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The Last Jew

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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 perish even before they can escape from Spain.

Yonah Toledano, the 15-year-old son of a celebrated Spanish ...

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The Last Jew

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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

From Barnes & Noble
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.

Barnes & Noble Guide to New Fiction
This "moving" historical novel details the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century, "a period in history that has never really been explored." "A great evocation of time and place." A few readers found it a bit academic -- "difficult and rambling."
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Set in Spain under the Inquisition, this latest big historical novel from Gordon (Shaman; The Rabbi) follows the adventures of young Yonah Helkias as he stays true to his Jewish faith, escapes from misadventures and finds love. In Toledo, in 1489, a precious reliquary of a Christian saint, crafted by Yonah's silversmith father, disappears; Yonah's older brother, who was delivering the relic, is found dead; and compassionate physician Bernardo Espina begins to investigate the theft and murder. Meanwhile, the Inquisition starts to target Jews, including conversos like Espina (Jews by birth who have entered the Catholic church). The bulk of the novel takes place three years later, when the deadline for all Jews to leave Spain has arrived. Yonah, aged 13, joins thousands of his co-religionists headed for Spanish borders and ports, but instead of departing, Yonah remains behind. After witnessing Espina's death in an auto-da-f , Yonah leads a fugitive existence as a farmer, a shepherd, a cathedral laborer, a pot repairer, a seaman and, finally, as an apprentice armorer under the demanding master Manuel Fierro. Delivering armor, he returns to Toledo, where he bargains with his family's persecutors to escape a dangerous rendezvous with relic smugglers. Then Yonah's master is fatally double-crossed; after avenging him, Yonah heads to Saragossa, where Fierro's brother trains him to become--like the heroes of Gordon's The Physician and Shaman--a doctor. Yonah changes his name to Ramon Callico, marries a woman who knows his secret, but never gives up his desire to restore Espina's honor to his son, the stolen relic to the Church or his own soul to Judaism. Gordon has earned an international audience for his impressively documented historical narratives, his compassion for the trials of migr s and his intricate descriptions of Renaissance crafts. Through a crowded landscape of characters and incidents, he illuminates the choices history forces on individuals--and, not incidentally, creates a grand, informative adventure and a completely engaging, unsentimental portrait of a turbulent time. (Aug.) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
KLIATT
The Spanish Inquisition went after converted Jews as well as Jews, and the Church would not tolerate anything but complete obedience to its edicts. Those who could leave Spain did so quickly. But Yonah, the 15-year-old son of a famous Toledo silversmith, finds himself caught in Spain as most of his Jewish family flees or is killed. He survives using his wits and his physical strength, taking various names and traveling the waterways as well as the roads. He becomes a shepherd, a silversmith and eventually a physician. He meets many terrible people but also some good ones. He also commits murder to save himself. Yet wherever he goes and whatever he does he retains his Jewish faith and longs to be able to practice his religion again. Gordon did quite a bit of research to provide realistic details for this historical fiction. It is very readable and would be an excellent additional resource for studies of Spain in the late 1490s and early 1500s. KLIATT Codes: SA—Recommended for senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 2000, St. Martin's, Griffin, Thomas Dunne Books, 348p., Holab-Abelman
Library Journal
The impact of the Inquisition and the Catholic Church on the lives of Spanish Jews in the late 15th and early 16th centuries is the subject of this latest novel from Gordon (Matters of Choice). Young Yonah ben Helikes, son of a Toledo silversmith, watches in horror as hundreds of thousands of Jews are given the options of converting to Christianity, leaving Spain, or facing the murderous violence of a population inspired to hatred by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. After his father and younger brother is killed, Yonah wanders through Spain, eluding agents of the Inquisition while trying to keep his Jewish faith intact. He puts his silversmith talents to good use by working at an armory and later gains the knowledge and skill of a physician. As Yonah matures, falls in love, and marries, he gradually puts together the missing pieces of his life and confronts the deaths of his relatives. Gordon is a natural storyteller, and, given the novel's fascinating setting and a more-than-likable hero, this superior historical novel should have a place in all libraries.-Nancy Pearl, Washington Ctr. For the Book, Seattle
School Library Journal
YA-During the Spanish Inquisition, a Jew had only two choices: flee the country or convert to Catholicism. The Toledano family decides to flee, but before they can leave, their home is burned by a mob, and only 16-year-old Yonah is left in Toledo. Persuaded that his father's death and that of his older brother three years earlier were caused by the same man, the teen flees on the family's burro and begins the life of a wanderer, a fugitive who changes his name and pretends to be converted. He works as a shepherd in the hills, as a deckhand on ships trading along the Spanish coast, and finally as an apprentice to a physician in Saragossa. After the death of his mentor, Yonah takes over the practice and becomes well-known and respected. On a trip north, he stumbles on a remote and beautiful valley settled by conversos like himself. There he falls in love with a young widow and the two return to Saragossa and make a life together, ostensibly Christians, but secretly Jews. Finally confronting the cleric responsible for the murder of his father and brother, the wandering Jew finds peace at last. This exciting tale of 16th-century Spain has a mystery involving a stolen reliquary, a sinister Inquisitor, and a host of colorful characters. Most of all, though, it is the story of a resourceful and courageous young man determined to remain faithful to his religion.-Molly Connally, Kings Park Library, Fairfax County, VA Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Having completed the Cole family trilogy (Matters of Choice, 1996, etc.), Gordon returns to the more familiar territory of Jewish history for his latest period novel. The author plows relatively untouched ground here. His tale concerns the Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from their homelands on Iberian Peninsula in 1492 but have received short shrift ever since from history and literature, both of which have been dominated by the Ashkenazi Jews of Germany and Eastern Europe. Yiddish has more literary cachet than Ladino (the Sephardim's Judeo-Spanish language), and the sufferings of Jews at the hands of the Inquisition have received less attention than the pogroms in 19th-century Russia. So it's a welcome change to find a Jewish historical novel focused on the wanderings and bitter internal exile of a man separated from his family at the Expulsion and left behind in a now Jew-free Spain. The story of Yonah Toledano, the title character, begins with a mystery: who killed Yonah's older brother and stole the reliquary their father had crafted for the local priory? It soon becomes clear, however, that this will not be a Jewish version of Name of the Rose. Rather, Gordon is making a game but stolid effort to re-create the Spanish picaresque, substituting the Inquisition and anti-Jewish violence for the more mundane obstacles traditionally faced by the genre's peripatetic heroes. As is the norm for historical fiction of this sort, the hero is impossibly noble, and love is repeatedly thwarted but ultimately triumphs. Regrettably, the novel is utterly devoid of humor, and its plodding, dull, pseudo-archaic prose paralyzes the action. Rather than a bawdy romp in the picaresque style, this isathrowback to epic potboilers like Anthony Adverse and the other bestsellers of the 1930s: well-intentioned and too well-mannered. A sugar-coated history lesson for the cabana at the beach.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312265045
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 8/1/1900
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.58 (w) x 9.58 (h) x 1.25 (d)

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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Reading Group Guide

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-who have been an important part of Spanish life since the days of the Romans-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 retain 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, almost unnoticed in a time of mass upheaval. Trapped in Spain by circumstances, he is determined to honor the memory of his family by remaining a Jew. On a donkey named Moise, the young fugitive begins a meandering odyssey across the vastness of Spain. The novel treats Yonah's evolution into an adult with the outer persona of an Old Christian physician and the rich but dwindling inner life of a Jew. Anchoring the narrative is the moving love story of his relationship with a Converso woman who finds her secret way back to the religion of her ancestors.


Discussion Questions

1. Yonah Toledano and the other Jews in Spain hart terrible choices in 1492 conversion, expulsion, or death. Faced with the same choices today, which would you choose? Why?

2. What were the qualities that enabled Yonah to survive? In your opinion, could a teen-ager survive in a similar situation today?

3. Discuss how Yonah's isolation limited his sense of Jewishness. Did it also strengthen his Jewishness in any way?

4. Helkias Toledano's family had a special relationship with thefamily of Benito Martin. What are some positive aspects of Spanish society that are revealed by their relationship? What negative aspects are revealed?

5. Discuss Yonah's sexuality. Consider how his sexual experiences were shaped by his secret existence. What effect do you believe this had on his personality and his life?

6. Consider the novel's title. Perhaps in 1492 there were other unconverted persons who, for one reason or another, failed to depart when the Jews left Spain. Yonah knew there were Jews in other lands. Why did he feel as though he were the last Jew in the world?

7. Consider the character of the physician Bernardo Espina, and discuss how the author used this characterization to impart information about the era, medieval medicine, and the Inquisition. What does Espina's marriage reveal about the society? Discuss his religious feelings, and his attitude toward both Catholicism and Judaism.

9. Examine the clandestine Jewish religious service in which Yonah took part while a guest in the Saadi home in Granada. Then consider the religious services which he experienced years later with the same group of conversos in the hidden valley of Pradogrande. Discuss the reasons for the differences.

10. Consider Nuno Fiero, physician of Saragossa. What prompted his interest in Yonah? Why was he inclined to look favorably upon Jews? In addition to medical science, what are some of the other lessons that he taught Yonah?

11. In Judaism, Jews may pray when alone, but the presence of ten persons (ten men in Orthodoxy) is required before a formal religious service may begin. In your opinion is there a connection between this requirement and the fact that the children and descendents of most of the "secret Jews" ended up as Catholics? Can you think of other reasons why Judaism could not survive in subsequent generations?

12. The period described in The Last Jew was a violent and often barbarous time. Do you believe civilization has advanced since 1492? In what ways? Do you believe we have regressed? In what ways?

13. Do you think a religious inquisition could take place in America? Give reasons.

 

About the Author

Noah Gordon, a former newspaperman, has written prize-winning novels that have been widely read in many countries. He is the author of seven books: The Rabbi, The Death Committee, The Jerusalem Diamond, The Physician, Shaman, Matters of Choice, and The Last Jew. He lives with his wife, Lorraine, in Brookline, Massachusetts, a few miles from the grandchildren to whom The Last Jew is dedicated.

Gordon decided to write The Last Jew in 1992. "That year I made two trips to Spain, once to do a book tour and once to accept a prize in San Sebastian. During both trips I noted that Spain was observing two important anniversaries. It was exactly 500 years since Columbus made his first voyage to the New World. And exactly 500 years too, since the Jews were expelled from Spain. I knew of several American writers doing books about Columbus, but I knew of no one doing a novel about the period of the expulsion, and a little fight went off in my head. I was then in the middle of another novel, and it wasn't until 1995 that I was able to begin work on The Last Jew."

"I had the thoroughly enjoyable experience of making several research trips to Spain, visiting the places and countryside I ryas to write about, and in my imagination seeing and hearing the Jews who vanished from there so long ago. In the process I fell in love with modern Spain, a vibrant democratic monarchy where even now new sites are being uncovered that attest to the Jewish life that once existed there."

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2007

    Absolutely fabulous read.

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 29, 2004

    One the best books I've ever read... and I read a lot!

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 6, 2011

    recommended

    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.

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  • Posted December 25, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Noah's stories

    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.

    0 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 20, 2003

    a fast read

    My recent escorted tour of Southern Spain mirrored the places mentioned in this book. A must read!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2000

    I was intrigued

    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.

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