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BOOK REVIEW: by Linda Dangoor-Khalastchi

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

by Richard Zimler

Published by Arcadia. 318 pp. 11.99

In 1990, the author Richard Zimler was in Istanbul researching Sephardic Poetry when he discovered a set of 9 leather-bound manuscripts in a small cylindrical chest which was used by Sephardic Jews to house the Torah. The manuscripts were written in the square Hebrew script but the language used was old Portuguese. That is to say old Portuguese phonetically transcribed in Hebrew. They were all signed in a careful script by a man named Benekiah Zarco and seemed to have been written over the course of 23 years from 5267 to 5290 - 1507 to 1530 CE.

The Kabbalist of Lisbon is the translation of these manuscripts, a mystery story set in 16th century Portugal.

In 1496, King Manuel of Portugal decides to convert the Portuguese Jews to Christianity rather than expelling them and by so doing, losing such valuable and erudite citizens. Under dreadful and coercive methods some did convert. However, these New Christians, as they were called, secretly persisted in their beliefs praying in Hebrew and keeping the Sabbath and as much of their rituals as was possible.

One of these 'Secret' Jews was Abraham Zarco, a renowned and respected Kabbalist who was found dead with a dead naked girl by his side. The story is narrated by his nephew, Benekiah Zarco a talented young manuscript illuminator who tried to solve this enigmatic murder.

This is a 'who-dunnit' thriller with a difference. In this hauntingly beautiful mystery story - which also introduces us to the hermetic traditions of the Kabbalah - Richard Zimler authentically captures the daily lives of Lisbon's clandestine Jews evoking their fears and harrowing experiences in those dark times.

Richly written with remarkable erudition, the author weaves an intriguing murder thriller with vivid historical and religious detail and transports the reader across space and time. An exotic novel that can be read on many level like a true Kabbalist text.

 

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