The New York Times
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbonby Richard Zimler
Just a few years earlier, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptismal font and forced to convert to Christianity. Many of these New Christians persevered in their
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, an international bestseller, is an extraordinary novel that transports listeners into the universe of Jewish Kabbalah during the Lisbon massacre of April 1506.
Just a few years earlier, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptismal font and forced to convert to Christianity. Many of these New Christians persevered in their Jewish prayers and rituals in secret and at great risk; the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well. One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist and manuscript illuminator, discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue along with a young girl in dishabille. Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbalists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes by turns light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks. A marvelous story, a challenging mystery, and a telling tale of the evils of intolerance, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon both compels and entertains.
The New York Times
Berekiah Zarco, a young manuscript illuminator and fruitseller (whose manuscript is discovered centuries later, by this novel's supposed editor), tells the story of his search for the killer of his beloved Uncle Abraham, a 'kabbalah master' whose naked body was discovered beside that of an (initially) unknown young woman. Evidence that the two had had sex just before their deaths proves open to multiple interpretation, as do other adventures that befall Berekiah as he seeks to apply the interpretive skills taught by the Jewish mystics to the bewildering pattern of collusions and conflicts that his 'investigations' disclose. Zimler's plot wheezes and strains more than a little (there are far too many essentially similar coincidences and hairsbreadth escapes), but Berekiah's hard-won wisdom is credibly linked to his memories of his Uncle's exemplary stories, and effectively concealed in enigmatic proverbial nuggets (e.g., 'The map of a town is in a blind beggar's feet').
The novel exhibits a curious predilection for revoltingly detailed descriptions of tortureand murder, but there's no gainsaying its authoritative recreation of an imperilled culture in a savage time and place, or the force of the prophecy that Berekiah finally infers from the mystery of the death his Uncle doubtless expected, and may have courted. A bit attenuated, but, on balance, one of the more unusual and interesting first novels of recent vintage.
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The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
THE OVERLOOK PRESS
NEW YORK, NY
This edition first published in the United States in 2000 by
The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc.
141 Wooster Street
New York, NY 10012
Copyright © 1998 Richard Zimler
All Rights Reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or
transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including
photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system now
known or to be invented without permission in writing from the publisher,
except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with
a review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper or broadcast.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The last kabbalist of Lisbon : Richard Zimler.
1. Jews—Persecutions—Portugal—Lisbon—History—18th century—Fiction.
2. Lisbon (Portugal)—History—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3576.I464L37 1998 813’.54dc21 97-46184
Book design and type formatting by Bernard Schleifer
Manufactured in the United States of America
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
For Alexandre Quintanilha
Thanks to Ruth Zimler,
Tracy Carns, Cynthia Cannell,
and Quetzal Editores of Lisbon
In December of 1496, four years after Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain expelled all the Jews from their kingdom, King Manuel of Portugal was convinced to do the same. In exchange, he was to receive from the Spanish monarchs the hand of their daughter in marriage. Just before the expulsion order was to take effect, however, King Manuel decided to convert the Portuguese Jews rather than lose such valuable citizens. In March of 1497, he closed all ports of disembarkation and ordered the Jews rounded up and dragged to the baptism font. Although accounts have reached us of some Jews who committed suicide and murdered their children rather than become Christians, most did indeed agree under coercion to accept Jesus as the Messiah. Called New Christians, they were given twenty years to lose their traditional Jewish customs, a promise which proved hollow over the next two decades of prejudice and imprisonment. Even so, many of the New Christians persisted in their beliefs. In secret and at great risk, they said their Hebrew prayers and practiced their rituals, in particular those related to the observance of the Sabbath and the celebration of Jewish holidays. One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, the narrator of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon.
Abraham Vital, a lawyer in private practice in Istanbul, makes a living petitioning the Turkish government to win benefits for persons who, because of injury or illness, can no longer work. In 1981, he waged a successful legal battle on behalf of a fifty-nine year old carpenter named Ayaz Lugo whose right arm and hand were paralyzed in a car crash.
Lugo died in June of 1988. His wife had already passed away six years earlier. They were childless. In his will, a grateful Lugo left Abraham Vital his home.
I was to stay in Lugo’s house during the seven-month sojourn I spent in Istanbul in 1990 researching Sephardic poetry, in particular, the ballad form. It was graciously offered to me rent-free by Abraham Vital; he and I became acquainted through a mutual friend, my thesis advisor Dr. Isaac Silva Rosa, formerly of U.C. Berkeley and now of the University of Porto in Portugal.
Both Vital and Lugo are Sephardim, descendents of the waves of Jews who fled persecution in Spain and Portugal in the 15th, 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. Their ancestors had been offered exile in Istanbul—then known by Christians and Jews as Constantinople—as early as 1492. In that year, Turkish Sultan Bejazet II welcomed to his kingdom thousands of Sephardic Jews who were complying with an expulsion order issued by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain.
On a stifling day in early May, Vital drove me to Ayaz Lugo’s ancient home at the fringes of Istanbul’s medieval Jewish Quarter, the Balat. Two stories of stone and flaking stucco rose up like an abandoned watchtower between a bakery and record store.
I moved in on May 9, 1990. Inside, everything appeared gray-brown, as if in a sepia photograph, until I started removing the dust.
I could touch the sagging ceilings of both floors of the house without standing on my toes. Cones of light filtered in to my bedroom through oval, platter-size windows. The furniture was of heavy, time-worn wood, pieces evidently purchased when Lugo was a boy; now all antiques.
In my bedroom closet I found thousands of sugar cubes neatly stacked in leather suitcases. Apparently, it had been scarce during World War II. Were the cubes already packed away in case Lugo had to make a quick exit? Maybe Jews should always have at least one suitcase prepared, I thought.
In a worm-eaten dresser, under cotton underwear, I found rancid Turkish chocolate bars. I was pleased; Lugo and I undoubtedly shared a sweet tooth.
My bed was an iron frame with a squashed mattress manufactured in Konya. The script of the tag was in Arabic, making it about seventy years old; in the 1920s, the Latin alphabet replaced the Arabic one throughout Turkey.
The house had no shower. One sink gave a thin stream of cold brown water that smelled of chlorine and rust. Lugo and his wife must have gone to the baths.
I had many companion mice. But miraculously, there were no ants and no bedbugs.
That July, Abraham Vital decided to begin bringing the house up to 20th-century, Western standards. Remodeling began with the cellar so that I wouldn’t be too disturbed.
On July 18, workmen came across a secret lair, two-feet deep and four-feet square, which had been covered with wood planks and a cement casing. Inside this hiding place sat a tik, the small cylindrical chest used by Sephardic Jews to house the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Decorated with elaborate silver filigree and enamel peacocks, it was found to contain not a Torah, but a leather-bound set of handwritten manuscripts, nine in all.
The manuscripts were in the square, Hebrew script typical of Iberia, the language largely Jewish-Portuguese—an old Portuguese written in Hebrew characters. Portions of the early works, however, were in medieval Hebrew itself. The writing was done with a calamus, the reed pen used in Iberia. The paper was in excellent condition.
All but three of the manuscripts bore polished vellum covers on which a title is illuminated with bird-headed letters. Hoopoes, owls, thrushes, European goldfinches and peacocks predominate. One species of hummingbird (remarkably, a New World family of birds) is also pictured. Lacy, intricate geometrical patterns and arabesques form the backgrounds to titles. Gold leaf is used liberally. A bright carmine and the blue of lapis lazuli are the dominant colors.
I found that all of the manuscripts were signed in a careful script in the form of an Egyptian ibis by a man named Berekiah Zarco. From the dates penned next to his signatures and references in the text, we know that they were written over the course of twenty-three years, from 5267 to 5290 in the Hebrew calendar—1507 to 1530 CE.
On the night of July 18, 1990, I began reading his work.
What I found were six treatises on various aspects of the kabbalah, the mystical philosophy which radiated out into the Jewish diaspora from Provence in the early Middle Ages and which has been passed down in subsequent centuries both orally and in texts. The most well known of these kabbalistic texts are the Bahir and the Zohar.
Three of Berekiah’s manuscripts—those without title pages—were of a secular nature, however. Bound together by a leather strap, the first dated from 1507 and the last two from 1530. Right from my first inspection, it was evident that they concerned the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Some two thousand New Christians—Jews forcibly converted to Christianity in 1497—lost their lives in that riot, many burned in the Rossio, the square that still centers the Portuguese capital.
Unfortunately, numerous sections and even single pages of Berekiah’s manuscripts had been reassembled out of order by someone undoubtedly unable to read Jewish-Portuguese. It was maddening. Two months of rearranging were involved. Once back in order, however, Berekiah Zarco’s work read smoothly.
The three historical manuscripts taken together form a single work telling the story of Berekiah’s family during the tragic events of April 1506. In particular, they recount Berekiah’s search for the killer of his beloved Uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist who is likely responsible for some of the hitherto unattributed works of the Lisbon School, including—for reasons that become clear in the story—Knocking on Doors and the Book of Divine Fruit.
Several other, more cursory accounts of the pogrom have reached us (including the one by Solomon Ibn Verga mentioned by Berekiah), and there can be no doubt about the historical veracity of Berekiah’s story. All of the major events of his tale are confirmed by contemporaneous accounts. Many of the people mentioned, including Didi Molcho, Dom João Mascarenhas and Isaac Ibn Farraj are known to us through their writings as well as through documentation from the Church and the Portuguese Crown.
Some readers unfamiliar with Sephardic and New Christian literature of the 16th Century may have difficulty with my rendering of Berekiah’s story in the form of a mystery and the use of colloquial language. Berekiah Zarco is, however, like many of his contemporaries, a modern author in outlook and style. The second manuscript in particular reveals a straightforward technique resembling that of the Spanish picaresque novel, the earliest of which were published a short time after Berekiah completed his work. Interestingly, many of the Spanish picaresque authors were converted Jews as well.
Unlike the picaresque novels, however, Berekiah’s tone is hardly ever ironic and never slapstick. In addition, his central character—himself—is neither a rogue nor a hero. He is simply what Berekiah Zarco must have been: a intelligent and confused young manuscript illuminator, fruit seller and kabbalist; a young man devastated by the murder of his uncle.
Berekiah’s frank language includes the use of swear words, openly blasphemous statements and even slang—all of which I have tried to retain.
Clearly, if Berekiah had intended to write yet another mystical tract or even staid historical text, he would have. He had the talent and the knowledge. The fact is, he didn’t. He wrote a mystery in three parts, the last of which contemporary critics might call an afterword. For the modern reader, I have spaced these three parts over twenty chapters. Chapters I through VIII correspond to the first of Berekiah’s manuscripts; IX through XX, the second; and XXI, the third.
Although The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is more than a translation, I have stayed rigorously faithful to the content of Berekiah’s writing except in two areas: where he includes extended prayer recitations and chants; and where he digresses to substantiate arcane spiritual points relating to kabbalah. Although of scholarly interest, these would probably prove troublesome and boring to the reader, and I have largely excluded them from my rendering. Also, several sections have been re-arranged into chronological order which originally were linked by the spiritual point Berekiah was trying to make. I believe that this, too, has not altered Berekiah’s work in any fundamental way, and my revised structure will certainly make more sense to the modern reader.
In general, I have tried to strike a balance between contemporary language and the occasional use of an antiquated word or phrase. The entire work is, I hope, faithful to the spirit of the author.
Berekiah is not completely consistent in his Portuguese spelling, perhaps because of the trouble of transliterating the language of his homeland into Hebrew characters. When Portuguese is quoted, it is therefore done with modern spellings.
Where Hebrew words are retained, they are written using Latin characters so that they can be pronounced by American and European readers.
Berekiah’s manuscripts do raise some interesting questions about the history of Hebrew books in Iberia. Is the illustrated Torah which he discovers in his Uncle’s genizah the so-called Kennicott Bible now belonging to the Bodleian Library of Oxford University? His reference to letters forming beasts and to Isaac Bracarense (undoubtedly the Isaac de Braga for whom the manuscript was illustrated) would seem to point in that direction. Nothing is known of the Bible’s history from its 1476 completion date until its acquisition in 1771 by Oxford at the suggestion of the librarian, Dr. Kennicott. Perhaps it was indeed saved by Abraham and Berekiah Zarco.
As to the Hebrew and Arabic version of the Fountain of Life kept by Father Carlos, was it truly smuggled to Salonika? What, then, happened to it?; no Arabic original has ever been found, only Latin translations.
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is itself something of a puzzle. Why was it hidden away in Ayaz Lugo’s cellar? How come there is no mention of it in contemporaneous Jewish manuscripts? Was it never published? Surely, given his stated purpose of alerting New Christians and Jews to the continuing danger they faced in Europe, Berekiah would have tried to give his writings the widest possible dissemination.
Several theories were offered to me by Professor Ruth Pinhel of the University of Paris which were later echoed by most of the other experts in the field of medieval Sephardic literature with whom I consulted.
Firstly, Berekiah’s disparaging characterizations of Old Christians and his open call for Jews and New Christians to abandon Europe would certainly have angered the European kings and religious authorities, particularly the Inquisitors of Portugal and Spain. Had he brought his work into Christian Europe, any copies discovered would have been suppressed and burned.
It is also probable that his passionate plea for Jewish emigration would have enraged the leaders of the region’s fragile Jewish communities, whether secret Sephardic groupings in Portugal and Spain or more open communities in the Ashkenazic lands of northern Europe. Those Jews or New Christians who had a spiritual, emotional or monetary stake in remaining in Europe might have suppressed his writings as well.
In addition, Berekiah’s treatment of such topics as sex and the schism between kabbalists and rabbinical authorities may simply have been too forthright to endear him to certain readers. His writings would certainly have been taboo to many conservative Jewish leaders trying to resist the coming age of the secular Jew.
Although I have my doubts, another theory should be mentioned: it is possible that Berekiah himself suppressed his writings; not only might he not have wanted to expose secret Jews mentioned in the text, but excommunication for so-called heresy was not unknown. Despite his passionate need to warn the Jews of Europe of the fate foreseen by his uncle, he may have feared being cut off from his community, as was another Jew of Portuguese extraction a century later, Baruch Spinoza. Perhaps he circulated copies of his book in secret, imploring his readers not to divulge its contents or even mention its existence. Maybe that is why it bears no title.
One other, more disheartening possibility: Berekiah might very well have been killed trying to re-enter Portugal and save his cousin Reza. Any copies of his writings which he scripted and transported to Iberia would have undoubtedly perished with him. Only the works hidden back home in Constantinople would have survived.
As to their hiding place, very possibly all the manuscripts were sealed up to protect them during the Nazi period; the cement casing dates from this era. It must be remembered that Portuguese New Christians did indeed emigrate in mass numbers during the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, primarily to Turkey, Greece, North Africa, the Netherlands and Italy, areas later threatened or overrun by the German Reich. For instance, as a result of New Christian emigration, by the end of the 16th century, Constantinople alone boasted a Jewish community of 30,000 persons and 54 synagogues—the largest in Europe.
During World War II, most of the Iberian Jews living in Greece, Yugoslavia and the rest of southeastern Europe, 200,000 or more, were arrested and gassed. In view of Berekiah’s plea for the Jews and New Christians to leave Christian lands, it is interesting to note that the Jewish community in Moslem Turkey was protected by the government and wholly escaped destruction. Even so, the owner or owners of Berekiah’s manuscripts, perhaps Lugo’s parents, would have rightly feared the spread of killing to Turkey, just as Berekiah feared the spread of the Inquisition from Castile to Portugal four hundred years earlier (the Inquisition was definitively established in Portugal in 1536, some 50 years after it began in Spain and just six years after the last of Berekiah’s manuscripts was completed).
Did Ayaz Lugo know of the existence of the manuscripts? He makes no reference to them in his will. Possibly, they were hidden by his parents without his knowing it.
Thanks must first go to Abraham Vital, who generously offered me his home and, subsequently, his permission to work on Berekiah Zarco’s texts. I wish to express my appreciation, too, to his wife, Miriam Rosencrantz-Vital, who got me through many a late night with her Port wine and home-cooked couscous.
Thanks, too, to Isaac Silva Rosa, for encouraging me to take time off from my dissertation to work on this manuscript; Ruth Pinhel for her help with historical references; Ari Diaz-Lev and Carl Konstein for helping with Hebrew translations; and Joseph Amaro Marcus, an expert in Spanish and Portuguese kabbalah, for deciphering the undecipherable.
This book is published in the memory of Berekiah Zarco, his family and friends.
Grief was pressing hard at the tip of my reed pen when I first began recording our story. It was the Hebrew year of fifty-two sixty-seven, the Christian year of fifteen and seven.
Selfishly, I abandoned my narrative when God would not grace my soul with relief.
Today, twenty-three years after this feeble attempt to record my search for vengeance, I have again caressed open the pages of my manuscript. Why have I broken the bonds of silence?
Yesterday, around midday, there was a knock at the front door to our home here in Constantinople. I was the lone member of my family in the house and went to see who it was. A short young man with long black hair and dark, tired eyes, swathed in a handsome Iberian cloak of scarlet and green stripes, stood on our stoop. In clipped, hesitant tones, he asked in Portuguese, “Do I have the honor of addressing Master Berekiah Zarco?”
“Yes, my boy,” I answered. “Pray tell who you might be.”
Bowing humbly, he replied, “Lourenço Paiva. I have just come from Lisbon and was hoping to find you.”
As I whispered his name to myself, I remembered him as the youngest son of an old friend, the Christian laundress to whom we’d given our house in Lisbon just before our flight from that benighted city more than two decades before. I waved away his continuing introduction as unnecessary and shepherded him into our kitchen. We sat at benches by a window giving out on a circle of lavender and myrtle bushes in our garden. When I enquired about his mother, I was saddened to hear that she had recently been called to God. In somber but proud tones, he eulogized her for a time. Afterward, it was a delight to share a small carafe of Anatolian wine, to talk of his sea voyage from Portugal and his first, astonished impressions of the Turkish capital. My ease left me unprepared for what was to follow, however; when I asked him why I’d been granted the pleasure of his visit, he pulled from his cloak two iron keys dangling from a silver chain. Immediately, a shiver of dread snaked up my spine. Before I could speak, he showed me the eager smile of a youth presenting a gift to an elder and pressed the keys into my hand. He said, “Should you desire to return, Master Berekiah, your house in Lisbon awaits you.”
I reached out to his arm to steady myself; my heart was drumming the single word homeland. As the teeth of the keys began biting into the fist I had formed around them, I caressed open my fingers and leaned down to sniff the old-coin scent of the metal. Memories of serpentine streets and olive trees swept me to my feet. The hairs of my arms and neck stood on end. A door opened inside me, and a vision entered: I was standing just outside the iron gate to the courtyard at the back of our old home in the Alfama district of Lisbon. Framed inside the gate’s arch and standing at the center of the courtyard was Uncle Abraham, my spiritual master. Draped in his vermilion travel robe of English wool, he was picking lemons from our tree, humming contentedly to himself. His dark skin, the color of cinnamon, was lit gold, as if by the light which heralds sunset, and his wild crest of silver hair and tufted eyebrows shimmered with magical potential. Sensing my presence, he ceased his melody, turned with a smile of welcome and shuffled closer to me with the duck-like walk he normally only adopted in synagogues. His warm green eyes, opened wide, seemed to embrace me. With an amused twist to his lips, he began undoing the purple sash to his robe as he walked, let the garment slip away onto the slate paving stones of the courtyard. Underneath, he was naked except for a prayer shawl over his shoulders. As he continued to approach me, rays of light began issuing forth from his body. So bright became his form that my eyes began to tear. When a first drop slipped salty into the corner of my mouth, he stopped and called to me using my older brother’s name: “Mordecai! So you have finally heeded my prayers!” His face was framed now by an aura of white flame. With a solemn nod, as if he were passing on a verse of ancient wisdom, he tossed me a lemon. I caught it. Yet when I looked down upon the fruit, I found instead tarnished Portuguese letters knotted into a chain. They read: as nossas andorinhas ainda estão nas mãos do faraó—our swallows are still abandoned to Pharaoh. As my gaze passed over these words of New Christian code a second time, they lifted into the air, then broke with a tinkling sound.
I found myself looking once again upon the keys. Warm tears were clouding my eyesight. The door upon my vision had closed.
Lourenço was gripping my shoulders, his face pale and panicked. Reassuring words somehow found their way to my lips.
To understand the revelation which then came to me, the Hebrew words mesirat nefesh must be explained. They mean, of course, the willingness to sacrifice oneself. And their occult power resides in the tradition among some kabbalists to risk even a journey to hell for a goal which will not only help to heal our ailing world but also effect reparations inside God’s Upper Realms.
With the keys throbbing in my hand, I began to understand for the first time the sacrifice Uncle Abraham had made, how the concept of mesirat nefesh had given his heartbeat its passionate but fragile rhythm. And for reasons that will become clear in the telling of our tale, I saw, too, that my vision had been a summons from him to return to Portugal in order to fulfill the destiny he’d prepared for me long ago—a destiny I’d not followed, never before even understood.
I began to see, as well, that in returning to Lisbon I would have the chance to make up for my deviation from destiny, to live up to my pledge of mesirat nefesh. For the journey back will surely put my life at risk. With Spain in the grip of the Inquisition and Portugal drawing ever closer to its flames, my return may well mean that my time with my wife, Letiça, and children, Zuli and Ari, has come to an end.
So it is with them in mind that I have again picked up my pen. I would like for each member of my family to read of my reasons for leaving; and of the events of twenty-four years ago which forced these reasons into my heart. The story of the murder which darkened our lives forever and my hunt for the mysterious killer is too long and complex to be heard from my lips. And I would not wish to risk leaving anything unsaid.
I write, too, in order to clear the cold air of secrecy from our home, so that Zuli and Ari may finally understand my vague responses when, as children and adolescents, they asked of the events which preceded my escape from Lisbon. It has not been easy for them having a father with a past clothed in sordid speculation by many in our immigrant Jewish community. With tears in their eyes and their hands balled into white-knuckled fists, they have heard me called a murderer and heretic. How many times, too, has my wife suffered rumors that I was seduced in Lisbon by Lilith in the guise of a Castilian noblewoman, that even today this demoness owns my heart?
A murderer, yes. I admit to having slain one man and contracted to end the life of another. My children will read of the circumstances and form their own judgments. They are old enough now to know everything. A heretic, I think not. But if I am, then it was the events which I will shortly describe that forced the arrows of heresy into my flesh. As for my heart, I leave it for my loved ones to name its governess. May truth emerge from these pages without fear, like the trumpeting call of a shofar welcoming Rosh Hashanah. And may I, too, finally free myself of my last delusions and from the vestiges of the mask I donned to hide my Judaism as a boy. Yes, I expect to learn much about myself as my pen follows my remembrances; when memory is allowed free reign to probe the past, does it not always gift us with self-knowledge?
Of course, guilt for my ignorance and failings—and for my more terrible sins—has accompanied me into exile in Constantinople, clings to me even now. Some would say it is even the deepest of my motivations. Yet as I gift Hebrew letters onto this polished sheepskin, I realize that I am most inspired by the chance to speak across a span of decades to still others as yet unnamed—my unborn grandchildren and those of my sister, Cinfa. To all our descendents, I say: read this story and you will know why your ancestors left Portugal; the great sacrifice my master made for you; what happened to the Jews of Lisbon when this century possessed but six Christian years. To ensure your survival, these are events to which your memories should cling like orphaned children.
Most importantly, if you follow the melody and rhythm of these words toward their final cadence, you will learn why you should never set foot in Christian Europe.
So make no mistake, under the surface of this story lies the razor edges of a tale of warning. I am convinced that it is your safety which prompted Uncle Abraham to appear to me and summon me to Portugal. Were I not to write, were memory to end in tepid silence, I might have your deaths on my hands as well.
As for the weave of the mystery which I will unfurl for you, my enemies would say that it is sure to include intricate arabesques out of a desire to conceal the blood staining my own hands. The evidence will point in the other direction. Uncle Abraham has gifted me with this chance to live fully as myself, and I will not disappoint him again. So if you find complication—even contradiction—amongst the twill of my more modest phrases it is because I wish for you to see the events as they truly occurred, to see me as I am. For a Jew is never the simple creature the Christians have always wanted us to believe. And a Jewish heretic is never so single-minded as our rabbis would claim. We are all of us deep and wide enough to welcome a river of paradoxes and riddles into our souls.
There is a last confession which I must now make: I have no idea why Uncle Abraham called me by my elder brother Mordecai’s name in my vision, and I find my ignorance disquieting. It is as if there is some deeper significance to my master’s appearance, an inner layer of meaning to the deaths of twenty-four years ago, which I still cannot grasp. Why, for instance, has my uncle shown himself to me only now? Clearly, I need more time to consider this matter. And yet, perhaps he meant for the light of understanding to penetrate my darkness as I record our story. Will I come to comprehend the subtler connections between the past and present only when my manuscript nears its end? The possibility makes me smile, calms my doubts a little; it would be just like my uncle to demand a day and night of earthly work before presenting me with the last core of his heavenly meaning! And so, I continue forward . . .
When I first considered tracing our tribulations across a page of manuscript, my family and I were hiding in our cellar. The mystery had just opened before me in all its complexity. It is there where I began my story twenty-three years ago. And it is there where we will start again.
Of three events we shall speak before we come to the murder which changed our lives: the passing of the flagellants; an injury to a dear friend; and the arrest of a family member. Had I understood the meaning of these portents, had I read them as verses of a single poem scripted by the Angel of Death, I could have saved many lives. But ignorance betrayed me. Perhaps, as you follow my words across these pages, you will fare better. May you be blessed with clear vision.
So sit yourself in a quiet room graced with a circle of fragrant bushes or flowers. Face east, toward beloved Jerusalem. Untie your knots of mind with chant. And let a soft candlelight shadow these pages as you turn them.
Bruheem kol demuyay eloha! Blessed are all God’s self-portraits.
Berekiah Zarco, Constantinople
Sixth of Av, 5290 (1530 CE)
When I was eight, in the Christian year of fourteen ninety-four, I read about the sacred ibises who helped Moses cross an Ethiopian swamp riddled with snakes. I drew a scythe-beaked creature in scarlet and black with my Uncle Abraham’s dyes and inks. He held it up for inspection. “Silver eyes?” he questioned.
“Reflecting Moses, how could they be any other color?”
Uncle kissed my brow. “From this day on, you will be my apprentice. I will help you change thorns to roses, and I swear to protect you from the dangers which dance along the way. The pages that are doors will open to our touch.”
How could I have known that I would one day fail him so completely?
Imagine being outside time. That the past and future are revolving around you, and you cannot place yourself properly. That your body, your receptacle, has been numbed free of history. Because I feel this way, I can see clearly when and where the evil started: four days ago, on the twenty-second of Nisan; in our Judiaria Pequena, the Little Jewish Quarter of the Alfama district of Lisbon.
It was a jeweled morning much like any of the opal beads on the necklace of that spring month. The year was fifty-two sixty-six for the New Christians. April the sixteenth of fifteen and six for the accursed Christians of heart.
From the darkness of early Wednesday morning, hiding here in the cellar, I remember the dawn of Friday as if its sunlight heralded the first notes of an insane fugue.
Concealed behind one of these notes of melody, camouflaged in memory, is the face I seek.
The day of our first Passover seder began dim and dry, like all the dawns of late. We hadn’t been blessed with rain in more than eleven weeks. And would have none today.
As for the plague, it had been sending shivers through our bodies and souls since the second week of Heshvan—more than seven months now.
King Manuel’s half-made Christian doctors had resolved that cattle were perfect for soaking up the airborne essences which they blamed for the disease, and so two hundred dazed and overheated cows had been let loose to wander the streets.
Manuel himself had long fled our misery with most of the aristocracy. From Abrantes, three weeks earlier, he’d issued a decree establishing the construction of two new cemeteries outside the city walls for the scores who were taken to God each week.
The souls of the dead were beyond being encouraged by such a gesture, of course. And one could hardly blame the living for regarding the decree as simply one more indication of the King’s ineffectual pragmatism and cowardice. Was it a turning point? Certainly, daily life began to take on an edge of cruel and despairing madness. In the last three days, I’d seen a collapsed donkey blinded with his master’s dagger, his eyes spurting blood, and a girl of no more than five hurled shrieking from the rooftop of a four-story townhouse.
The poor, to dispel their hunger pangs, had taken to eating a mash of linen fibers and water.
I had just turned twenty years old. Proof that I was a little too devout for my own good was my belief that our city had been gifted generously with the stark significance of Torah. To me, there was a terrible, timeless beauty and horror to everything. Even the filthy feet of the recently deceased sticking out from the burlap of their sour-smelling plague carts possessed a sad and reverent grace. For they made our thoughts turn to Man’s mortality and our covenant with God.
Only Uncle Abraham had the confidence to disregard completely the goat-ribbed preachers roaming the streets screeching that God had abandoned Portugal and that the end of the world was but five weeks away (though it could be postponed, they noted, if we were generous with our handouts of copper coinage). With an irritated frown, he had told me, “Don’t you think that the Lord would show me a sign if He were about to close the last gate upon the Lower Realms?”
Father Carlos, a priest and family friend, could not yet be counted among those unfortunates who’d succumbed completely to the insanity gripping the city. But it seemed only a matter of days. “Drought and plague . . . they are the Devil’s twin birth!” he told me in a conspirator’s whisper as we stood in the archway of St. Peter’s Church.
I had brought my little brother, Judah, to him that morning for religious instruction in the ways of Christianity. The three of us were watching a candlelight procession of flagellants whipping their backs with leather scourges whose ends trailed wax balls laced with filings of tin and splinters of colored glass. Behind them marched friars from Lisbon’s monasteries unfurling blue and yellow pennons sewn with images of the Nazarene crucified. At the rear, proud-postured guildmen in flowing, silken fineries hoisted up litters bearing effigies of saints.
Crowds had gathered to watch, lined both sides of the street, formed two ragged ribbons against the dusty white façades of the townhouses as far as the cathedral. Shouts for water and mercy rang up like antiphonal choruses. All the variety of our town was there: horsemen and peasants, whores and nuns, beggars and black slaves—even blue-eyed sailors from the north.
Waifs and barking dogs suddenly began running past Father Carlos, Judah and me to the west to keep up with the moving spectacle. The priest closed his eyes, murmured nervous prayers. I inhaled deeply on the chilly perfume of danger in the air. And tonight, I thought, into the unpredictable currents of this sea of madness, we will be launching the forbidden ship of Passover. Yes, our celebrations should have started exactly one week earlier. But most of the secret Jews, including our family, had postponed Passover in the hopes of sailing safely through the tainted waters of Old Christian gossip around us.
A filthy, mop-haired woodcutter standing near us suddenly screamed at the top of his lungs, “For heavenly rain, we must have more blood! Lisbon must be the Venice of blood!
Judah pressed back against my legs, and I gripped his shoulder. Father Carlos rubbed his hands over his domed forehead, as if in defense. He was a corpulent man, squat, with soft, pale skin, a bulbous nose, webs of red veins on both his cheeks from too much drink. Few people took him seriously, but I found him a good friend. His droopy eyes settled on me. He said, “Men like nothing more than profaning the sacred, my boy.”
I was suddenly laden with sadness for our fate. The scent of Indian pepper turned me around, and blood splattered across my pants and Judah’s face. A shrieking initiate had pulled skin loose from his shoulder blade, was spraying spices over himself to capture the sting of God’s love. In my brother’s terrified eyes, I believed I recognized the look of a Hebrew child about to flee across the Red Sea. A fleeting premonition, unusual in its certainty, shook me: We Jews of Lisbon have waited too long to re-enact the Exodus, and Pharaoh has learned of our escape plans.
As I came to myself, Carlos hid his gaze in the wing of his cape, whisper-screamed, “That young initiate’s moans . . . you can hear the wailing of the Devil’s children in them!”
Judah was looking up at me with stunned, breathless curiosity. When tears caressed his eyes, I picked him up, wiped him, tousled the thick locks of his coal-black hair. He hugged his arms around my neck. “Thanks ever so much,” I told Carlos. “Between you and these madmen, I think we’ve had all the religious instruction we need for today.”
I lifted the woolen hood of Judah’s mantle over his head and patted him as he sobbed and sniffled. After the last penitent had dragged himself past our former synagogue, Carlos led us across the square. At the corner was our house, a single story of whitewashed stucco whose rectangular perimeter was traced with a rim of deep blue. An affinity between colors lifted my gaze to the gauzy turquoise of the dawn sky, then down to the spine of the roof, a horizon of mottled fawn-colored tile pierced near its center by our chimney, a soot-blackened white cone notched with air-holes. From its point rose the tin silhouette of a troubadour pointing east, toward Jerusalem. Thin scarfs of smoke from our hearth were wafting around him and unraveling into the southerly breeze leading toward the river. “Just as well we cancel our lessons today,” Carlos said as I pulled open the gate of iron tracery that served both our home and the house belonging to my beloved friend Farid and his father. “I’ve got some unhappy business I’ve been putting off with your uncle.”
We stepped into the secret landscape of our courtyard. Enclosed by white façades and walls, paved with gray slate, it was centered by a venerable lemon tree circled by oleander bushes. Farid was standing on his stoop in his long underwear, barefoot, combing his hands back through the black locks falling to his shoulders. To me, he had always seemed gifted with all the attributes of a warrior poet of the Arabian desert—a slim, muscular build, sharp green, hawklike eyes, soft olive skin and an agile, unpredictable intelligence. The stubble he always left on his cheeks made him look sleepy but seductive, and men and women alike were often captivated by his dark beauty. Now, he signalled good morning to me with a twist to the forceful hands he’d developed as a weaver of rugs. Though deaf and mute from birth, he’d never had the least difficulty making himself understood to me in this way; as toddlers, we’d developed a language of gestured signs, undoubtedly because we were born just two days apart and grew up holding hands.
Returning my friend’s greeting, I led Father Carlos to the kitchen door, an ogival threshold exuberantly marked with a rim of green and rust mosaic stars. In a doubtful voice, he said, “Might as well get it over with.”
Can a house possess a body, a soul? Ours was bent and fatigued from centuries of rain and sun, but fiercely protective of its residents.
As manuscript illuminators, Uncle Abraham and I had often modeled biblical dwellings on our home. For its walls we applied a milky ceruse, and to approximate the low and sagging chestnut wood ceilings which creaked alarmingly during the rains of Av and Tishri, we applied the rich brown made from vinegar, silver filings, honey and alum. The sandy floor tiles which scratched one’s feet were given a moderated vermillion obtained from a marriage of quicksilver and sulphur.
Cracked foundations sloped the floors toward Mother’s tidy bedroom at the sunset side of the house, little more than a corridor but with the advantage of an entrance to Temple Street for her sewing clients. Facing sunrise was my aunt and uncle’s cozy, light-filled chamber. Between the two were the kitchen, centered by the great oaken table around which our lives passed, and the bedroom I share with Judah and my little sister, Cinfa. Our fruit store, added on two centuries ago judging from the masonry, jutted out from this room toward Temple Street.
As Carlos and I stepped inside, he grimaced at the sour scent of fresh whitewash on the walls. While he and my little brother checked the cellar for Uncle, I went to my room to peer through its inner window into our store. Down the center aisle, beyond baskets of figs and dates, raisins and sultanas, bitter oranges, filberts and walnuts, all manner of fruit and nut then to be found in Portugal, were Cinfa and my mother, Mira, spooning olives from wooden barrels into ceramic bowls for display. I leaned in and called out, “Blessed be He who has illuminated our Lisbon morning!”
Cinfa showed me a quick smile. A gangly, wild sort of girl, with a voice forever seemingly squeaked between knuckles jammed into her mouth, she’d been gifted with grace of late. Almost twelve she was, and an adult beauty was awakening in the secretive fullness of her lips, her high cheekbones and postures of reserve. The girl who had spent hours chasing hares and capturing tadpoles was giving way to one more interested in puzzling over the modest, hazel-eyed twin in the looking glass.
As Cinfa and I kissed, my mother offered me a dull, antagonistic look. A small, puffy woman of lowered eye and bent shoulder, her contours were concealed as always inside a loose-fitting olive tunic and black apron. Her deep-brown hair, streaked a brittle gray at the front, was crowned by a toque of gray lace and clasped into a bun at the back of her head. The bun was tied with a black velveteen ribbon from Jerusalem given her years ago by her elder brother, my uncle Abraham. Its stringent hold seemed to draw the color from her face, which, over the last few years, had swollen into an expression of wan defiance against any possibility of happiness; she would forever be grieving her long-buried husband and first-born son, my elder brother Mordecai. To all who knew the playful young mother she’d been, her wasted state was a reminder that life saved its sharpest arrows for women, the bearers—and mourners—of departed children.
“Either of you seen Uncle?” I asked.
Cinfa shrugged. Mother licked her cracked lips as if displeased by my interruption, shook her head.
Father Carlos and Judah met me in the kitchen. “No sign of him,” the priest said.
We sat together at the table to wait. Aunt Esther appeared suddenly at the courtyard door, dressed in a high-collared black jupe which seemed to light her tawny face. Her dramatic, darkly outlined almond eyes opened in horror. “What are those stains?!” she demanded, pointing to my pants. “Has Judah been crying?!” She clamped her jaw into an expression of judgment, glared at me while tucking wisps of henna-tinted hair under her crimson headscarf. Slender and tall, possessed of a deeply lined and shadowed beauty, she could dominate a room with a single glance down the length of her elegant nose.
“Just a little blood,” I began to explain to her. “The flagellants were . . .”
She thrust out her hand and sucked in on her cheeks so that she looked like a Moorish dancer. “Don’t tell me! I don’t want to hear it! Dear God, can’t you even clean yourselves? And whatever you do, don’t let your mother see Judah like that. We’ll never hear the end of it!”
“Yes, go wash,” Father Carlos agreed with a dismissing twist to his hand. He turned to Aunt Esther and added, “I told him it’s the first thing he should do when we got back.”
I shot the priest a dirty look. He curled his lips into a wry smile and lifted his eyebrows as if we were rivals for my aunt’s affection. To her, he said, “Now, about my little problem . . .”
I took Judah with me to our bedroom and slipped off his clothes, then my own. As I cleaned him with the vinegar and water solution which my mother always insisted upon, his body went limp in my hands. A compact five-year-old, already muscular and possessed of seductive gray-blue eyes, he seemed destined to grow into a milk-skinned Samson.
Never one for bathing, he dashed back to the kitchen the moment I’d finished dressing him. When I entered the room, he was clinging to the fringe of Aunt Esther’s jupe while fingering his wooden top. She was preparing her beloved coffee with almond milk and honey the way she’d learned in her native Persia.
From outside, the sour rumbling and creaking of refuse carts was suddenly drowned out by a woman’s shrieks. Opening the shutters to listen, I spotted a familiar vermilion carriage careening down the street. As always, the horses were caparisoned in blue-fringed silver cloth. The usual driver, an Old Christian with pockmarks cratering his cheeks, had been replaced, however, by a fair-haired Goliath in a wide-brimmed, amethyst-colored hat. “Guess who’s coming,” I said.
Aunt Esther nudged me partially aside and peered out. “Oh dear, Dona Meneses. More work for Mira,” she grumbled. She squeezed my hand. “You shouldn’t stand here staring out at her.”
I rolled my eyes, turned away. The carriage pounded to a stop and the door squealed open. Dona Meneses’ pattering footsteps trailed toward the Temple Street entrance to my mother’s room. As she entered the house, she began to describe the qualities of the fabric she’d brought in false, lyric tones. Her voice trailed away to a soft murmur as my mother’s door was closed.
Aunt Esther leaned toward us as if to disclose a secret and said, “It’ll be a miracle if Mira can turn that hideous puce velvet she brought with her into anything presentable!” Marching to the hearth, she carried our matzah to the table with a linen mitten.
“It pays our debts,” I said.
“True. And with the drought . . .”
“It’s the Devil!” Father Carlos exclaimed suddenly in a voice of warning.
“I grant you that Dona Meneses isn’t lovely, but she’s hardly from the Other Side,” I replied.
The priest squinted his eyes and glared at me. His tongue darted between his thick, soft lips. “Not her, you fool! It’s the Devil who’s behind the plague and drought!”
“You’re an absolute lunatic,” Aunt Esther told him in Hebrew with that frown of hers that could freeze bathwater. “And keep your voice down—we don’t want to scare her away!”
The bells of St. Peter’s began tolling tierce. Father Carlos mumbled to himself as if succumbing to the religious call, said a quick grace and picked on a piece of warm matzah with his chubby fingers. In a tone of disgust, he continued in the Holy language, so that Judah wouldn’t understand, “You mean to say, Esther dear, that the Devil doesn’t exist?”
“I mean to say that if you scare my little nephew one more time with your nonsense . . .” And here, Aunt Esther lifted her iron poker from the fire and aimed its red-glowing tip toward the priest’s bulbous nose, “ . . . I’ll see to it that you meet your Christian savior sooner than you intended! Find someone else to scare!”
“Your aunt has always had a way with threats,” Carlos whispered to me with a lecherous smile. “Remember her the day they dragged you out to be baptized in the cathedral? She cursed them in seven different languages . . . Hebrew, Persian, Arabic, Portuguese . . .”
“We remember,” I interrupted, holding up my hand in a gesture of disapproval so that we could all avoid the memory. Too late; Esther’s eyes, dimmed by isolation, were focused on an inner landscape. She had slipped her hand below her crimson scarf, was tracing the outline of the cruciform scar given her on the accursed morning of our forced baptism. Then, she had fought hardest of all against the bailiffs sent by the King to drag the Jews to the cathedral. As an example, a guard had thrown her to the ground, pinned her legs and arms to the cobbles on the Rua de São Pedro. A Dominican friar had pressed a red-glowing iron cross vertically to her forehead. He’d shouted, so all could hear: “I hereby gift you with the sign of our Lord!”
As for me, I was covered with pig blood and sawdust by Christian children on my way home from the baptism ceremony. But they never learned of the gift they gave me; my burning humiliation summoned the grace of God to me, and I had the first ever of my visions.
This preternatural occurrence began when Farid saw me in the courtyard. Out of shame, I ran from him. As I reached the kitchen door, however, a presentiment of eyes watching over me forced me to stop. When I turned, a white light appeared to me in the sky, far away, above the Moor’s castle. As it drew closer, wings sprouted, and I saw that the luminescence had been but a supernal egg. A radiant heron of ruby red, black and white took form, and as it flew over the Little Jewish Quarter, wind from its flapping blew fiercely against me. When I looked down at myself, the blood and sawdust were gone.
Uncle told me that God had shown me my continued purity and had revealed the Christian stain to be simply an illusion. I answered, “It wasn’t God; it was just a bird.”
“But Berekiah,” he said, “God comes to each of us in the form we can best perceive Him. To you, just now, He was a heron. To someone else, He might come as a flower or even a breeze.”
Indeed he was right; at my darkest moments, the Lord has always appeared to me as a kind of bird, perhaps because I most easily see the beauty of creation in those creatures gifted with flight.
Recalling other words of Uncle’s wisdom, I said now to Aunt Esther, “The Devil is just a metaphor. It’s religious language. You can’t expect all words to have everyday meanings.”
“As God is my witness, it’s too early for kabbalistic philosophy!” she answered.
Aunt Esther’s harsh tone of voice moved Judah to climb up next to me on the bench. His lips were pressed together into that slit of forced silence which Mother’s shrieks and slaps had taught him. Of late, he’d learned to do everything he could to avoid being her last, impossible burden—to tiptoe, not run, through childhood.
The trap door to our cellar, located at the southwest corner of the kitchen, suddenly opened. Uncle Abraham, my spiritual master, rose from the staircase, his forehead bathed in sweat and his hair waving off in a hundred different directions, as if he’d been caught in a spiritual storm. A small finchlike man of darting movements, his pointy face was centered by a long, angular nose that gave him an amusing look to strangers, but which connoted a probing intelligence to all those who knew him. His smooth dark skin, the color of cinnamon, seemed to highlight his wild crest of silver hair and tufted eyebrows. Graying stubble softened his cheeks, and where they looped inward, added a shadowing of sagely age to his face. Always, but particularly after prayers, his eyes burned with that secret green light, that piercing strangeness, that distinguished him at once as a powerful kabbalist. “Who’s that?” he asked squinting. “Ah, it’s our friendly priest!”
“Where’d you come from?” demanded Carlos, still unused to my uncle appearing out of nowhere. “We looked in the cellar not five minutes ago. Sometimes I think you’re a lez.”
“What’s a lez?” Judah asked.
“A ghost that comes back to play tricks—a spirit jester,” I answered.
Uncle grinned appreciatively and wiggled his right hand in the air to show his five fingers; in Jewish lore, lezim were reputed to only have four. “My movements parallel life’s mysteries,” he said with a dismissive wave. Raising his eyebrows, he nodded inquisitively toward the muffled voices coming from the back of the house.
“Dona Meneses,” I explained. “She’s brought fabric for another dress. Purple, this time.”
He took coffee and, after a quick blessing, wolfed down a hard-boiled egg. We’d already finished shaharit, morning prayers, together, but he again wished me good morning with a kiss on the lips. Lifting Judah onto his lap, he assaulted him with little popping kisses and growling noises. Not usually demonstrative, the coming of the Passover made Uncle giddy with affection.
“I just came to tell you that I decided not to sell the sapphire,” Carlos said with a sigh that seemed to request forgiveness.
My master’s lips suddenly curled in that way that made him look menacing. He said, “I think you should reconsider.”
“You’re buying gemstones?!” I asked. I looked to my aunt for her protest. But she was busy tracing her glance over a Book of Psalms she’d recently copied for an Old Christian nobleman, proofreading carefully. Turning back to Uncle, I added, “If we had that kind of money, we could close the store, leave this desert for a few weeks.”
My master gave me a challenging look. “A sapphire cut during the time of Rabbi Solomon Ibn Gabirol,” he said. He spoke in Hebrew except for the word safira in Portuguese.
Solomon Ibn Gabirol was a master Jewish poet of the eleventh century from Málaga. “I’m afraid I’ve lost the trail of your thoughts,” I said.
“Petah et atsmehah shetifateh delet. Knock upon yourself as upon a door,” Uncle replied.
That was his condescending way of saying I was to keep quiet and look inside myself for an answer. “Way too early for your mystical advice,” I countered.
He answered by filling my cup with water. “Keep drinking and you won’t get angry. The fluids will carry the white bile from your system.”
“Any more liquid and I’ll drown,” I replied.
“You’ll drown when you disappear in God’s ocean.” Lifting a finger to his lips, he requested silence. Turning back to Carlos, he said in a grave tone, “The safira could be lost, you know.”
My master lifted Judah from his lap and sat him on one of our Persian pillows. “Off you go,” he said. To Father Carlos, he added, “Lost forever, I mean. Your position puts you in danger.”
As he spoke, I realized that we weren’t talking about a gemstone at all. Safira was code for Sefer, Hebrew for book. He was undoubtedly negotiating to purchase a work of Rabbi Solomon Gabirol’s and smuggle it out of Portugal. But why talk in code inside our house, where we were safe from the spying eyes and ears of the Old Christians?
Father Carlos nodded with a gesture of excuse and stood up to take his leave.
“One warning—I’m going to keep trying to convince you,” my master said with fierce determination in his voice.
The priest crossed himself with a trembling hand. Trying to mollify Uncle Abraham, he offered a misguided effort at humor and replied, “Your kabbalistic sorcery doesn’t scare . . .”
My master jumped up from the table, glaring at Carlos. Motion in the room seemed suspended by his rage. “I never practice magic!” he said, using the Hebrew term, kabbalah ma’asit, practical kabbalah, to designate this forbidden activity. “You should know that well, my friend.”
He was referring to the time Father Carlos had requested an amulet to kill a slanderer spreading rumors about the priest’s continued allegiance to the faith of Moses. Uncle had refused, of course, although he had personally appealed to Rabbi Abraham Zacuto, the King’s astronomer, to see that the evildoer was silenced. Now, he walked to the hearth and stared at the backs of his fingernails in the light of the fire. His topaz signet ring etched with the form of an ibis, symbol of the divine scribe, glowed with an inner sunset. “When Adam and Eve were born in Eden, they were covered with nail from head to toe as armor,” he said. Turning back to Carlos, he added, “And now, our fingernails are all that remain from this primal protection. A tiny border, don’t you think? Not much against the weapons of the Church.”
The priest shrugged off the implication and lowered his eyes.
“It won’t be enough to save you if they find out about the sapphire.”
“I need it,” Father Carlos said, a note of sadness in his voice. “Surely you should understand. It’s the last . . .” His words trailed away. He added dryly, “I should be going now. I’ve a Mass to prepare.”
“You bastard!” Uncle shouted. “Holding back a safira our children will need, that God will need!” When he turned the wall of his back to Carlos, the priest bowed his head as if to request forgiveness from the rest of us and left.
“You could be more understanding,” I said to my uncle. When he waved away my criticism, I added, “So why were you speaking in code with Carlos? There’s no chance Dona Meneses can hear us way back there. Besides, she must know we still practice Judaism. If it bothered her, she’d have reported us to the authorities by now.”
“The priest trusts no one. ‘Even the dead wear masks,’ he says. And the more I learn, the more I think he’s right.” He scratched his scalp and frowned. “I’m going to pay my respects to Dona Meneses.” He shot me a commanding look and marched out.
“How quickly people forget,” Aunt Esther sighed.
“What do you mean?”
She dabbed some rosewater on her neck, then tied a linen kerchief around it. “The plague. It disappears for a couple years and people think it’s something new the Devil’s conjured up.” She brushed a trembling hand over her forehead, reconsidered her words. “Maybe it’s a kind of grace that we can forget. Imagine if . . .”
“Not a word, not a gesture, not a single lesion do I forget!”
Aunt Esther grimaced; she knew I was referring to my father and elder brother, Mordecai. During the winter of fifty-two sixty-three, a little more than three years ago, the knife of plague had peeled them open to the moist northern winds of Kislev. My father, lost under running black sores and pustules, shivered to death on the sixth day of Hanukkah. A month later, the living skeleton that had been Mordecai was dead in my arms.
My aunt and I sat in silence. After a few minutes, Dona Meneses left our house with the large basket of fruit which she always took away from her visits. Esther said, “I’ll go to see if Cinfa needs help in the store,” then trudged out of the room with that stiff, forward-tilting walk of hers. I watched Judah playing in the doorway with his top until Uncle returned to me and said, “I need your help in the cellar.”
Below the trap door, we descended five coarse granite steps, one for each book of the Torah, to a small landing centered by a menorah in green and yellow mosaic. Passing through the next entranceway, we started down another stairway of twelve thinner limestone steps—one for each of the books of the Prophets. Since the forced closure of our synagogue in the Old Christian year of fourteen ninety-seven, this had become our temple. As we descended, I picked a blue cylindrical skullcap from a shelf and placed it atop my head. Uncle reached back to his shoulders and lifted his prayer shawl over his head, giving it the form of a hood. Together, we chanted, “In the greatness of thy benevolence will I enter thy house.”
The cellar was low-ceilinged, five paces wide, double that in length, floored with the same rough slate as the courtyard. It had witnessed at least a thousand years of chant, and its cool, musty air, guarded hermetically by walls shimmering with knotted patterns of blue and yellow tile, seemed scented with ancient memory. Window eyelets at the top of the northern wall—at the level of our courtyard paving stones—let in only a soft, dim light. From the bottom of the staircase, which flanked the eastern wall of the room, spread our circle of prayer mat. Around its circumference were seven verdant bushes in ceramic pots, one for each day of creation. Three were myrtle, three lavender and one, symbolizing the Sabbath, was an intermingling of both plants. The half of the room beyond the mat, facing sunset, was our realm of earthly work, where Aunt Esther scripted manuscripts and where Uncle and I illuminated them. Our three desks of the finest polished chestnut faced the north wall, were spaced only a foot apart so we could view one another’s work. Each was gifted with its own high-backed chair. Opposite, against the south wall, were two granite bathtubs sunken into the floor. In between was our hulking storage cabinet of coarse-grained oak. It had lion’s-paw feet and possessed eight rows of ten drawers, each of them thin and long, like the receptacles for type in a printer’s studio. A last row, the lowest, had only two drawers. We kept our gold leaf and lapis lazuli in these.
The most unusual item in the room was undoubtedly the circular, platter-size mirror on the wall above the middle desk belonging to Uncle. Inside a chestnut-wood frame, the looking glass’ silver surface was concave, and hence reflected squashed and distorted images. We stared into it oftentimes at the start of meditation as a way of loosening the mind from its accustomed landscape, particularly from its familiarity with the body. The mirror was somewhat famous locally because on the sixth of June of thirteen ninety-one of the Christian era, it was said to have seeped blood at the death of tens of thousands of Jews killed in the riots then raging across Iberia. In fact, great-grandfather Abraham held that it shed an infinitesimal amount of blood—invisible to the naked eye—whenever even a single Jew died. He believed that the blood had become visible at the time of the anti-Jewish riots only because so very many of us had been murdered. From his time forward, therefore, it had been known as O Espelho a Sangrar, the Bleeding Mirror.
We all hoped it would never reveal its talents to us again.
As Uncle motioned me toward the sunken bathtubs, he said, “I need you to pee.”
“Now?” I asked.
From the rim of a tub, he picked up a jug. “In here. It’s spring. I need a virgin’s pee.”
Each year, just prior to Passover, my master made new dyes and colors for our manuscript illuminations. The acid in the urine ate at certain elements to create varying colors, particularly a fine rose when mixed with Brazil wood, alum and ceruse, and a brilliant carmine when mixed with the ashes of vine branches and quicklime.
“I’m no longer a virgin,” I said, picturing Helena as she had been in the hills overlooking the vast monastery being built just west of Lisbon. I’d waited so long for her decision. Until it seemed as if sex and life would not happen to me as they did to other people. And then, when all was lost, when the ship set to take her to Corfu was already anchored in Lisbon, her arms opened to me like the gates of God’s grace.
“A whore at the Maidenhead Inn?” Uncle asked, awakening me from daydream. He had often recommended a certain house of ill repute outside the city walls.
When I answered, “Helena,” he raised his eyebrows like a rogue and said, “In any event, you’re the closest thing to a virgin I can get without revealing that we’re still illuminating Hebrew books. Judah’s too young and I’m too old, and women’s pee is too strong—especially your aunt’s. I tried it years ago when we were married. Turns everything black as Asmodeus’ soul.”
We shared a silly grin. “Now I know why you loaded me with fluids,” I said.
As my water cascaded hot and musty into Uncle’s jars, he shuffled to our desks with the modest, duck-like walk he adopted in synagogues and began to dust them.
After I’d peed in six different ceramic jugs and closed their lids securely, we placed them in the sunken bathtubs. Uncle washed his hands and brushed them through the Sabbath bush of myrtle and lavender. With a puzzled frown, he said, “Diego the printer is so late—I don’t understand.”
Diego was a family friend whom Uncle was initiating into his threshing circle, his group of mystics which met in secret to discuss kabbalah. Although a robust man with the graying beard and commanding brown eyes of a patriarch, he’d had his heart reduced to ash in the Inquisitional flames of Seville which had claimed his wife and daughter four years earlier and from which he’d barely managed to escape. Often, Uncle and I sought ways to renew his spirit, and we had convinced him to go for a walk today through Sintra forest so that we might sketch the great white cranes before their migration north.
“Perhaps Senhora Belmira’s family has kept him behind,” I said. A neighbor and friend of Diego’s, she’d been beaten to death in Xabregas, one of the city’s eastern districts, two months before. Diego had been spending a lot of time with her loved ones of late.
Uncle shrugged and cupped his hands around my nose. “Refresh yourself,” he said, and as I sniffed at his myrtle-scented fingers, he added, “If he isn’t here soon, we’ll go to his place and check. Oh, and when we do go out, I’ll need to pass by New Merchant’s Street. I promised Esther I’d deliver the Book of Psalms she’s just finished.”
My master had a way of turning business transactions into disputations on the sex lives of angels and other esoteric matters. “You have precisely the time it takes Diego and me to down a cup of wine at the Attic Inn!” It was a tumbledown garret, but it served kosher wine on the sly.
His lips sculpted a dismayed but amused frown. “Look who’s giving orders!” he observed.
I met his challenge with the bored expression I used to practice to irritate my father when he spoke of Talmud classes. He nodded his agreement. “All right, no more than a half hour.” He motioned for me to bend so he could bless his hand over me. Then, as I picked dyes and colors from the storage cabinet, he unlocked the genizah, the traditional hiding place for old books in a synagogue. Ours was a pit—three feet wide by four feet long—sunken into the floor at the western perimeter of the prayer mat. Its contents were constantly changing; books smuggled out of Portugal were soon replaced with others my master discovered and either bought or begged.
Uncle stepped one foot down into the genizah to retrieve our work. By the time he’d climbed back out, I was at my desk, arranging my brushes and dyes. Placing my manuscript neatly on the slightly inclined surface of the desk in front of me, he circled his hand around the back of my neck and advised me with a parable on the coloration for my most recent illumination, one of the tales from the famous collection of “Fox Fables.” As I began to offer an analysis of his words, his lips began to tremble and his hand grew cold against my skin. “What is it, Uncle?” I asked.
He rubbed his eyes with both his hands, like a child, took a long inhale of breath as if to ready himself for a challenge. “You’re so grown up,” he said gently. “Already my equal in so much. And yet in other matters . . .” He shook his head, smiled wistfully. “There is so much I’d like to tell you . . . Beri, God may soon demand that we take separate paths.” He reached into his pouch and took out a scroll of vellum. Handing it to me, he said, “Be so kind as to accept this little gift.”
Meet the Author
Richard Zimler was born in New York and studied journalism at Stanford University. He has published eight novels over the last fifteen years, including the famous The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. He has won numerous prizes for his work, and is a contributor to the Los Angeles Times Book Review. Visit zimler.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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One of the best books I've ever read. All the element of the the perfect entertainment - suspense & history. Well written plot, characters are alive and real. Very impressed with the authenticated description of the 15th century Portugal. Recommend to everyone.
Fascinating and intriguing insight into Jewish culture in 15th/16th century Portugal. The harrowing descriptions of the pogroms and the overall historical detail were compelling and make this a book well worth reading. However, the mystery-genre aspects of the book are a bit overdone, and I found myself regrettably shlogging through many of the concluding chapters. The final section, however, was curious and thoughtful. Therefore, despite the plot weaknesses and other problems, there is a lot of literary gold and generally great stuff in this book. As a result, I strongly recommend it to interested readers of either Umberto Eco-style fiction or those seeking an interesting and unusal Jewish-read. Give it a try and stick with it...
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon starts off pretty good with very detailed discriptions of 15th century Portugal. The author's words and descriptions are beautifully written. The disappointment begins when the murder mystery takes up the rest of the book. Not what I was expecting. 'The Last Jew' is a great substitute and much better book.