Zimler, Richard. The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon. Overlook Press, 1998, 318 p.

Lisbon in 1506 was not a safe place for Jews. The Inquisition is in full swing in nearby Spain and a drought is the excuse to make Jews in Portugal the scapegoat for God's anger. Whipped into a frenzy by Dominican friars, Lisbon's Christians go on a rampage, murdering scores of Jews. Some are burned, some are stabbed, some are thrown from rooftops. No abomination is too sordid for the mob once they begin their orgy of death and destruction.

One of the survivors is young Berekiah Zarco. Zarco's uncle Abraham is one of the elders of the community and a renowned mystic. Abraham is training Berekiah in the ways of the Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. But Abraham cannot escape the death that is all around and Berekiah finds him dead, murdered, in their cellar. Berekiah resolves to solve the mystery of his uncle's death. Risking his own safety, he moves through Lisbon, following clues, until he discovers that truth of his uncle's death.

Or maybe he doesn't. While he finds his uncle's murderer, the reasons for the murder remain much more mysterious. Zarco ponders the meaning behind the murder and realizes that he'll never know what his uncle saw and perhaps what sacrifice he made.

Zimler takes an historic event and creates a fictional murder mystery. His 16th century Portugal is a dangerous place. Not only for Jews, but more so for them than anyone. Zimler uses the Lisbon massacre as a microcosm for the bloody 20th century, which saw that pogrom expanded to an entire continent. His message is simple: Jews have never been safe in Europe. And it's only through leaving that they can find their home and their safety.

One has to wonder how right he is in 2003. The anti-immigrant feeling that is now evident in Europe, even in such historically tolerant countries as Holland, must seem like deja-vu to European Jews and lead to some unease.

Tales like the one Zimler has penned ought to serve as cautionary signposts, warning us of the possibility of sudden and catastrophic descent in mass madness and murder.


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