Source: Public Library
Paperback, 318 pages
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The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler set during the 1500s at the time of the Lisbon Massacre of April 1506, in which about 2,000 Jews were killed. Zimler breathes life into this time period and the Jewish Kabbalah, a time in which Jews were in hiding and many were converted to New Christians (Marranos) in 1497 — some after fleeing Spain — to remain safe from persecution. Even their conversion is not enough to satisfy Old Christians as they run rampant through the city killing Jews, putting their heads on spikes, throwing them on pyres, and more. King Manuel I, while more tolerant of the Jewish community, allowed the massacre to rage on, and eventually, 30 years later, the inquisition was established in Portugal, just as it had been in Spain. Berekiah Zarco, a young manuscript illuminator, becomes caught up in the search for a killer, after he discovers his uncle, the keeper of forbidden Hebrew texts, has been murdered.
“We are all of us deep and wide enough to welcome a river of paradoxes and riddles into our souls.” (page 21)
Berekiah, also known as Pedro as a New Christian, worked with his uncle illuminating texts for others that were hiding from the Christians and trying to keep their Jewish faith alive, but he is unaware of how his uncle smuggled precious texts out of the city and into Turkey so as to keep them from being lost. Zimler demonstrates through Zarco’s search for his uncle’s killer how the Jews were forced to wear a great many masks to hide their religion, but at the same time, these masks could be false ones and even the most trustworthy in the community could be hiding nefarious deeds. The tale is told as Zarco unravels the mystery of his uncle’s death, and while he becomes absorbed in vengeance and the search for justice, his Muslim friend, Farid, who cannot speak except with his hands, steers him in the right direction and reminding him of compassion and empathy along the way.
“Yet the wall tiles and window eyelets, desks and chairs returned my gaze without the slightest quiver of motion. The room was empty, seemed hollow, like the rib cage of an animal whose heart had suddenly ceased beating.” (page 57)
With a turncoat in the Jewish community, Zarco narrows the field to a few suspects and sets about finding the truth, even as the Old Christians continue to rage, pillage, and kill Jews in their wake. While the dialogue is a bit comical after a time, with Zarco accusing elders in the community of being murderers and them immediately denying it and him accepting their answers, in the context of the time period in which elders were to be believed, the conversations make sense. Zarco’s life is in endanger at every turn as he seeks the killer, but he relies on his Kabbalist faith to see him through and finds a strength through his uncle’s teachings.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler provides a window into the early 1500s when Jews were being pushed out of their homes, and much of the situations during this time mirrors the reasons reiterated during the time of the Nazis — that the Jews were taking all of the jobs and the money away from those who were true Portuguese. Christian versus New Christian and Jew, Kabbalah was all the Jews had to cling to as a way to survive persecution and continue flourishing. It is a harrowing story of evil, death, and perseverance, but it is also about the ties we have to our faith and family, even after much of our family has passed on.
About the Author:
1st book for the 2014 Portuguese HF Challenge.
16th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Portugal)
26th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.
51st book for 2014 New Author Challenge.