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The Coffee Trader, by David Liss

Discussion Guide

INTRODUCTION

The Coffee Trader is a thriller set in 1659 Amsterdam amid the backdrop of the Portuguese Jewish immigrant community, the Amsterdam commodities exchange, and the seedy taverns that line the canals. Miguel Lienzo is a former converso, a Jew forced to convert to Christianity but who continued to practice Judaism in secret. Destitute after losing a fortune in sugar futures, Miguel befriends a mysterious Dutch woman who introduces him to coffee, which has not yet taken hold in Europe. This new drink opens a world of opportunity, treachery, and revenge.

Characters

Miguel Lienzo – a defiant former converso who moved to the Netherlands from Portugal to escape religious persecution.

Daniel Lienzo – Miguel's brother, a rather conservative counterpoint to Miguel's rebelliousness. When Miguel's investments failed, Daniel allowed Miguel to move into his home

Hannah – Daniel's lovely but neglected wife. Having spent her early life as a converso, she now secretly embraces Catholicism.

Geertruid Damhuis – a beautiful and mysterious widow who befriended Miguel after rescuing him from a barroom scam.

Solomon Parido – Daniel Lienzo's patron and a member of the Amsterdam ma'amad, who hates Miguel for breaking his engagement with Parido's daughter.

Alonzo Alferonda – a roguish but good-hearted moneylender who was excommunicated by the Ma'amad, ostensibly for assisting Tedesco immigrants without the Ma'amad's authority.

Historical and Technical Notes

Commodities Exchange. Since the Middle Ages, commodities have been traded in open markets in several European cities. In the early 1600s, with the great range and scope of the Dutch East India Trading Company, Amsterdam became host to the world's first established global commodities exchange, and the birthplace of Futures Trading.

Calls, Puts, and Futures Trading. In the early days of commodity trading, money was exchanged for products on the spot. Hence, such trades were called "spot" trades. In a "forward" trade, a contract guarantees the sale for a specific price at a specified future date. In "futures" trading, commodities rarely change hands; it is the speculated rise or fall in price that is being traded. A "call" is the purchase of the right to buy a commodity at a guaranteed price. A "put" is the option to sell a commodity at a set price.

Ma'amad (also spelled "Mahamad"). A term denoting the leadership of Sephardic communities after the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497.

Parnassim. "Providers" or "administrators," related to the Hebrew "Parnassah" (provision, salary, financial support). Individual leaders of a Jewish community. In modern vernacular, they might be referred to as "big donors." In Dutch Portuguese Jewish communities, the Ma'amad was typically comprised of Parnassim.

Herem. Excommunication. Expulsion from the Jewish community. Once a person is placed under Herem, it is forbidden for any member of the community to conduct any business or engage in any social interaction with that person. The most famous historical figure to be placed under Herem was Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677), the Dutch born philosopher who was excommunicated in July 1656 for his radical interpretations of Bible. It is worth noting that the Ma'amad was not so much offended by Spinoza's ideas; they feared that the Christian community might be offended.

Tudescos. Term for "German," used by Spanish/Portuguese Jews to describe Jews of Eastern European countries. Note Alferonda's description on pages 64-68.

Discussion Topics and Questions

  1. "Miguel would later recall that his venture had begun in a place called the Golden Calf, surely an unpromising name" (page 9). What is the significance of the tavern name in light of all that befalls Lienzo in the course of his coffee trading undertaking?
  2. The Lienzo brothers, Daniel and Miguel, behave quite differently toward authority, and each had his own relationship with Judaism. Which of the two has a closer bond to Judaism or a stronger Jewish identity? How does each brother's attitude toward authority shape his Judaism?
  3. Hannah grew up believing she was Catholic. Only as a young adult did she discover her true identity. Discuss the ensuing challenge. Why did she feel alien to Judaism? What attracted her to the Church? How might her religious life be different if she were married to Miguel rather than Daniel?
  4. Despite being placed under herem, Alonso Alferonda seems deeply Jewish. How does he express his Judaism? What are his attitudes toward the Jewish community? In what ways has he rebelled or rejected Jewish authority?
  5. Why was Alferonda placed under herem? To what extent was it because of his trade with theTudescos and to what extent can it be attributed to his disputes with Parido? What did herem mean to a Jew living in seventeenth century Europe? (See Alferonda's comments on page 94).
  6. How is the Ma'amad similar to a modern Jewish Federation or Synagogue Board of Directors? How do they differ? What other organizations operate similar to the Ma'amad? Why was the Ma'amad so authoritarian? What cultural, historical, or sociological factors may have influenced its conservative policies?
  7. How was life different for the Portuguese Jews in Holland compared to their life in Portugal? Read Alferonda's account of life as a converso (page 22-25).
  8. How were the Tudescos different from the Portuguese Jews? Why did the Ma'amad limit interaction between the two communities? Note Alferonda's observations on pages 64-68.
  9. Regarding the questionable morality of his characters, Liss has said in an interview with Robert Birnbaum, that "morality is frequently bound up with luxury." What does this mean? Evaluate the morality of Miguel Lienzo, Alonzo Alferonda, and Geertruid Damhuis. In what ways do they act ethically? Can their acts of deceit be justified?
  10. Today, the big names in Wall Street high finance are often Jewish, like Michael Milkin, Ivan Boesky, Carl Icahn, and Ron Perelman. How is Miguel's story similar to that of modern corporate and market manipulators?
  11. In the same interview, author David Liss has said that being Jewish "frees me up to make my Jewish characters more unpleasant because nobody could accuse me of Anti-Semitism." To what extent are Liss's characters "unpleasant?" Do you believe Liss's statement is true? Do you think that some Jews would find the book anti-Semitic if they thought the author was not Jewish?

Further Reading

David Liss has said that one of the inspirations for The Coffee Trader was Fernand Braudel's three-volumeCivilization and Capitalism: 15th-18th Century, translated by Sian Reynolds, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981-84.

Spinoza: A Life by Steven Nadler. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

The Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam .

Union of Liberal Synagogues in the Netherlands (affiliated with the World Union of Progressive Judaism and the Reform Movement)

The PBS site, Heritage Civilization and the Jews, has a section devoted to the Amsterdam Jewish community:

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