The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon

by Richard Zimler

Book, 2000



Call number

150 ZIM


Woodstock, N.Y. : Overlook Press, 2000


The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, an international bestseller, is an extraordinary novel that transports listeners into the universe of Jewish Kabbalah during the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. Just a few years earlier, Jews living in Portugal were dragged to the baptismal font and forced to convert to Christianity. Many of these "New Christians" persevered in their Jewish prayers and rituals in secret and at great risk; the hidden, arcane practices of the kabbalists, a mystical sect of Jews, continued as well. One such secret Jew was Berekiah Zarco, an intelligent young manuscript illuminator. Inflamed by love and revenge, he searches, in the crucible of the raging pogrom, for the killer of his beloved uncle Abraham, a renowned kabbalist and manuscript illuminator, discovered murdered in a hidden synagogue along with a young girl in dishabille. Risking his life in streets seething with mayhem, Berekiah tracks down answers among Christians, New Christians, Jews, and the fellow kabbalists of his uncle, whose secret language and codes by turns light and obscure the way to the truth he seeks. A marvelous story, a challenging mystery, and a telling tale of the evils of intolerance, The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon both compels and entertains.… (more)

Media reviews

"Zimler's portrait of the city (and the New Christians' uneasy place within it) enriches his many-layered narrative, in which a suitably complex cast of characters plays a dangerous game with fate."
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"The novel exhibits a curious predilection for revoltingly detailed descriptions of torture and murder, but there’s no gainsaying its authoritative re-creation of an imperilled culture in a savage time and place, or the force of the prophecy that Berekiah finally infers from the mystery of the
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death his Uncle doubtless expected—and may have courted."
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User reviews

LibraryThing member -Eva-
During the Lisbon massacre of April 1506, illuminator Berekiah Zarco finds his uncle, a renowned kabbalist, murdered in the cellar and Berekiah must scour the streets of Lisbon for suspects among the very few New Christians who knew Abraham Zarco's secrets. This is part locked-room mystery, part
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history of New Christians in 1500s Portugal, with a lot of religious mysticism weaved into the plot to add an extra layer of meaning to the story (and to allow for the main character to have "visions" that carry the story forward). I enjoyed Zimler's descriptions of time and place, especially the living conditions for Jews in Portugal during this period. Occasionally, the mystery portions were also satisfactory, but most of the time there were too many characters and much too much running back and forth across Lisbon and surrounding areas without any real result or progress. I appreciate Zimler's role in researching Jewish history and wish he had told a more straight-forward story of his characters' fates. As a plotter of mysteries he has a ways to go. Trivia: Zimler originally failed to find a publisher for his book, so he translated it into Portuguese and it became a bestseller in Portugal before the English edition found its way into print.
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LibraryThing member cbl_tn
Berekiah Zarco, a young man of about 20, is one of Lisbon's New Christians – Jews forced by the Portuguese to become Christians in 1497. At great risk, Berekiah's family continues to produce Hebrew manuscripts in secret. In addition to training him as an illustrator, Berekiah's Uncle Abraham is
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also training him in kabbalah. During Passover in 1506, Berekiah's uncle sends him on an errand. Berekiah returns home to find that Lisbon's Old Christians are massacring the “New Christians” (i.e., Jews). He is grieved to find his uncle's slain body in the secret cellar where the manuscripts are hidden. After he examines the body, Berekiah realizes that his uncle was not a victim of the massacre. He was murdered by a fellow Jew, one of the handful of people who knew about the hidden cellar and its secrets. Berekiah resolves to hunt down his uncle's killer, but he'll have to escape the massacre in order to have his vengeance on the murderer.

I knew little about kabbalah before reading this book, and I hadn't heard at all of the massacre of the Jews/New Christians in Lisbon. The setting provides plenty of tension. The “New Christians” are in a precarious situation. Berekiah's family as well as other families continue to practice Judaism in secret. Some of the “New Christians” have completely converted to Christianity, while others keep one foot in each camp. It's risky to trust anyone. Berekiah questions his faith during the events of that Passover week, but what he questions seems to be something other than kabbalah. His faith seems to be in himself and in his uncle/mentor rather than in God. Some parts of the book touch on occult matters, and there is one scene describing demon possession. Although I generally books with a strong supernatural/occult element, this one stayed just within my comfort zone.

This would be a good fit for readers who enjoy historical mysteries/thrillers. It has a similar feel to S. J. Parris's Heresy and Iain Pears's An Instance of the Fingerpost. Readers who liked either of those books might want to give this one a try.
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LibraryThing member jonvanh
Interesting book set in 16th century Lisbon, at the time of the pogroms against the Jews. The story is told against the background of a murder in the Jewish community, and the main character, a nephew of the murder victim is trying to find the person responsible for the murder.
LibraryThing member cmwilson101
The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon by Richard Zimler is a treasure box of a book, filled with gems of beautiful writing, philosophical questions, and contemplations on right and wrong, love and betrayal. The story begins with the author renting an old house in Istanbul, and discovering a hidden room
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containing rare, beautifully illuminated Jewish manuscripts from the 1500's written by an illuminator, Berekiah Zarco. The author translates the books, and Zarco's story unfolds:

He was a young Jew boy caught up in the Lisbon during the infamous massacre of the Jewish in 1506. During these horrific events, when the world is turned upside down for him, someone kills his beloved uncle. It falls to him to solve the mystery of his uncle's murder against the backdrop of the pogrom taking place around him.

The story is captivating, the setting is atmospheric & authentic, the myriad characters are all complex, real characters, and the writing is exquisite. If that is not enough, the story raises questions about human nature, good and evil, religion, tolerance, love and hate -- everything that is important is discussed in this book in a thoughtful, thought-provoking way. So highly recommended that I went out and got a second copy of the book so that I could lend it without giving up my own copy.
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LibraryThing member itchyfeetreader
An enemy one knows is often easier to bear than one who is unknown

Plot in a Nutshell
In the late 1400s all Portuguese Jews were forced to convert and became “New Christians” although many continued to practice in secret and at great personal risk. In Spring 1506 as the shadow of the
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Inquisition started to be seen in Lisbon a drought was further exacerbated by a plague and a large scale pogrom began. Against this backdrop Abraham, a Kabbalist is killed in an apparently locked room and his grief stricken nephew Berekiah Zarco seeks his killer whilst trying to survive the devastation.

Zimler had clearly invested a good deal of time and effort in his research and the geographical detail in the novel was rich and immersive without ever seeming to be clunky or forced – it felt like I was running through the streets of Lisbon with Zarco. The historical detail too was impressive and I finished the novel feeling much more aware of a period of history I had not known a great deal about. The writing of some of the scenes were deeply dark and visceral and Zimler’s prose impacted all of my senses – it may have felt uncomfortable to read at times but he absolutely captured the brutality and horror of the time. Here though my enjoyment of the novel stopped.
The novel purports to be a direct translation from a contemporary manuscript – however the tone, structure and language (particularly some of the highly sexual content) did not match and left me always a little confused. It seems like an unnecessary layer to have added.
However, for me the main issue with the novel was the characterisation. As expected for a story about a whole community there is a large cast of characters and I struggled a little to keep them all straight in my head or care as they inevitably suffered through the days of the massacre. In the main cast I found no one particularly sympathetic. Abraham, the uncle and victim of the crime that forms the main mystery section of the novel was cold and patronising and I found it difficult to be moved by his death or the subsequent investigation.
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LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
The last Kabbalist of Lisbon is not so much about Kabbalah as it is a locked room murder mystery set amid the riots against the Jews of Portugal in the early part of the 16th century. During this time, which actually spanned the late 15th century to almost mid-16th century, many Jews were forced to
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publically give up their faith and convert to Christianity; the only other option was death at the hands of a mob.

Despite the dangers, many Jews still practiced their religion in secret. Kabbalah is the mystic branch of Judaism and because of its mysticism, it was usually practiced in secret by a closed group of initiates. Enter the primary protagonist, Berekiah (Pedro) Zarco, who arrives at home after running an extended errand for his Kabbalist uncle, Abraham, to find his neighborhood engulfed in a riot, his uncle Abraham murdered in his locked, secret “library” of holy books (genizah) along with an unknown, dead naked woman.

The detective work Berekiah undertakes with a trusted companion, a mute Sufi scholar named Farid is slow, but persistent and methodical. What will keep the reader’s attention is the backdrop of narrow escapes the duo endures as they keep encountering mob violence going on all around them. The duo, separately and together, finds respite in some unlikely places and meet some characters that are not always what they seem to be.

I particularly liked the pairing of a Sufi Scholar, the mystic side of the Islamic faith, with a Kabbalist. Adding to the historical background of the story, this shows that two faiths have a shared heritage and that in the past, the two people commonly aided each other.

The author makes use of the “found manuscript” as an opening gambit to get the reader hooked into the story. This succeeds to the point that an Internet search for the name “Berekiah Zarco” will yield some discussion if such a person actually existed. While this is a work of fiction, the history that serves as a backdrop is well documented. While you do not have to be Jewish, and certainly not a Kabbalist, to enjoy the book, if you are Jewish you may find yourself more involved in the story on a more personal level.

While very original and well narrated, the story does drag on in parts. Some of the deception is predictable as well. I was fully engaged throughout and really did care about finding out the truth, so I still have to award this novel four stars. For those that enjoy historical fiction and wish to gain an insight to mob behavior, this is a must read.
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LibraryThing member suesbooks
There was too much deus-ex-machina in this book, although it was attributed to kabbalah. The historical facts were interesting, but finding the murderer was tedious, especially since his younger brother was missing, and the time could have been spent searching for him.
LibraryThing member EJStevens
The Last Kabbalist Of Lisbon is an amazing read. The tinder of plague, the wood of drought and the flame of religious intolerance begin a wildfire of riots against the Jews or "New Christians" in the Lisbon massacre of April 1506. During the onset of the riots the lead character, Berekiah Zarco,
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discovers the body of his murdered uncle and that of a young woman. Details at the murder scene lead Berekiah to conclude that his uncle, a kabbalist wise man, was murdered not by an "Old Christian" but by one of their own. The novel then takes off at a feverish pace and the methodical study of his uncle's murder is all that anchors Berekiah amidst the chaos of violence and terror. Although graphic (contains physical and sexual violence) this is an outstanding novel.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
The world of sixteenth century Lisbon and the Jewish Kabbalah is the background for this historical mystery. The protagonist is a young manuscript illustrator (sounds like a cross between The Flanders Panel and The Club Dumas) who attempts to find out who killed his uncle. His search takes him into
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the world of Kabbalists and with it brings secret languages and codes. It was an award winner for best First U.S. historical mystery of the year and I agree that it gives the reader a flavor for a very different time and place. Anyone who has enjoyed Arturo Perez-Reverte or Umberto Eco will like Zimler's suspenseful tale.
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LibraryThing member LukeS
"The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon" deals with the horrific 1506 pogrom in that city, and it deals with it at some length. The detail and the lengthy, lengthy recounting of it wore me down. The narrative follows Master Abraham, who is murdered, and his nephew Berekiah, who works assiduously at finding
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his uncle's killer. Amid all the death, furtiveness, and horror, who can tell where to look?

Unfortunately, I also had trouble keeping the suspects straight. The book contains some philosophical musings about the Kabbal, God, persecution, and the coming secular world. I understand praise for this book - certain scenes are vivid (although for the most part descriptions are sketchy and inadequate) and powerful, and a sense of injustice is the lifeblood coursing though this novel. I found it weighty and wearing - so much so that I considered putting it down halfway through.
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LibraryThing member librisissimo
Leading in Dan Brown's footsteps.
Substance: May capture the milieu of Lisbon in 1506 during the massacre of New Christians (Jews converted in 1496), but uses Kabbalism only as window-dressing, with no discussion of its origins, content, or differences with Orthodox Judaism. Also uses any excuse for
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an interpolation of literary porn.
Style: Straightforward most of the time. Switches tense for some unexpected reason in part II.
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LibraryThing member luvoldnew8
Takes place in the Lisbon massacre of 1506 preceding the Inquisition. Borekiah Zarco tracks the killer of his uncle, a famous kabbalis. It is at once an historical trip into the state of politics and religion of the Old Christians, the New Christians and the Jews and wht a turbulent and terrifying
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time they live in. Zimler's writing is incredible, the story amazing. Read it in one sitting.
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LibraryThing member john257hopper
Last Kabbalist of Lisbon (Zarco 1)

This was a murder mystery set during the period of persecution of Jews in early 16th century Portugal. It is apparently based on a real manuscript discovered by the author in Istanbul in 1990, written by Berekiah Zarco who fled to Constantinople in 1507 along with
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thousands of other Hispanic (Sephardic) Jews. It is very graphic in places, which serves to illustrate some of the appalling things that humans can do to each other when roused by fear to seek scapegoats. A somewhat depressing but very good read.

I discovered this author by accident during a Kindle sale. I have downloaded the other three Zarco novels for 99 pence each. 4/5
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LibraryThing member VictoriaJZ
I was traveling to Portugal and found this book to read while there and after. I did enjoy the work, as it was a mystery [one of my favorite genres] and about the 1500s there [a period I enjoy reading about]. It was an interesting book and mentioned a number of the cities we traveled to. And
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reading it causes me to want to do more looking into that period of history in Portugal.
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LibraryThing member Ravens_Bookshelf
This is one of those few murder mystery novels in a historical setting that you just can't put down! The story is set amongst the "Spanish Inquisition" times, specifically the Lisbon Massacre in April 1506 in which the Jewish community were dragged into forced conversion or execution. The focus of
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the book is less about this, but more about the mysterious murder of the central character's uncle, a jewish mystic called Abraham.

The protagonist, Berekiah Zarco, a young jewish illuminator of manuscripts, seeks answers and revenge for the murder of his uncle. Along the way he questions Christians, Jews and fellow Kabbalists for these answers. He follows clues, nearly gets killed and even sees a Jewish Exorcism. Throughout the book, the observant student can also see snippets of Kabbalistic wisdom and medieval alchemical imagery. This book is fascinating and riveting at the same time! Read it once for fun, and then read it again for the hidden wisdom within! - Salient
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LibraryThing member antiquary
Mystery set in LIsbon in 1506 -- young Jewish scholar investigates the death of his uncle, a noted Kabbalist.
LibraryThing member riverwillow
Superb evocation of man's inhumanity to man. Zimler's descriptions of atrocity and the aftermath are stunningly horrid yet his characters never ever lose their humanity. I am really looking forward to reading the other books in this series.
LibraryThing member orangejulia
It's difficult for me to express just how much I adored this book. I picked it up intending to read a couple chapters in the tub before going to bed early. I ended reading until the water was cold and my room mates banged on the door. When I finally finished I immediately wanted to reread it to get
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more of the details.

It's captivating and exciting, making you want to devour the text in big gulps. Putting this down is painful because you want to know more. The loose ends are not neatly tied up at the end of each chapter, nor at the end, which is wonderful. I hate it when an author ties up the story with a neat little bow.

The book operates on several levels. It's a historical novel about Jews in Portugal, anti-semitism, forced conversion, reactions to the plague, kabbalah, and bonds of friendship and blood. It also deals with the masks that people wear in varying social situations, and losing yourself in those masks. Jewish religious practice and the Kaballah are, not surpisingly, very important to how the mystery plays itself out. Then there is the murder mystery, friends and family lost and feared dead, and stolen property. I'm making this sound ponderous, but Zimler keeps all those balls in the air, and doesn't ram his opinions down our throat.

This novel isn't only for Jews or mystery fans. It's a brilliant work of fiction that most anyone would love. Buy a copy for yourself, and a copy to give away.
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LibraryThing member cfk
Sixteenth Century Portugal was a simmering cauldron of religious persecution, suspicion and hatred. The borders had been secured against free travel, the country's Jews had been put through a forced conversion to Catholicism just a few years before the events of this book,and many of these 'New
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Christians' put on the outer face of Christianity while living as 'secret Jews'.

Drought and recurring pestilence fed the fires of passion and persecution. The Dominicans of Lisbon literally lit the fires and drove the 'Old Christians' to feed the flames with the bodies and Hebrew books of the Jews, young and old alike during the Passover of 1506.

Berekiah Zarco was a young man being trained by his uncle as a kabbalist and manuscript illuminator to produce copies of sacred writings. His uncle was involved in the rescue of ancient manuscripts and getting them out of Portugal to save them from the fires of the Christians for future generations of Jews.

Berekiah finds his uncle murdered in their hidden sanctuary with an unknown young woman. So much of the setting and details indicates that the killer must be one of their inner circle. Berekiah, driven by a raging passion for revenge, suspects those closest to him.
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LibraryThing member sea-anne
This is an intensely gripping and readable book. I had many dreams about it while I was reading it. It was helpful to view the violence of the time through the ethics and pragmatism of the main character. I love it when a book can give you the experience of travelling.

Original publication date



1585670227 / 9781585670222

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