewish life under Russian rule at the turn of the 20th Century by analyzing photographs of shtetl life taken by a group of Jewish ethnographers. When Jews in the Polish-Lithuanian kingdom came under Russian rule, they were expelled to the Pale of Settlement that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea. These photographs revealed the diverse occupations of the Jews and the ways in which shtetl life preserved a sense of community even for a community in exile.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • Holocaust in Plunge

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews examines the effects of the brutal occupation of Lithuania by Nazi Germany in 1941 through the lens of a survivor and the last Jew in the town of Plunge, Jakovas Bunka. Bunka was conscripted into the Russian Red Army, but when he returned to Plunge after the war, his family was among the 96% of the town’s population massacred by the Nazis. Today, he carves wood figurines depicting shtetl residents as a memorial to the Holocaust.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Mishnah and the Talmud

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews examines the evolution of the Mishnah and Talmud and how they became the foundation of the rebuilding of Jewish life in exile by addressing the dilemma of how to stay Jewish in a non-Jewish world. When the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, it was replaced by an equally vast edifice of words called the Mishnah. The Mishnah is a written record of the Oral Laws categorized by subjects. Over the course of four centuries, the Mishnah expanded into the Talmud that recorded the many interpretations of the Mishnah text by hundreds of Rabbis.

    Grades: 9-13+
  • The Kennicott Bible

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, students will learn about a famously beautiful Medieval Jewish text called the Kennicott Bible. Completed in 1476 in La Coruna, Spain, this religious work of art vibrantly weaves Jewish, Christian and Muslim imagery onto its pages—offering a unique and exquisite version of the Hebrew Bible.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Little Hugh

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews offers an overview of Medieval Britain and how the powers that be—the King and the Catholic Church—treated the Jewish population in the city of Lincoln. Aaron of Lincoln, a powerful moneylender and one of the city’s Jewish residents, financed the building of cathedrals and palaces in Lincoln and beyond. Unfortunately for Jewish residents like Aaron, power made them vulnerable to Britain’s anti-Jewish elite, as host Simon Schama describes through the story of “Little Hugh.”

    Grades: 9-12
  • The Dreyfus Affair

    This video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews examines the Dreyfus Affair—a trial that began in 1894 that shook the French population and had a lasting impact on Theodor Herzl, an influential Zionist leader. Alfred Dreyfus, a Captain in the French Army, was accused and convicted of sending military secrets to the Germans. As a Jewish officer, he became a convenient scapegoat for a crime another had committed. This event exposed the growing antisemitism in 19th-century France.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Hellenism

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, host Simon Schama discusses the influence of Hellenism on Jewish culture. The clip begins with the conquests of Alexander the Great, and moves on to the Tobiads, a family of Hellenized Jews living during the second century BCE. Schama highlights the fundamental differences between Greek and Jewish culture and argues that although Hellenism was a powerful force in the ancient world, it did not change the core of Jewish thought and identity.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Jews in the Islamic World

    In this video from the PBS series The Story of the Jews, host Simon Schama discusses conditions for Jews living in Islamic lands during the Middle Ages. Schama points out that although Jewish communities in Muslim territories experienced a form of second class citizenship, they experienced a level of freedom, prosperity and acceptance not common in Medieval Christian Europe.

    Grades: 9-12

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