The Last Jew

The Last Jew

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by Noah Gordon
     
 

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In the year 1492, the Inquisition has all of Spain in its grip. After centuries of pogrom-like riots encouraged by the Church, the Jews are expelled from the country by royal edict. Many who wish to remain are intimidated by Church and Crown and become Catholics, but several hundred thousand choose to honor their religion and depart; given little time to flee, some…  See more details below

Overview

In the year 1492, the Inquisition has all of Spain in its grip. After centuries of pogrom-like riots encouraged by the Church, the Jews are expelled from the country by royal edict. Many who wish to remain are intimidated by Church and Crown and become Catholics, but several hundred thousand choose to honor their religion and depart; given little time to flee, some perish even before they can escape from Spain.

Yonah Toledano, the 15-year-old son of a celebrated Spanish silversmith, has seen his father and brother die during these terrible days. Trapped in Spain by circumstances, he is determined to revere the memory of his family by remaining a Jew.

Yonah begins a meandering journey, a young fugitive zigzagging across the vastness of Spain. Toiling at manual labor, he desperately tries to cling to his memories of a vanished culture. As a lonely shepherd he hurls snatches of almost forgotten Hebrew at the stars; as an apprentice armorer he learns to fight like a Christian knight. Finally, in a time and land where danger from the Inquisition is everywhere, he deals with the questions that mark his past. How he discovers the answers, how he finds his way to a singular and strong Marrano woman, how he achieves a life with the outer persona of a respected Old Christian physician and the inner life of a secret Jew, is the fabric of this novel. The Last Jew is a glimpse of the past, an authentic tale of high adventure, and a tender and unforgettable love story. In it, Noah Gordon utilizes his greatest strengths, and the result is remarkable and moving.

Author Biography: Noah Gordon has had outstanding international success, selling in Germany alone more than eight million copies of his recent trilogy (The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice). The Society of American Historians awarded him the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Shaman as the best historical novel of 1991/1992. He was also voted "Novelist of the Year" by the readers of the Bertelsmann Book Club, and twice, in 1992 and 1995, he won the Silver Basque Prize for Spain's bestselling book. An earlier book, The Rabbi, was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 weeks. Noah Gordon lives with his wife in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Editorial Reviews

bn.com
The Wandering Jew

In Noah Gordon's new novel, a man stripped of his family and religion hits the road.

Wandering has always been a major element in Noah Gordon's work. His characters are almost invariably men or women whom circumstances have made itinerant. In many of his books, these circumstances are political, as in his 1993 novel, Shaman, which follows the wanderings of a Scottish doctor who migrates to the American West rather than face banishment to Australia for his political activities. Gordon's narratives often roughly parallel a very basic biblical plot—his characters begin with some sort of fall from grace—the loss of a good job, the departure from a homeland—and over the course of the novel set to the work of reclaiming their disrupted lives. In Gordon's new novel, The Last Jew, this thematic structure is writ large, and the currents underlying his previous novels here are pumped to the surface.

One of the ways that Gordon has explored this theme of alienation and itinerancy in past novels is by writing about Jews. In The Jerusalem Diamond (1994), Harry Hopeman, an American Jew, travels to Israel to search for a world-famous diamond. It is a twist on the Jew-as-outsider theme, because as a Jew from the Diaspora, Harry feels like a foreigner among other Jews who are Israeli, but the sense of wandering and the hope of redemption—Gordon's, and Judaism's, great theme—are still present. In The Last Jew, Gordon takes this thematic material head on. The title character, Yonah Toledano, is the last nonconverted Jew left in his village, and perhaps in all of Spain, following a murderous purge. The year is 1489, during the Inquisition. Yonah provides Gordon with a chance to deal directly with the issue of Jewishness, an idea that has haunted his earlier novels but, with the exception of The Rabbi (1991), has not always been so explicit. Yonah's unbending Jewishness, and thus his fugitive status, provides a framework for the kind of self-exploration and self-questioning that make for a rich and vivid novel.

As the story begins, a silver and gold ciborium, meant to hold a sacred relic, has been stolen and its delivery boy murdered. The boy is Meir Toledano, Yonah's brother. Their father, Helkias, who crafted the beautiful reliquary, is the most renowned silversmith in Toledo and one of the best in the whole state of Castille. Shortly after Meir's murder, the word comes down from the Queen that all Jews are to be expelled from Spain, and that any who remain and refuse to convert to Catholicism will be killed. The Jews of Castille hurriedly sell off their possessions and make for the coast, where they hope to find passage to a safer land. When Helkias and Yonah tarry—waiting to collect on a bill for some exquisite silver and gold artifacts that Helkias has made for Count Fernán Vasca of Tembleque, who is infamous for not paying his artisans—the local representative of the Inquisition, whose zealousness borders on madness, becomes enraged. Convinced that Helkias's reliquary was designed to work evil magic against Christians, he whips a crowd of Christians who have gathered in the town's plaza into a bloodthirsty posse. They storm the Toledano household, kill Helkias, and torch the place. Yonah manages to escape, and when the dust has settled he learns of his father's fate from a sympathetic Christian neighbor. Although this Good Samaritan offers to convert Yonah to Catholicism and adopt him as his own son, Yonah is determined that "I must remain [my] father's Jewish child though it be my ruin." Slipping away in the middle of the night, he equips himself with a burro whom he names Moise and begins wandering the country under the assumed identity of Tomàs Martín, and later Ramón Callicó.

Yonah has some vague ideas about exacting revenge on his father's and brother's murderers, but it is enough of a challenge for him to simply stay alive, and so his departure from Toledo is the beginning of a long, dramatic sojourn throughout Inquisition-torn Spain that has no real considered destination. Along the way, he works as a farm laborer, a jailhouse janitor (in a jail where many Jews are held), a sheep herder, a sailor, an armorer's apprentice, a physician's apprentice, and finally, a physician. (In addition to its other strengths, Gordon's novel is a fascinating account of employment opportunities in 15th-century Spain.)

Gordon handles the context of Yonah's travels with intelligence, historical insight, and grace. He understands that a historical novel must provide the reader with a delicate balance of fact and fiction. On the one hand, we are interested to learn that Gibraltar is a corruption of Jebel Tariq, Arabic for Tariq's Rock, Tariq having been a Moorish commander who built the first fort at the site. On the other hand, too much information of this sort, no matter how smoothly it is woven into the story, can become tiresome. Here, as in his previous novels, Gordon manages to navigate this difficult terrain with agility. Yonah's quest, of both the body and the spirit, always remains at the forefront. "His true religion now was to be a Jew of simple survival," Gordon writes as Yonah prepares to flee Granada after being tipped off by a royal jester about a coming auto-da-fé. "He had dedicated himself to continued existence as a group of one, standing apart and alone." Yonah's faith, hidden and often unobserved, serves to illuminate this lonely novel with a modest yet glorious light, just as a Shabbos candle burns brilliantly when electric light is forbidden.

Jacob Silverstein

Jacob Silverstein lives in Marfa, Texas.


About the Author

Noah Gordon has had outstanding international success, selling in Germany alone more than eight million copies of his recent trilogy (The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice). The Society of American Historians awarded him the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Shaman as the best historical novel of 1991/1992. He was also voted Novelist of the Year by the readers of the Bertelsmann Book Club, and twice, in 1992 and 1995, he won the Silver Basque Prize for Spain's bestselling book. An earlier book, The Rabbi, was on the New York Times bestseller list for 26 weeks. Noah Gordon lives with his wife in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780312265045
Publisher:
St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
08/01/1900
Edition description:
First Edition
Pages:
352
Product dimensions:
6.58(w) x 9.58(h) x 1.25(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Last Jew


By Noah Gordon

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2000 Lise Gordon, Jamie Beth Gordon, and Michael Seay
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-6673-7



CHAPTER 1

THE SILVERSMITH'S SON


The bad time began for Bernardo Espina on a day when the air hung heavy as iron and the arrogant sunshine was a curse. That morning his crowded dispensary had been almost emptied when a pregnant woman's water burst, and he banished from the room the two patients who remained. The woman was not even a patient but a daughter who had brought her old father to see the physician about a cough that wouldn't go away. The babe was her fifth and emerged into the world without delay. Espina caught the slick, rose-colored boy child in his hands, and when he patted the tiny nates the thin yowling of the lusty little peón brought cheers and laughter from those who waited outside.

The delivery lifted Espina's spirits, a false promise of a fortunate day. He wasn't committed for the afternoon, and he was thinking he would pack a basket with sweetmeats and a bottle of tinto and go with his family to the river, where the children could splash while he and Estrella sat in the shade of a tree and sipped and nibbled and talked quietly.

He was finishing with his last patient when a man wearing the brown robe of a novice bobbed into the courtyard on a donkey that had been ridden too hard in a day of such heat.

Full of contained excitement and importance, the man stammered that the señor physician's presence was requested at the Priory of the Assumption by Padre Sebastián Alvarez.

"The prior wishes you to come promptly."

The physician could tell the man knew he was a converso. The demeanor contained the deference due his profession, yet there was insolence in the tone, almost but not quite how the man would have addressed any Jew.

Espina nodded. He made certain the donkey would be given small amounts of water, and the man, food and drink. He himself took a cautionary piss, bathed his face and hands, swallowed a piece of bread. The novice was still eating when Espina rode out to answer the summons.


* * *

It had been eleven years since his conversion. Since that time he had been fervent in his chosen faith, a man who observed every saint's day, attended Mass with his wife daily, and was ever eager to serve his Church. Now he traveled without delay to answer the priest's demand, but at a pace that would protect his animal under the copper sun.

He arrived at the Hieronymite priory in time to hear the molten sound of bells calling the faithful to the Angelus of the Incarnation, and to see four sweaty lay brothers bearing the basket of hard bread and the cauldron of sopa boba, the thin friar's broth that would add little flesh this day to the bones of the hungry paupers gathered at the priory gate.

He found Padre Sebastián pacing the cloister, deep in conversation with Fray Julio Pérez, the sacristan of the chapel. The gravity in their faces reached out to Espina.

Stunned was the word that flickered into the physician's mind as the prior sent the sacristan away and greeted Bernardo Espina somberly in Christ's name.

"The body of a dead youth has been found among our olive trees. The youth was slain," the priest said. He was a middle-aged priest with a chronically anxious look, as if he worried that God wasn't satisfied with his work. He had always been decent in his relationship to conversos.

Espina nodded slowly, but his mind already was heeding a warning signal. It was a violent world. With unfortunate frequency someone was found dead, but after life has fled there is no reason to call a physician.

"Come."

The padre prior led the way into a friar's cell where the body was laid out. Already the heat had brought flies and the sweetish stench of human mortality. He tried breathing shallowly against the odor, but it did no good. Under the blanket that offered a final modesty the husky young corpus wore only a shirt. With a pang Bernardo Espina recognized the face and crossed himself, not knowing whether the reflex was for the slain Jewish boy or for himself or due to the presence of this cleric.

"We would learn about this death." The priest looked at him. "Everything. As much as it is possible to know," Padre Sebastián said, and Bernardo nodded, still mystified.

Some things both of them were privy to from the start. "He is Meir, son of Helkias Toledano," Bernardo said, and the priest nodded. The murdered boy's father was one of the leading silversmiths in all of Castille.

"This boy had scarce fifteen years, if my memory is correct," Espina said. "At any rate, his life barely went beyond boyhood. This is the way he was found?"

"Yes. By Fray Angelo, picking olives in the early coolness after Matins."

"May I examine him, Padre Prior?" Espina asked, and the prior waved his hand impatiently.

The boy's face was unmarked and innocent. There were livid bruises on his arms and chest, a mottling on the thigh muscles, three superficial stabs on his back, and a cut in his left side, over the third rib. The anus was torn and there was semen between his buttocks. And bright beads of blood across a slit throat.

Bernardo knew his family, devout and stubborn Jews who loathed those, such as he, who had volunteered to abandon the religion of their fathers.

After the examination, Padre Sebastián bade the physician to follow him into the sacellum, where they dropped to their knees on the hard flagstones before the altar and recited the Paternoster. From a cabinet behind the altar Padre Sebastián lifted out a small sandalwood box. Opening it, he removed a square of scarlet silk, heavily perfumed. When he unfolded the silk, Bernardo Espina saw a dry and bleached fragment, less than half a span in length.

"Do you know what this is?"

The priest seemed to surrender the object with reluctance. Espina drew close to the dancing light of the votive candles and studied it. "A piece of a human bone, Padre Prior."

"Yes, my son."

Bernardo was on a narrow and tenuous bridge, teetering over the treacherous abyss of knowledge gained in long secret hours at the dissection table. Dissection was forbidden by the Church as sin, but Espina had still been a Jew when he apprenticed to Samuel Provo, a Jewish physician of renown who was a secret dissecter. Now he looked directly into the prior's eyes. "A fragment of a femur, the largest bone of the body. This, from close to the knee."

He studied the raddled bone, taking note of its mass, the angulation, the landmarks and the fossae. "It is from the right leg of a woman."

"You can tell all this simply by looking?"

"Yes."

The candlelight turned the prior's eyes yellow. "It is the most sacred of links to the Savior."

A relic.

Bernardo Espina regarded the bone with interest. He had never expected to stand so close to a sacred relic. "Is it the bone of a martyr?"

"It is the bone of Santa Ana," the prior said quietly.

It took a moment for Espina to comprehend. The mother of La Virgen María? Surely not, he thought, and was horrified to realize he had stupidly spoken aloud.

"Oh, it is, my son. Certified so by those who deal with such things in Rome and sent to us by His Eminence Rodrigo Cardinal Lancol."

Espina's hand holding the object trembled in a way strange to one who had been a good surgeon for years. He returned the bone to the priest carefully, then he sank to his knees again. Blessing himself quickly, he joined Padre Prior Sebastián in renewed prayer.


* * *

Afterward, outside again in the hot light, Espina noted that armed men who didn't appear to be friars were on the grounds of the priory.

"You didn't see the boy last night while yet he was alive, Padre Prior?"

"I didn't see him," Padre Sebastián said, and told him, finally, why he had been summoned.

"This priory commissioned the silversmith Helkias to fashion a reliquary of chased silver and gold. It was to be a remarkable reliquary in the shape of a ciborium, to house our sacred relic during the years it will take us to finance and build a suitable shrine in Santa Ana's honor.

"The artisan's drawings were magnificent, showing every promise that the finished work would be worthy of its task.

"The boy was to have delivered the reliquary last night. When his body was found, near it there was an empty leather bag.

"Possibly those who killed the boy are Jews or perhaps they are Christians. You are a physician with entry in many places and many lives, a Christian yet also a Jew. I wish you to discover their identity."

Bernardo Espina struggled with resentment at the insensitive ignorance of this cleric, to think that a converso was welcome everywhere. "I am perhaps the last person you should entrust with such a charge, Reverend Padre."

"Nevertheless." The priest gazed at him stubbornly, and with the implacable bitterness of one who has given up earthly comfort to wager everything on the world to come. "You are to find these thieving murderers, my son. You must point out our devils that we may gird ourselves against them. You must do God's work."

CHAPTER 2

THE GIFT FROM GOD


Padre Sebastián knew Fray Julio Peréz was a man of unimpeachable faith, someone who doubtless would be elected to lead the Priory of the Assumption should he himself have to leave it through death or opportunity. Yet the sacristan of the chapel was flawed by an innocence that was too trusting. Padre Sebastián found it disquieting that of the six men-at-arms Fray Julio had hired to walk the perimeter of the priory, only three of the hard-eyed guards were known personally by either Fray Julio or himself.

The priest was achingly aware that the priory's future, to say nothing of his own, rested in the small wooden box hidden in the chapel. The presence of the relic filled him with gratitude and renewed wonder, yet it increased his anxiety, for having it in his charge was both high honor and terrible responsibility.

As a boy of scarce twelve years in Valencia, Sebastián Alvarez had seen something in the polished surface of a black ceramic ewer. The vision — because this is what he knew it to be — came to him in the mid of the frightening night, when he awoke in the sleeping chamber he shared with his brothers, Augustin and Juan Antonio. Staring at the black ceramic in the moonlit room, he saw our own Lord Jesus on the rood. Both the Lord's figure and the cross were amorphous and without detail. After seeing the vision he drifted back into a warm and pleasant sleep; when he awoke in the morning, the vision was gone, but the memory of it remained clear and perfect in his mind.

He never revealed to anyone that he had been chosen by God to receive a vision. His older brothers would have jeered and told him he had seen the hunter's moon reflected in the ewer. His father, a baron who felt that his lineage and lands gave him license to be a sodden brute, would have beaten him for being a fool, and his mother was a chastened figure who lived in fear of her husband and seldom talked to her children.

But ever after the night of the vision Sebastián's role in life was clear to him, and he had demonstrated a piety that made it easy for his family to shunt him into the service of the Church.

After ordination he had been content to serve humbly in several undistinguished roles. It was in the sixth year following ordination that he was helped by the growing prominence of his brother Juan Antonio. Their brother Augustin had inherited the title and the land in Valencia, but Juan Antonio had made an excellent marriage in Toledo, and his wife's family, the powerful Borgias, had arranged for Sebastián to be assigned to the Toledo See.

Sebastián was named chaplain to a new Hieronymite priory and assistant to its prior, Padre Jerónimo Degas. The Priory of the Assumption was exceedingly poor. It had no land of its own save for the tiny piece on which the priory stood, but it rented an olive grove, and as an act of charity Juan Antonio allowed the friars to plant grapes in the corners and on the thin edges of his land. The priory attracted little money in donations from Juan Antonio or anyone else, and it called no wealthy novices into lives of holy service.

Still, after Padre Jerónimo Degas died, Sebastián Alvarez had succumbed to the sin of pride when the friars had elected him prior, although he suspected the honor came because he was Juan Antonio's brother.

The first five years of directing the priory had diminished him, sapping his spirit. Yet, despite the grinding pettiness, the priest dared to dream. The giant Cistercian order had been started by a handful of zealous men, fewer and poorer than his own friars. Whenever a community had sixty white-robed Cistercian monks, twelve of them were sent out to start a new monastery, and thus they had spread throughout Europe for Jesus. Padre Sebastián told himself that his modest priory could do the same if only God would show the route.


* * *

In the year of the Lord 1488 Padre Sebastián was excited — and the religious community of Castille was invigorated — by a visitor from Rome. Rodrigo Cardinal Lancol had Spanish roots, having been born Rodrigo Borgia near Seville. As a youth he had been adopted by his uncle, Pope Calixtus III, and he had grown to be a man to fear, a man of tremendous churchly power.

The Alvarez family had long ago proven itself friends and allies of the Borgias, and the close ties between the families had been strengthened by the marriage of Elienor Borgia to Juan Antonio. Already, because of the Borgia connection, Juan Antonio had become a popular figure at court functions and was said to be a favorite of the queen.

Elienor was first cousin to Cardinal Lancol.

"A relic," Sebastián had said to Elienor.

He hated to plead to his sister-in-law, whom he could not abide for her vanity, insincerity, and spitefulness when irked. "A relic of a martyr, perhaps of a minor saint. If His Eminence could help the prior obtain such a relic, it would be the making of us. I am certain he will come to our aid if you but ask it of him."

"Oh, I could not," Elienor protested.

Nevertheless, Sebastián became more abject and more insistent as the time of Lancol's visit approached, and she softened. Finally, to rid herself of a nuisance and for the sake of her husband only, she promised Juan Antonio's brother she would do whatever was humanly possible to benefit his cause. It was known that the cardinal would be entertained in Cuenca, at the estate of her father's brother, Garci Borgia Junez.

"I shall talk to Uncle and ask that he do it," she promised Sebastián.


* * *

Before Cardinal Lancol departed from Spain, in the cathedral of Toledo he officiated at a Mass attended by every friar, priest, and prelate in the region. After the service Lancol stood surrounded by well-wishers, the cardinal's miter on his head, his great shepherd's crook of a crosier in his hand, and about his neck the pallium given him by the pope. Sebastián saw him from afar, as if experiencing another vision. He made no attempt to approach Lancol. Elienor had reported that Garci Borgia Junez had indeed made the request. Uncle had pointed out that knights and soldiers from every country in Europe had passed through Spain after each of the great Crusades. Before they returned home they had stripped the country of its holy relics, digging up the bones of martyr and saint, and pillaging relics almost at will from any church or cathedral along their route. Uncle had told Lancol ever so gently that if he could but send a relic to the Spanish priest who was their relative by marriage, it would earn the cardinal the adulation of all of Castille.

Sebastián knew that now the matter would be decided by God and by his appointed servants in Rome.


* * *

The days passed slowly for him. At first he dared to imagine receiving a relic that would have the power to answer Christian prayer and the tender mercy to heal the afflicted. Such a relic would draw worshipers and donations from afar. The small priory would become a great and thriving monastery, and the prior would become ...

As the days turned to weeks and months, he forced himself to put the dream aside. He had almost given up all hope when he was summoned to the offices of the Toledo See. The pouch from Rome, which was sent to Toledo twice a year, had just arrived. Among other things it contained a sealed message for Padre Sebastián Alvarez of the Priory of the Assumption.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from The Last Jew by Noah Gordon. Copyright © 2000 Lise Gordon, Jamie Beth Gordon, and Michael Seay. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Noah Gordon has had outstanding international success, selling in Germany alone more than eight million copies of his recent trilogy (The Physician, Shaman, and Matters of Choice). The Society of American Historians awarded him the James Fenimore Cooper Prize for Shaman as the best historical novel of 1991/1992. He was also voted "Novelist of the Year" by the readers of the Bertelsmann Book Club, and twice, in 1992 and 1995, he won the Silver Basque Prize for Spain's bestselling book. An earlier book, The Rabbi, was on the New York Times Bestseller list for 26 weeks. Noah Gordon lives with his wife in Brookline, Massachusetts.

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Last Jew 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Excellent historical fiction incorporating the Jewish pogrom in Spain during Ferdinand and Isabella's days in the late 15th and early 16th century. Toledano's (Ramon's) struggles to hide his Jewish roots, and to avoid the dreaded Inquisition made for exciting reading. This book really personalizes the misery that mankind has forced upon others of his kind, and really makes you take a second look at the monarchs that primary school history courses made us believe were so progressive and beneficent.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book has it all, the story is so captivating that you will struggle to put it down. The story is so simple, yet so rich you will enjoy it and hate it when it's over!
lovetoreadMD More than 1 year ago
Love Gordon's writing style. True craftsman!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
My recent escorted tour of Southern Spain mirrored the places mentioned in this book. A must read!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Just returning from a trip to Spain, I was totally taken with this novel that was an eye opener as to what these people went through. In our dreams we cannot imagine their life. If you are interested in the 1492 period...go for it.
Grendel More than 1 year ago
Perhaps too many unlikely "saves" for this hero, but the novel gives a very good idea of what life was like for "conversos" during the reigns of Ferdinand and Isabella at the time of the Inquisition. Interesting as well is the medical knowledge and procedures available in the 15th century which seemed to have to be rediscovered in our own time--like cararact surgery! A smooth and informative read...not intense at all.
i-heart-BOOKS More than 1 year ago
Noah, the author of this book, lives right here where i live and I know his daughter. I should try reading one of his books because i feel ashamed that all you people read it and I, a person who knows him, haven't read it. I will definitely get one of his books for christmas.