Saturday, February 20, 2010

The Last kabbalist of Lisbon

Contemporary German artist's rendition of the Lisbon massacre.

The novel by Richard Zimler, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (copyright 1998), has been an international best seller. It takes the reader to the universe of Jewish Kabbalah during the Lisbon massacre of April 1506.
The curious story about this book, is its own origins, as Zimler exposes in his notes. In 1990, he spent seven months in Istanbul researching Sephardic poetry. He was to stay at Abraham Vital’s house, which has been inherited from an old carpenter called Ayaz Lugo. Both Vital and Lugo were Sephardim, descendents of the waves of Jews who fled persecution in Spain and Portugal from the 15th to the 18th Century. Their ancestors had been offered exile in Istanbul, then known as Constantinople, as early as 1492.
In May, Vital drove Zimler to Ayaz Lugo’s ancient home at the fringes of Istanbul’s medieval Jewish Quarter, the Balat. They arranged that Zimler would move to the old house. That July, Abraham Vital decided to begin bringing the house up to the SXX, with Western standards. Remodeling began with the cellar, so the writer wouldn’t be too disturbed.
On July 18, workmen came across a secret lair, which had been covered by 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. Surprisingly, it was found not to contain a Torah but a leather bound set of handwritten manuscripts, nine in all, prepared over the course of 23 years, from 1507 to 1530.
The manuscripts were in the Hebrew script typical of Iberia, an old Portuguese in Hebrew characters. Portions of the early works were in medieval Hebrew. All but three of the manuscripts bore polished vellum covers on which a title was illuminated with bird-headed letters.
Zimler found that all the manuscripts were signed in a script with the form of an Egyptian ibis by a  man named Berekiah Zarco. The manuscripts were 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. Three of Berekiah’s manuscripts were of secular nature, the first dated from 1507 and the last two from 1530. They concerned the Lisbon massacre of April 1506, where approximately 2000 New Christians –Jewish 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.
There is no doubt about Berekiah’s veracity on those facts; all of the major events in his tale are confirmed by contemporaneous accounts.
The Last kabbalist of Lisbon is more than a translation of Berekiah’s manuscripts; only some extended prayer recitations, chants and obscure explanations about kabbalah have been omitted; the slang was kept and there is a balance between contemporary language and the use of an antiquated word or phrase.

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