First, a small complaint. Once there was a Jewish man who had talents beyond those of mortal men. He achieved what some would call miracles, and his work convinced millions of people of his special, chosen place in history. When the right time came, he made the choice to leave us, even though he was at the height of his powers. Today his name remains one of reverence among those who followed him.
This holy man’s name… was Sandy Koufax. And the (I guess) understandable neglect of his story in the expansive five-part series “The Story of the Jews” is one of the few complaints this baseball fan has about this intelligent, impassioned, and informative film.
Writer and scholar Simon Schama presents the epic, though not epically titled, “The Story of the Jews.” Covering almost five thousand years, the story begins millenia ago in desert hills of Palestine, and completes its journey in the present day conflicts of Isreal. In between, we find out about the faith, the resilience and the stubborn refusal to simply go away that the film posits as a unifying thread of Jewish history.
Schama makes for an energetic, opinionated host, presenting both a clear and concise history in broad terms, and more personal, intimate commentary about the Jewish experience as reflected in his own history. Not surprising, really, given that he describes the Jews as “famously argumentative and opinionated.” It is a small entertainment to simply watch his hands gesture at a volume equal to his voice.
Enhancing this balance between epic and personal is the relative scarcity of the professorial talking heads that usually threaten to overrun such documentaries, in favor of stories and thoughts from everyday men and women. In its relatively straightforward chronology, the filmmakers are not exactly rewriting the rules of documentary. But it is constructed with a probing, restless intelligence and heartfelt sincerity, and director Tim Kirby creates a current of graceful compassion and subtle emotive power that I found unexpected and compelling.
For many, the central event, maybe the onlyevent, in their knowledge of the history of Judaism is the Holocaust. Perhaps because of this, there is a restrained approach to the shattering horror of this darkest passage in Jewish history. No charnel house photos or mass graves, just clear context for what was lost, and how that loss, in the face of the world’s inaction, became the fuel for the Zionist movement that would lead to the creation of a Jewish homeland.
But even in that concision, he still finds a novel voice for that time in the person of an elderly Lithuanian man, the last Jew left from his village to survive the Holocaust, and who now keeps the memory of that culture alive through woodcarvings of the people he once knew. This is much more moving on film than my pale words can convey. One of the highlights of the whole series is the amazing sight of the Holocaust Memorial Day in present Isreal, where a siren klaxons out its call to remembrance, and everything and everyone stops in its tracks for silent contemplation of what Schama calls “an event beyond mere words.”
Throughout the series, in the narrative that he wrote himself, Schama finds other moments of true eloquence that transcends any trace of social studies-class didacticism – speaking of the tragic end of residents of the village where his own family had roots, the vicious pogroms that ravaged the outlying area of Russia called The Pale, or the test of faith and frailty in the destruction of the ancient first temple.
The film is shot with a pleasing fluid style that is well-matched to the narrative, and features several visual tropes (flocks of birds, gravestones) that provide poetic amplification or a pointed counter.
Even without any mention of Sandy Koufax, the filmmakers have constructed a compelling yet emotional tour through an amazing history, one that is still being written.
The DVD of “The Story of the Jews” is presented in five episodes spread across two discs, in widescreen format. There are options for English and English SDH subtitles.
The audio track is Stereo 2.0, and is excellent in its clarity.
There are no extras in this package.
This is history of a most enjoyable and well-shaped type, filled with grace and humanity. The personal style of presenter Simon Schama enlivens even the driest passages.