Simon Schama made his reputation as a cultural historian, and one would expect his new “Story of the Jews” to have something to say on the subject of Jewish culture. His incompetence strains the capacity of the Yiddish language for derogation. He is a yutz. Of the many silly things in his PBS series, the silliest perhaps was the claim that Harold Arlen’s and E.Y. Harburg’s song “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” expressed characteristically Jewish longing for a better world–as if longing for a better world were a distinctively Jewish activity. As far as music and poetry are concerned, Schama hasn’t a clue; the text and voice-leading of the song following long-established, overused conventions for the evocation of nostalgia. These are taught to undergraduates in musical analysis. Schubert and Wagner among many others employed them. (In the context of a review of Wagner’s Siegfried for Tablet magazine, I recorded a brief discussion of the musical examples, embedded below. The review itself analyzes the musical trick in “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”).

I didn’t like anything else about Schama’s presentation, but I can claim professional credentials in this particular matter.