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From Barnes & NobleThe 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 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.