Review

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

by Richard Zimler

In 1492 King
Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain expelled the Jews from their
country. Many fled east, becoming Sephardic Jews, while others
sought solace in Spain's Iberian neighbor, Portugal. The Spanish
monarchs demanded their Portuguese colleague follow their example
--- they even offered their daughter's hand in marriage as an
incentive. At the last moment, in 1497, King Manuel of Portugal
decided instead to close the borders to his Jewish subjects and to
inflict upon them a forced conversion to Christianity. Now known as
New Christians, to distinguish them from Old Christians, many
former Jews risked their lives to practice their religion in
secret. Nine years later, while suffering from the effects of
drought and plague, the Old Christian citizens of Lisbon,
Portugal's capital city, rampaged against their New Christian
neighbors and rounded them up for a bonfire to appease God's anger,
thrusting the city into chaos and turmoil. Against this backdrop,
young Berekiah Zarco (New Christian name: Pedro) seeks the murderer
of his Uncle Abraham, a master of the Jewish form of mysticism
called Kabbalah.

Sent outside the city on an errand for his Uncle Abraham, Berekiah
returns to Lisbon one Sunday in April of 1506 to find the city in
an uproar. All passersby are interrogated about their religious
affiliation; houses in the Jewish quarter are broken into and
ransacked; New Christians, young and old alike, are killed,
mutilated, and dragged to the bonfire. Returning from the peaceful
countryside, Berekiah hurries home to discover the fate of his
family --- his uncle, aunt, mother, and two younger siblings. Only
his uncle is at home, hidden in the secret cellar that serves as
prayer room and workspace for producing forbidden illustrated
Jewish manuscripts. Abraham is not alone, however; next to his dead
and naked body lies the unclothed body of an unknown young woman.
The cellar, whose existence is known to only a few people, is
locked from the inside (forcing Berekiah to break in), and the
small windows are too little to allow the passage of even a young
child.  

Distraught over the loss of his beloved uncle and religious
instructor, Berekiah soaks in the details of the crime scene, but
the riot outside has not stopped even in the face of this tragedy.
As his family members and friends slowly return (or their deaths
are reported), Berekiah braves the turmoil of the city to discover
the identity of his uncle's killer. Knowing that the cellar's
existence has been kept a secret to all but his uncle's secret
circle of prayer group, Berekiah suspects a Jew, a close friend,
has betrayed them.

Although it is primarily a mystery --- and a well-conceived,
tightly woven one at that --- THE LAST KABBALIST OF LISBON is also
a book about faith. How can anyone retain a belief in God in the
face of such mutilation? As the apprentice to a Kabbalist master,
Berekiah learns the most sacred lessons of the Torah, the holy
book. A religious youth given to religious visions, he welcomes the
chance to serve God, but his uncle's death and the simultaneous
bloodshed outside the cellar walls test his faith beyond what he
had dreamed possible. The carnage gives birth to a new world, a
secular one devoid of faith, in which Berekiah must find his way
without the aid and wisdom of his Kabbalah master.

Kabbalah has recently won many new converts, particularly in the
United States, where masters have instructed even members of the
Hollywood elite. An American living in Portugal, Richard Zimler has
provided an introduction to the history of Kabbalah and written an
engaging mystery. When this book first came out in Portugal, it
became the number-one bestseller. Even those without a tie to
either Portugal or Kabbalah teachings should take a look at this
captivating first novel.

Reviewed by Katrin Sjursen on January 22, 2011

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
by Richard Zimler

  • Publication Date: March 15, 2000
  • Genres: Fiction, General Fiction
  • Paperback: 318 pages
  • Publisher: Overlook TP
  • ISBN-10: 1585670227
  • ISBN-13: 9781585670222