In the spring of 1506 CE, many of the Jews of Lisbon, Portugal, made the decision to delay their celebration of the Passover for a week. On the Sunday of the second day of their observance of the festival, a riot broke out among the worshippers at a Dominican church service, resulting in the murder and burning of over 3,000 Jews. This horrific event, and the subsequent days of terror and misery, make up the backdrop for Richard Zimler’s novel The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.
The Last Kabbalist, as a book, is many things. On one level, it is a window into the culture and religion of the Sephardic Jews of the Iberian Peninsula in the Middle Ages, and especially into the mysteries of their mystical practices, known as Kabbalah. On another level, it is a gruesome depiction of the violence and terror that defined the era of the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisitions, and a biting criticism of the 16th century religious and political authorities who aided and abetted such horrors. And on yet another, it is the tale of two friends, Muslim and Jew, and their perseverance in the face of unbearable difficulty. At its heart, however, The Last Kabbalist is something simpler and more cliché: a murder mystery.
Serving as narrator, and more importantly as detective, is the character of Berekiah Zarco, a twenty-year-old manuscript illustrator (“illuminator”) and kabbalist who is apprenticed to his uncle and mentor, Abraham. He lives in the Judaria Pequena, or Little Jewish Quarter, of Lisbon, in which type of ghetto reside all of the forcibly converted Jews – since referred to as “New” Christians - of the city. Along with his family – his aunt Esther and uncle Abraham, his mother Mira and sister Cinfa, and his cousin Reza - Berekiah spends his days learning the skills of his master’s art and the mysteries of Kabbalah. In addition, he lives across a courtyard from his lifelong deaf-mute friend Farid and his father Samir. Berekiah’s happy life is shattered on the day of the riots, not by the deaths of thousands of his people at the hands of the Old Christians, but by the murder of his master, Uncle Abraham. Subconsciously, he swears to enact vengeance upon his master’s killer. This goal quickly becomes more serious than he anticipated as he discovers that Abraham could not have been killed by rioters, but by a Jew, and one who was extremely close to him at that. Berekiah soon sets out, accompanied by Farid, on a complex investigation that takes him all throughout medieval Lisbon.
Tragedy follows Berekiah’s every step, as he discovers that more and more people with information key to his investigation have been killed in the riot. To make matters worse, his mother, aunt and sister are in shock and Farid takes ill with what turns out to be dysentery. However, inspired by his deep spiritual connection with his uncle, and the advice he is able to receive from his master in this way, he manages to develop a version of the events of that fateful Sunday in his mind. Working from this, Berekiah narrows down the list of suspects to those members of his uncle’s “threshing group” – New Christian code for kabbalistic discussion circle. Delving deeper into the intricate network of his master’s affairs, he learns how Abraham has been smuggling illegal Hebrew manuscripts out of Portugal for years, with the help of mysterious New Christian connections in nobility. As he attempts to track these down, his friendship with Farid is tested repeatedly, for the other boy’s father has been missing since the day of the riot. Obsessed as he is with obtaining vengeance, however, Berekiah is unable to empathize with his friend, or his family who are themselves undergoing terrible grief. Gradually, Berekiah is consumed by his quest, to the point that his belief in a personal relationship with God is all but dissolved. It is this internal struggle within Berekiah’s soul that adds dimension and depth to the story.
In the end, with the help of Farid’s keen senses of sight and smell and certain lucky discoveries, Berekiah manages to track down the murderer and confront him, just as he is attempting to sell the property he has stolen from Master Abraham. The classic triumph of good over evil is tainted by the doubt one develops, as a reader, for Berekiah’s own sanity and goodwill. What is more, the Zarco family is unable to experience even the bittersweet joy of vengeance, overwhelmed as it is by the horror of the deaths of 3,000 of their coreligionists. Thus The Last Kabbalist is not like a Sherlock Holmes detective story, in which everything is back to normal for the detective and his friends at the end of the day. Indeed, it is clear that the events in the novel would have a lasting effect on all of its characters, just as the poignancy of the story does upon its readers.
Interestingly, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is one of those you-never-know books; that is, Zimler provides in his preface a detailed account of the discovery and translation of three ancient manuscripts found in secret room in the basement of his house in the Jewish quarter of Istanbul. According to his introduction, it is these three manuscripts which make up the three books of the novel. Although the writing style seems modern, there are indeed arcane references and phrases that suggest either excellent research on the part of an author or part of the book being genuine. Quite possibly, Zimler made up the entire concept, including the story of the manuscripts’ discovery. But it is just possible that the book is loosely based on a real translation, and this possibility really serves to add a degree of excitement to the work. Certainly the characterization of 16th century Lisbon is as accurate as might be expected of a genuine memoir, for one can actually trace on a map of the city the route Berekiah takes while conducting his investigation, and enough of the city’s central district dates back to the Middle Ages for this route to be entirely plausible.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a novel, and most definitely not a history textbook, yet in some ways it is as enlightening as one. While one can’t be sure whether its source material is primary or secondary, its accuracy certainly stands up to close scrutiny. The massacre of 1506 is a historic event, and really was led and initiated – as described in the book – by two Dominican monks, specifically stemming from the lynching of a New Christian who raised doubts about what the Old Christians were declaring to be a miracle . The ghastly pyre in the Rossio (another real place, by the way, and one that still exists in Lisbon today) was the result. It is likely that the historic Jews of Lisbon, like Berekiah, found themselves desperately fighting for survival and questioning the intentions of all non-Jews. Indeed, on the whole, The Last Kabbalist is slanted against Old Christians, but this is realistic considering the situation the narrator finds himself in. The bias may serve to make Zimler’s history more subjective than might be desired, but it is also a realistic portrayal of what the thoughts and attitudes of Lisbon’s New Christians might have been like.
Another factual reference in the book is to King Manuel, who ordered the Jews converted in 1497, but gave them 20 years to change their beliefs and practices . Alas, to this promise he did not hold, and the royal household turned a blind eye to the awful persecution that sprung up against the Jews. When the riot started, Manuel was unable to regain control of the city for about a week, even with his army. When he did, his only acknowledgement of the horrors of the mob’s acts was to order 45 randomly selected rioters executed, and for the two evil monks who led the mob to be burnt. Following the riot there was a mass exodus of Jews from Portugal, although a large number remained. Indeed, Berekiah even urges his Jewish readers to abandon all hope of ever living peaceably in Europe; the message of the whole book is an emphatic: “Leave now, while you can!” In light of history, all this is excellent advice, considering that the fires of Inquisition spread from Spain to Portugal by 1532, when Manuel’s successor King Joao III instituted inquisition on the Spanish model . The persecution of the Jews spread further, too, especially to the Italian peninsula which had its own inquisitors soon. Persecution never truly ended for European Jewry, but Inquisition in its classic form only ended in the 18th century, nearly 400 years after it began in Spain! In Portugal alone, at least 1,000 Jews were actually burnt, while effigies of hundreds more were similarly ceremonially immolated. One can only wonder whether this validation of Berekiah’s warning was a display of mystical premonition on the part of a historic Berekiah Zarco, or proof that Zimler made his entire story up. Regardless, The Last Kabbalist is historically accurate in most regards.
One area where it is difficult to say how realistic the portrayals of Lisboners are is the depiction of New Christian culture, and of Kabbalah. Interestingly, the Jewish leaders and patriarchs retained their influence and respect even after the Jews’ forced conversion. The Kabbalists, although forced to practice the religious aspects of their craft in secret, continued to help their New Christian peers with medical and ethical advice. Indeed, it is clear from the book that Old Christian doctors were inept, while the healing skills of Berekiah show an obvious similarity to modern medicine. But how realistic is Zimler’s picture of the Kabbalistic practices themselves? It is difficult to say, for the minutiae of the “practical” aspects of this mysticism as described in The Last Kabbalist cannot be pinned down historically. In general, however, Uncle Abraham and Berekiah demonstrate that the essence of Kabbalah is the association with a personal God. That is, the Kabbalist seeks to develop a deep and fundamental connection with the divine figure he prays to, beyond what is accomplished as part of “ordinary” Judaic worship. Through an advancement of their association with the Upper Realm, Kabbalists are better able to understand the earthly mysteries of the Lower Realm . In these regards, Zimler seems to have hit his mark, for this is essentially what Kabbalah really is all about. Overall, The Last Kabbalist seems to capture quite realistically the spirit of 16th century Lisbon’s culture, including the mysticism of the New Christians.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is, in my opinion, a great book in all of its dimensions. As a novel, it is well-written and exciting, and the mystery and its resolution are extremely satisfying from a literary perspective. At the same time, however, Richard Zimler managed to make his book historically enlightening, full of authentic examples of the culture and history of its subjects! What is more, Zimler possesses the abilities as a writer to include depth and accuracy, including long descriptive passages that do not relate directly to the narrative, without sacrificing style or interest. The result is that The Last Kabbalist is not only a tale in a historical context, but a window into the events that make up the history themselves. This novel is distinctive in its subject matter, too; one could probably count on one hand the number of stories written about the Portuguese Inquisition and the events leading up to it. Zimler has delved into a somewhat obscure corner of history and found a story, and has taken this tale and enriched it with details of culture and tradition. In these respects, I think The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon deserves applaud, for, while it may never be a classic in the sense of Dickens or Shakespeare, it accomplishes nearly as much as greater works do, yet in a far more accessible manner.
Birnbaum, Eli. “The History of the Jewish People.” Online available <http://www.jewishhistory.org.il/>.
Gordon, Irving L. World History. New York: Amsco School Publications, Inc., 1996.
Inner Dimension. “A Gateway to the Wisdom of Kabbalah and Chassidut.” Online available < http://www.inner.org/ >.
Kamen, Henry. The Spanish Inquisition. The New American Library, 1965.
Peters, Edward. Inquisition. New York: The Free Press, 1988.
Roth, Cecil. The Spanish Inquisition. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1964.
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