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The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, by Richard Zimler

Discussion Guide

Introduction

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a compelling murder mystery and historical novel that uses the catastrophic events that overtook Spanish and Portuguese Jewry in the fifteenth century. These events mark an important period in Jewish history that is often overlooked. The book is a "crash course" in the nuances and details of the persecution, forced conversion, clandestine worship, expulsion, flight and renewal that marked the Sephardi passage. The period is often referred to as the "Inquisition," though this name is somewhat misleading. Many of us do not realize the magnitude of these events which, for its time, was as devastating and earth-shattering to the Jewish world as the Holocaust would be some five hundred years later.

The Kabbalah

Another area of Jewish life that was often overlooked until recently is "Kabbalah". The Kabbalah was an important part of the Sephardi (as well as the Ashkenazi) experience both before and after the "Inquisition." What is Kabbalah? Kabbalah is Judaism's mystical tradition. It is not one book of mysticism. Rather, it is the term used to describe the vast collection of Jewish teachings, symbols, rituals, customs and folklore that deal with mystical wisdom. It is Judaism's way of comprehending and experiencing the unity that lies just beneath the brokenness, contradiction and confusion of everyday life.

Kabbalistic teachings can be found throughout the Talmud. Later, entire books are written which contain collections of Jewish mystical insights such as Sefer Yetzira, the Bahir and the Zohar (written in 13th-century Spain and which opened the Kabbalah to the masses). Often written in a time of profound religious upheaval, these collections became of interest because they helped to give meaning to the difficulties that seemed inexplicable. Unlike philosophy, which is logical and systematic, or to the "mainstream" literal approach of Jewish interpretation used to understand the tangible law, the Kabbalah is open to ideas that go deeper than the rational and obvious. The Kabbalah is a tool, which if mastered can help unravel the mysteries of our lives and reveal the secrets in the apparent paradoxes we face.

The Last Kabbalist is not about Kabbalah itself; however the author, Richard Zimler, uses many Kabbalistic themes and ideas to develop this many-layered mystery in a captivating and thought provoking way.

Historical Background

As the author suggests in his "Historical Notes", sixteenth-century Lisbon is a dangerous place, especially for Jews, who are living a half-hidden life on the run from the Spanish Inquisition. In 1497, Portugal's King Manuel, instead of expelling the Jews, ordered them rounded up and forcibly converted. These so-called "New Christians" were given twenty years to eliminate their traditional customs and practices. Many of the Jews appeared to do so, while continuing secretly to practice their beliefs. But when political winds blew foul, the King sometimes lost control over the forces of religion and many of converts, including those who did not practice Judaism, were burned at the stake, murdered or tortured.

Suggestions for Further Background Information

Look up articles in the Encyclopedia Judaica relevant to the History of the Sephardi passage and to The Kabbalah. These might include: "Sephardi Judaism," "Inquisition," "Spain," "Portugal," "Lisbon," "Constantinople," "Kabbalah," "Zohar," etc.

A wonderful history reference book is Jewish People, Jewish Thought by Robert Seltzer. An interesting introduction to the Kabbalah can be found in The Invisible Chariot: An Introduction to Kabbalah and Jewish Spirituality by Deborah Kerderman and Lawrence Kushner, An ARE Workbook

The Story

The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is set amid the anti-Jewish riots that swept Lisbon in 1506, killing 2,000 "New Christians." The central figure is Berekiah Zarco, a sharp 20-year-old New Christian who has learned manuscript illumination and Kabbalah from his beloved Uncle Abraham. In the midst of the massacre, Berekiah discovers his uncle, murdered in the hidden cellar of their home, which serves both as their workshop to create illustrated manuscripts, their sanctuary to pray, and the meeting place for Abraham's clandestine activities as a smuggler of Jewish books.

The Mystery

The murder scene, as investigated by Berekiah, is both intriguing and disturbing. Next to Abraham is a naked young girl, also stabbed to death. Semen is found on the uncle's thigh, so it looks as if he had been engaging in illicit fornication when he was killed. The door to the cellar had been bolted from inside when Berekiah broke into the room and discovered the corpses, so how did the murderer make his way out? The throats of both victims had been cut just below the windpipe, as if by a shohet, a Jewish ritual slaughterer. Did this mean that at least a participant in the murder was a traitorous fellow 'New Christian?" Or was it part of the anarchy and killings happening outside? The trail takes Berekiah all over old Lisbon. However the journey has a much wider scope. Unraveling the mystery of the murder of his uncle leads Berekiah to discover the answer to an even greater and more important mystery. Perhaps we too can find a deeper meaning of how this novel can help us understand our own lives as well.

Structure of the Novel

Author's Note: The author creates the impression that he is telling an actual true story.

The novel begins with an author's note which claims that the book is simply a reworking of a manuscript that he claims was discovered a few years ago in Istanbul. He describes in detail how nine manuscripts were found inside a tik, a small cylindrical chest traditionally used by Sephardi Jews to house the Torah. Inside this tik was not an actual Torah scroll but a cache of manuscripts by Berekiah Zarco, the protagonist of our story. Each of the manuscripts was written with the sort of reed pen used in 16th-century Iberia. Seven of the volumes are treatises on Kabbalah, but three, written in the form of an early picaresque novel, tell the story of the murder of Berekiah's revered uncle, a great Kabbalist scholar from Lisbon named Abraham.

The note also explains the structure of the book, which is divided into a preface and three parts corresponding to the three manuscripts that unravel the mystery of Abraham's death.

Why do you think the author gives the impression that he is simply translating (and reworking) a manuscript that is an account of an actual event?

Preface by Berekiah Zarco: Our protagonist explains his reasons for initially recording his story and why he suddenly chooses to complete the manuscript some twenty-three years later.

Berekiah says that he began writing his tale in the Hebrew year 5267, corresponding to the Christian year 1507. The story takes place during several days of Passover of the previous year, during and just after the famous massacre of Lisbon. However, Berekiah explains that he did not complete his story immediately thereafter. "Selfishly, I abandoned my narrative when God would not grace my soul with relief."

He only decides to finish the narrative now some twenty-three years later from his place in Constantinople. He is prompted to do so when the son of the family's maid from Lisbon comes to Turkey and presents him with the key to the family's house back in Lisbon. The maid, who had been given the house when Berekiah and his family fled from Lisbon and landed in Constantinople, had recently died, and her son tells him, "Should you desire to return… Your house awaits you in Lisbon." For Berekiah, the key not only opened the door to the house but also opened a door inside him that allowed him to see a vision of his uncle. It is this vision which prompts him to fulfill his destiny as a mesirat nefesh, one willing to sacrifice his soul to help heal the ailing world and to effect reparation in the Upper Realms of God's creation. Only now can Berekiah answer the riddles of these events, which had so impacted on his life, and the life of his people.

Book One (Chapters I - VIII)

According to the preface Berekiah began writing his story while in Constantinople in 1507. However, he begins his telling as if he is writing his words while hiding in the cellar of his home in Lisbon in 1506 in the middle of the horrible events that would change his life.

The opening chapter sets the scene for the events that would unravel. It is the spring of 1506. Berekiah and his family are preparing to celebrate Passover, although as "New Christians" they had postponed their festival one-week from the traditional date in the hopes of avoiding gossip about them. The city had no rain for more than eleven weeks and the plague had ravished the country for more than seven months.

Against this menacing backdrop, Berekiah Zarco, a follower of the mystic Kabbalist tradition, goes about his life in Lisbon's Jewish quarter, the Alfama. But the course of his life changes all at once on a horrible spring night in 1506 when rioting breaks out and Berekiah returns home to discover his beloved uncle dead on the floor of the family's secret book cellar, next to the naked corpse of a young woman. Bent on revenge, Berekiah sets off in search of the killer, a man he is certain is a treacherous Kabbalist friend of his uncle. The trail takes him all over old Lisbon, and leads Berekiah to a state of isolation, dismay and total lost of faith.

Book Two (Chapters IX - XX)

It is the day preceding the sixth night of Passover and Berekiah and his family ascend once again from the cellar for they have heard that the city has quieted. Berekiah and his family are now able to bury his Uncle so his soul can return to God and be at peace. Berekiah, however, will not find peace until he finds the answer to the mystery of his uncle's murder. He sets out to solve the murder, calling on all his talents - from his "Torah memory" which allows him to capture the crime scene in his mind to the artistic skills that allow him to draw sketches and analyze handwriting. Yet, he is unable to proceed without the help of his Muslim friend Farid, a deaf-mute adept at seeing and understanding clues that are riddles to others. As Berekiah and Farid continue their search they uncover more and more secrets, for in this community everyone lives behind masks. And as each character is unmasked, another aspect of the human character faced with danger is revealed.

In the end, Berekiah discovers who murdered his Uncle Abraham and the young girl and is able to avenge their death. And yet he feels a profound sadness as he suddenly senses a forever absence from his Uncle who until then had been guiding his actions at every turn. "So many questions I should have asked him, will never be answered."

Book Three (Chapter XXI): An Afterwood: The Answer to the Real Mystery

The last chapter is once again written from the vantage point of many years after the murder and massacre. Berekiah recounts how immediately after the death of the murderer he himself immerses himself in sex and liquor to escape the pain and despair. Only after many months does Berekiah follow his friend Farid to Constantinople and guides his family out of Portugal to the safety of the Ottoman Empire. Looking back, he can see the answer to some but not all of the unanswered questions. Inspired by the vision of his Uncle and the key which allowed him to open some of the doors inside his own soul that had been shut, he is now able to sense his own role and fulfill his own destiny.

Questions for Discussion

Chapter I (p. 23-39)

One of the teachings of Kabbalah is that reality is layered. When we realize this we are often left with more questions than answers until we can see more of the layers. As you read the book you may often want to reread sections to uncover another layer.

  1. What is your initial impression after reading the first few pages? What tone has the writer set?
  2. Why do you think the year is told first according to the Hebrew Calendar and then the Christian Calendar?
  3. Berekiah notes that he had just turned twenty and that he was a little too devout for his own good. What does he mean by this? Can we think of times when we may be a little too devout or to sure of ourselves?
  4. How does the narrator use Passover? Is the fact that it is Passover a sign of hope or a reminder of the oppression that is repeating itself?
  5. What feelings are evoked as Berekiah and his younger brother Judah experience the marching of the flagellants?
  6. What role do the women play in the story?
  7. What is the symbolism of God always appearing in Berekiah's visions as a bird?
  8. What is our first impression of Abraham as he emerges suddenly from the cellar? How does he seem in contrast to Father Carlos who is supposed to be Judah's teacher?
  9. What does the cellar represent? Are we surprised when we discover that Abraham needs Berekiah's urine for his dyes and colors? And how about the open discussion about sex? What is the Kabbalistic attitude toward the body and bodily functions?

Chapter II (pp. 40-55)

  1. Who is Diego, and what does the attack perpetrated against him represent?
  2. Why is Diego so upset about his beard needing to be shaved to deal with his wound? What Jewish principle applies that will allow the doctor to shave his beard? How does Diego feel when Abraham and Diego see him at the hospital? Why?
  3. What is the symbolism of the encounter with the Castilian nobleman and his daughter?
  4. What is the relationship of Abraham and Berekiah toward Farid? In what tone does Abraham call him a heathen? What is their attitude toward Rabbi Losa?
  5. When we celebrate Passover, it is easy to have the impression that the night of the Exodus was a hurried but seemingly organized event. How does Reza's disappearance on the first night of Passover change our understanding of the holiday?
  6. What is Abraham trying to convey to Berekiah when he urges him to "hold fast and embrace the lion in you"?
  7. Is there any significance in Berekiah's returning home at the beginning of the riots, opening the cellar door and smelling the stink of "lavender and excrement?"

Chapter III (pp. 56-79)

  1. Is there any symbolism in the murder victims having been slaughtered as if by a shohet?
  2. How does the murder of his uncle affect Berekiah? After seeing a vision of his Uncle what does he perceive his mission to be?
  3. How does the detailed description of the riots and killings make Berekiah feel?
  4. At one point, after seeing a horrific torturing, Berekiah thinks to himself, "It is a failing of God that we cannot draw such physical pain away from another human being and make it our own." Is this such an unnatural thought? Why does Berekiah say that it was as if an arrow of heresy had split his mind?

Chapter IV (pp. 80-90)

  1. Trying to cope with his confusion and despair, Berekiah turns to the hand-me-downs he'd inherited. He puts on his father's linen pants, one of his elder brother's shirts and his uncle's ancient cape? What does this represent?
  2. Is there any shift in the mood, as Farid and Berekiah are reunited? as Berekiah finds other members of his family? How does his role change in any way?

Chapter V (pp. 91-103)

Berekiah's doubt and confusion intensify: "There never was any God watching over us! Even at its kabbalistic core, the Torah is simply fiction. There is no covenant. I have dedicated my whole life to a lie." Farid responds by suggesting that they focus on solving the murder. Was this a useful suggestion? How do we respond when we feel despair and hopelessness?

Chapter VI (pp.104-120)

  1. Who does Rabbi Solomon Ibn Verga represent?
  2. What other examples can be found in this chapter that shows that Berekiah has given up on religion and that he is looking elsewhere for answers? What questions and doubts are emphasized? What is his feeling about the Old Christians?
  3. How does Berekiah feel when he realizes that Farid is seriously ill?
  4. What is the significance of Berekiah getting outside Lisbon by crossing over water? Has he made his final exodus?

Chapter VII (pp. 121-127)
Berekiah meets with Rana the wife of Samson, a member of the threshing group who has lost faith after the birth of his son.

  1. What is the significance of Abraham's note to Solomon? What is the message of the Tale of Rabbi Graviel's Sunburn? Does Berekiah truly understand the story?
  2. Rana shows Berekiah the Bible in which Samson has crossed out each and every name of God. Why did Samson tell his wife that after Passover they must pray for the Lord and then bury him? Was he suggesting God was dead? Why wait until after Passover?
  3. How does Berekiah initially respond when he sees the Bible? Does he do lose trust in God? Why does he throw the Bible into the fire? Has he concluded he can only survive by building an inner garden?
  4. What is Berekiah feeling when he sees Rana nursing her child?

Chapter VIII (pp. 128-140)

  1. Why does Berekiah remember the last lesson his Uncle had given him and Judah? On what holiday is the story of Abraham's near sacrifice of Isaac normally chanted? What is Abraham the Kabbalist's interpretation of this story? Does Berekiah understand the message at this point?
  2. Why is this the last chapter he writes in 1507?

Chapter IX (pp.141-163)
This begins Part Two, which Berekiah can only begin to write twenty-three years later.

  1. Berekiah and his family finally are able to bury the bodies. Many others also participate in the burial of their loved ones. How does this help them cope with their lost?
  2. What does Berekiah see in his vision? What hints is he given from the riddles of Abraham?
  3. Who is Antonio? Where does he hope to go? What does he mean about the friendly Muslims in the Italian peninsula? Is he really a lunatic?
  4. Who does the Northerner symbolize?
  5. How does the discovery of the identity of the naked girl change things for Berekiah?

Chapter X (pp.164-176)

  1. What is a mikveh (in the book spelled micvah)? What could be its symbolism?
  2. How does the discovery of more clues change Berekiah's outlook?
  3. Does Berekiah feel he will be able to help Farid? Why is this important?

Chapter XI (pp. 177-188)

  1. When Berekiah and Farid hug, Berekiah notes that Farid feels like Mordechai (his deceased elder brother). Why is this important?

    Note how more and more of the characters and their secrets are uncovered.

Chapter XII (pp. 189-204)

  1. How do you react to the story of the blacksmith with the huge penis and the nobleman who constantly drinks? What attitude do these characters seem to have towards these bodily concerns?
  2. Why did Abraham tell Dom Miquel the true story of his identity?
  3. How did the Kabbalists view books according to Berekiah? Why was it so important that so many Jewish books be smuggled out of Portugal?

Chapter XIII (pp.205-212)

The exorcism of the Ibbur shows that Berekiah has mastered the Kabbalistic ways. However, by removing the Ibbur from Gemilla, Berekiah loses the chance to learn the identity of the murderer. How must he feel about this?

Chapter XIV (pp. 213-225)

  1. What does the following quote suggest? "Breathe in the darkness…Something new is out there between the odor of shit and smoke and forest. Anew landscape is forming, a secular countryside that will give us sanctuary from the burning shores of religion. We've only gotten a whiff of it so far. But it's coming. And nothing the Old Christians can do can keep it from giving us refuge." Do you think the author is hinting at the future Enlightenment?
  2. Carlos' responds with a question. "What will this new landscape have as a foundation." Is this too a hint at the dangers of secular enlightenment without some moral foundation?
  3. What is the significance of Farid's reaction to his father's sandals? Yet despite his grief why is it that Farid can be thankful for Allah giving him back his health? Why is Berekiah envious?

Chapter XV (pp.226-235)

  1. How does the arrival of Dom Afonso complicate matters for Berekiah? These complications he becomes disappointed. He remembers his Uncle teaching him that life presents us with many paths leading nowhere…How does this Kabbalistic concept that life is complicated and difficult help when we are faced with disappointments?
  2. How does Simon's appearance bring light to the mystery? How do we feel when the Northerner stabs Simon instead of Berekiah?

Chapter XVI (pp. 236-247)

  1. What is your impression of the count and his daughter Joanna? Why is Berekiah so attracted to Joanna? Why do you think Joanna tries to help Berekiah?
  2. Why does the count believe that acting will be a good profession for Jews to study?

Chapter XVII (pp. 248-263)

  1. How does Farid figure out that the count who desires to buy manuscripts is also Isaac of Ronda who offered to sell manuscripts to him earlier?
  2. What are we to make of the interaction between Farid and Berekiah in this chapter? Why is there tension between the two? And what about the interaction between Berekiah and Reza before the Sabbath?
  3. When Farid kills the Northerner and saves Berekiah's life, he gestures without hesitation. What has changed for Farid?
  4. Diego comments on p. 260, "The Lower Realms aren't ruled by any logic which you're likely to find scripted in the kabbalah." Do you think Berekiah would agree at this point? Does he agree with this statement at any point?
  5. What is the significance of the halizah? What is its symbolism?

Chapter XVIII (pp. 264-271)

  1. What is your impression of Rabbi Losa and his story? Is Berekiah right in characterizing him as a self-righteous rabbi?
  2. Why does Berekiah try to use his talents to help find a remedy for Rabbi Losa's daughter, Rachel?
  3. Why does Berekiah doubt the validity of the confession of Solomon the mohel in his suicide note?

Chapter XIX (pp. 272-281)

  1. What is your impression of Dona Meneses, who has been portrayed by Abraham as Queen Esther in his personal Haggadah?
  2. What is the significance of the Almond Farm? Is there possibly a deeper significance of almond trees used as cover to smuggle out the sacred texts?
  3. After Dona Meneses flings her emerald necklace at Berekiah he suddenly realizes another possibility. What is it that gives him a clue?

Chapter XX (pp. 282-2295)

  1. What do you think Berekiah tells the caped giant as he hands him an offering? Does he realize what will happen next?
  2. Why did Diego murder Abraham and the girl?
  3. Why hadn't Abraham given his nephew the task of helping with the book smuggling?
  4. Was it true that Berekiah was afraid of his responsibility as the last kabbalist of Lisbon? Did he understand the meaning of sacrifice that his uncle tried to teach him?

Chapter XXI (pp. 296-308)

  1. What is the symbolism of Joanna and Berekiah consummating their desires and then her leaving forever?
  2. Why is it that Berekiah must indulge himself to overcome his grief?
  3. What happened to the lunatic Jewish Beggar who hoped to get permission to visit the Pope?
  4. What does Berekiah suggest is his Uncle's almond tree?
  5. Do you think Berekiah finds God in Constantinople? As Farid notes, quoting Uncle: "You must knock upon yourself as upon a door. It is there where you will find Him if He still exits for you."
  6. What does Berekiah discover about himself? Did he fulfill his destiny? How does Berekiah see Diego? Does he understand him? Does he forgive him?
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