Story of the Jews continues to unfold

(March 31, 2014)

The “Story of the Jews,” a PBS documentary on Jewish history by author and Emmy award winner Simon Schama, started airing March 25 and will conclude April 1 on WFYI TV.

The premise of Schama’s documentary is that the endurance of the Jewish people has been in the telling and retelling of their story, from biblical times until the present. Faced with adversity, and often with the threat of extermination, Jews carried their narratives through exile, reinterpreting them as place and circumstance changed, adapting and renewing their faith and culture.

The renowned modern Israeli writers Amos Oz and Fania Oz-Salzberger in their book “Jews and Words,” also understand the power of words for “a people who loved books so much that they consecrated them.” Thewords are not merely scriptural, but refer to centuries of ongoing interpretation. If in the Christian narrative the word “becomes flesh,” in the Jewish narrative the word becomes “more words.” Words are cherished not just for what they may have originally meant but for what they have continued to mean in the lives of the people. The essential component is the conversation between the generations which is embodied in liturgy, ritual and celebration.

In one vignette, Schama shows the Arch of Titus erected in Rome to celebrate the Empire’s destruction of Jerusalem (70 C.E.) and the dispersion of the Jews. It graphically depicts the loot, including the seven-branched golden menorah, carried by the Roman legion from Jerusalem. What is conspicuously missing are the words of Torah, the teachings that continued to be transmitted by sages, teachers and parents. Those words and stories were carried by the people into exile and continued to live, preserving covenantal commitment and faith, origins and destiny.

The recent release of the Darren Aronofsky’s Hollywood film, “Noah,” has stirred controversy within some religious circles because it does not tell the story according to the details of the biblical narrative. The presumption is that the biblical account is the “true story.”

The truth is that many different narrative strands combined to create the biblical story of the flood. Subsequent generations read the Genesis text through the lens of their own experiences. They filled in the blank places of Scripture, helping them to tell the stories of their lives. Multiple meanings were carved out of the circumstances of individual and communal reality. The truth of the story is in its power to allow us to find new meanings and truths in different settings and situations.

The vitality of Jewish faith and culture and, we would claim, of any faith and culture, is its adaptability, its openness to new responses and possibilities. Faithful to the core values and narratives of our heritage, we deepen commitment and claim ownership by making the story our own, adding our yearnings and aspirations, our trials and hopes into the fabric of the tale that continues to be told. It is a tale in which we are not merely descendants of previous generations but ancestors of future generations; not merely recipients of a heritage but its shapers; not merely readers, but authors.

The community is invited to watch an excerpt of “The Story of the Jews,” hostedy by WFYI, at 7 p.m. April 10 at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck, and join local religious leaders, artists and educators in dialogue about faith, tradition and contemporary life as the story continues to unfold.


Dennis Sasso is senior rabbi at Congregation Beth-El Zedeck in Indianapolis; Sandy Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.