Richard Zimler — Author of The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon
How a gay, Long Island-born mystery writer became Portugal’s Jewish conscience
by John Krich
When I moved to Portugal for love two years back, I asked my future wife and local friends to recommend some reading that might help me to more deeply comprehend my new home. I expected them to name the works of Fernando Pessoa, the surreal diarist who wrote under numerous guises and has become a posthumous symbol of national fatalism; or Jose Saramago, the one Portuguese Nobel Laureate, a staunchly left-wing spinner of baroque allegories; or perhaps Antonio Lobo Antunes, the country’s best-known living author, obsessed, like many, with the country’s faded imperial glory.
Instead, they all pushed at me the prolific output of a fellow American interloper, beginning with The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a page-turning thriller featuring Lisbon’s 16th-century Jewish community, published in 1998. His name is Richard Zimler, and in Portugal, this transplanted New York Jew is a perennial best seller—the equivalent of Dan Brown infused with Elie Wiesel. And his novels, both historic and contemporary, have done more than spin escapist plots. His presence in this insular realm of just ten million at the edge of Europe has sparked a major rediscovery of the country’s Sephardic Jewish roots.
“Richard has had a huge impact on our country,” says Alda Sousa, a former member of both the Portuguese and European Parliaments who is a friend of Zimler’s. “He’s helped us face our past, not just with guilt but with love.”
Portugal’s entanglement with Jews began even before it became a kingdom in 1139. Under the Alfonsine Dynasty, Jews were granted special privileges—exemptions from church taxes and freedom to follow their faith as well as some of the highest and most influential positions in the royal court. “Unlike elsewhere, Jews were never excluded from any profession,” explains Zimler as we talk over glasses of local wine in Foz, an upscale seaside enclave where he lives just outside Porto, the country’s second largest city. As court astrologers—really astronomers—Jews contributed to scientific knowledge that led to Portugal’s navigational preeminence and the first “discoveries” of Asia and the New World, he adds. Jews were also prominent doctors, botanists, scholars, artisans and political advisers. One enterprising Sephardic woman, Gracia Nasi, created a financial network across Europe.
These centuries of largely peaceful integration came to an end in the late 15th century. After 1492, Portugal took in thousands of Jews expelled by the Spanish Inquisition, and might not have staged its own but for the marriage of Portuguese King Manuel I to one of the daughters of Spain’s Isabella and Ferdinand in 1497. Although there was unconscionable cruelty—including 700 Jewish children wrenched from their families and shipped to an African island—Portugal’s version of the Inquisition was initially not as extensive as that of Spain’s. In hopes of retaining Jewish know-how, the Portuguese generally preferred coercion to expulsion. But the result was catastrophic for the kingdom’s Jews: Renowned royal astronomer Rabbi Abra-ham Zacuto called it “a forced conversion on a scale never before witnessed.”
Even Jews who renounced their faith were not safe. Tens of thousands of so-called New Christians were burned at the stake in this homegrown Inquisition, and most covert Jews with means fled to places such as Greece, Italy, Turkey, Holland and the New World. The first group of Jewish settlers in North America were 23 refugees from the Portuguese colony of Recife, Brazil, who arrived in New Amsterdam (present-day New York City) in 1654. The New York Times’ founding Sulzbergers, philosopher Baruch Spinoza and French Prime Minister Pierre Mendes France are among the many luminaries who trace their ancestry to Portugal. New Christians who could not emigrate stayed behind, secretly practicing crypto-Jewish rites. Only in 1821 was the Portuguese Inquisition officially abolished.
Until the very end of the 20th century, there was little national scholarship or interest in Portugal’s Sephardic Jewish heritage. Nor was there any official government acknowledgment of past wrongs or any markers or restorations that indicated the country had a Jewish history. Stultified by the country’s isolation, poverty, near-feudal church rule and a 40-year fascist regime toppled only in 1975, what little Jewish life remained was strictly underground.
Richard Zimler hardly planned on becoming Portugal’s national Jewish conscience. Growing up in the deracinated suburb of Roslyn, New York, to first-generation non-believing Leftists, Judaism was a faint backdrop in Zimler’s life. Like many students in the 1960s, “I found more inspiration in Buddhism than Judaism—which I found outdated, even when majoring in comparative religion at Duke,” he tells me.
For the past 24 years, Zimler has worked tirelessly from a contemporary duplex condo in Foz. Nearby we look out over the blue expanse where the Douro River, lined with the steep terraces that produce Port wine, empties into the Atlantic. I feel instantly drawn to this lanky, chuckling man with a wide brow and deep-set blue eyes. He is dressed in a rainbow-colored scarf and floppy pants, which make him appear youthful for 58: half-clown and half-muse. Like a tall—and intellectual—grasshopper, as a friend would aptly describe him. And Zimler tops off his unpretentious and caring manner by displaying a confident Portuguese with loud New York intonations, revealing that he is as unabashed in his embrace of his adopted land in life as in writing.
After obtaining a master’s degree in journalism from Stanford University, Zimler landed a corporate writing position in the Bay Area and dreamed about writing a novel someday. He might never have done so but for a chance 1978 meeting in a San Francisco café with Alexandre Quintanilha, a professor of physiology ten years Zimler’s senior. It was love at first sight, and they have been a couple for 36 years—a partnership confirmed as soon as gay marriage was legalized in Portugal in 2010. But it wasn’t any great desire to know Quintanilha’s homeland that led to Zimler’s discovery of Portuguese-Jewish pogroms. Instead, it was the modern-day plague of AIDS.
In 1989, Zimler watched helplessly as his beloved older brother Jerry died of the disease. “When someone you love dies at that young an age, you start to question the justice of the world,” he says. “You feel cheated. For a long time, it was as if I were carrying Death around in my pocket.” During this period, San Francisco was “fading to grey during the viral eclipse,” Zimler recalls. HIV infection “was all everyone was talking about.” Although they shared an idyllic life in a Berkeley Hills cottage, Quintanilha suggested they escape the epidemic and accepted a job offer from the medical school in Porto. Zimler himself got a position at the university’s journalism school. “I prepared for months to teach in English, but on the first day, I learned my course had to be in Portuguese,” he recounts. “I got through it by memorizing 50 key nouns and 10 verbs.”
“For the first time, I realized how shallow my understanding of Judaism was. It was as if I had been seeing only the surface of a vast ocean, and now—after learning a bit about kabbalah—I could see a few feet down into its great depths.”
Before he left the United States, Zimler had come across the book, A Sign and A Witness: 2,000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts. The discovery, he declares, “was my door to Jewish history.” The volume inspired him to try to make sense of the complex illustrations in medieval manuscripts. “Suddenly, I wanted to know what pictures of bird-headed women had to do with my religion. And I found Judaism was such a wonderful compendium of mythology and storytelling.” Some of these remarkable drawings were from Portugal, which led Zimler to delve into the country’s Jewish past.
Zimler was also drawn to a Jewish school of thought with Iberian roots: Kabbalah. “Kabbalah changed my life,” Zimler states without a hint of pretension, crediting his discovery to a book by 20th-century scholar Gershom Scholem he found on his mother’s bookshelf. “For the first time, I realized how shallow my understanding of Judaism was. It was as if I had been seeing only the surface of a vast ocean, and now—after learning a bit about Kabbalah—I could see a few feet down into its great depths. The symbolic reasoning of the Jewish mystics, and, in particular, their poetic approach to the Torah, have enhanced my understanding not only of Judaism, but of myself and the world as well.”
From these twin interests came The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, a murder mystery about a “found” manuscript. It begins in Istanbul, inspired by a true encounter that occurred while Zimler was researching the book. “One family showed me a rusted, centuries-old key to a house in Portugal they still hoped to reclaim,” he says. The story quickly returns to Lisbon where it centers around Berekiah Zarco, who searches for the murderer of his uncle, the eponymous kabbalist, who is found dead in the family’s hidden prayer room.
The setting is the 1506 massacre—alternately known as the Lisbon Massacre, the Lisbon Pogrom or the 1506 Easter Slaughter—which took place over Passover and was led by Dominican priests and joined by many in the city. More than 1,400 Jews were slaughtered or burned at the stake over three days. “Richard Zimler immerses himself in all aspects of the culture of the period in which his fiction is set,” says Jacob J. Staub, professor of Jewish philosophy and spirituality at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania. “His rendering of the situation of the Jews in early 16th-century Portugal in The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon begins with the best historical scholarship and then imaginatively explores its nuances and ambiguities.”
The book that would make him a household name in Portugal sat unpublished for nearly five years. The Last Kabbalist was rejected by 24 American publishers. “One editor wrote that he’d already bought his Jew book for that year,” Zimler remembers. He figured that his short-lived literary career was over. Even when he decided to buck the system and bring the novel out in a Portuguese translation (its title in Portuguese is O Ultimo Cabalista de Lisboa), his local publisher warned that, because of its Jewish focus, the result of so much meticulous research “could disappear within a few weeks.”
Instead, helped mostly by word-of-mouth and a single newspaper review, after two weeks the book was number one on the Portuguese best seller list. (The Last Kabbalist has been a best seller in 13 countries and was named 1998 Book of the Year by three British critics. It has come out in 23 languages.) And this year, production is scheduled to begin on a German-financed feature film based on the book, with Danish Academy Award-winner Bille August set to direct.
“The timing was just right,” says Zimler. “The book tapped into all this pent-up curiosity about Jewish life, because virtually no one in Portugal, not even history specialists, knew anything about Portuguese Jewish history and Jewish mysticism. Nothing! After the fall of the dictatorship in 1974, people were permitted to explore subjects long repressed, such as the history of Jews in Portugal.” An influx of European Union funds also gave people the free time and tools.
“The Last Kabbalist suddenly gave people permission to delve into the lineage of their descendants,” he continues. “I have personally heard from no fewer than 200 readers in Portugal and maybe 100 from other countries, who have told me that my novels moved them to start researching Jewish history and to find out more about their own family tree.”
To Helen Avelar, a specialist in Jewish history at the University of Lisbon’s me-dieval studies department, “this was a real landmark work. It didn’t just bring to attention the killing of the Jews in 1506, and make that vivid, but the fact that the Portuguese themselves have so much Jewish blood and influence.”
Even before I began reading Zimler, I had noticed how pleased the Portuguese I met seemed to be when I told them I was Jewish, a pronouncement met almost uni-versally with an eagerness to declare that they, too, were somehow related to those once-shameful New Christians. “Instead of hiding as in the old days, it’s suddenly so trendy to be Jewish, or think you are,” says Avelar. In a typical remark, one prominent banker, who once represented the Portuguese government in Macau, told me with a wink that, “there’s something familiar about Jewish humor, Jewish complaint, Jewish authors and even the food, something that’s there in our DNA.”
This newfound interest has reverberated through intellectual circles, says Zimler. “Portugal now has whole departments, research institutes and widespread discussion devoted to the Jewish past,” says Zimler, adding, “It wasn’t all my doing, of course—but I did push authorities to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the massacre. It’s the reason there’s a memorial on the spot.”
This new awareness—in a land still Catholic enough to shut tight on Sundays—has been reflected on an official level. In 2013, the Portuguese Parliament passed an act promising, after a commission ironed out sticky details, a “Right of Return” for Jews whose ancestors had been forced to flee five centuries back. This was more complicated than correcting the outright expulsion in Spain—the neighbor Portuguese hate and love, but especially dislike being confused with. While Spain’s similar initiative has become bogged down in protests from its large Islamic community, Portugal may actually end up offering E.U. status to Jews—Zimler estimates that “no more than 100,000 Sephardim” will be able to document a link back through generations.
Both conservative and socialist legislators I met seemed sincerely committed to redressing a historical wrong and lingering stain on Portugal’s image as a country of tolerant racial mixing. Cynics, however, point out that in a time of “austerity” and unemployment, this might be the perfect vehicle to bring some Jewish investment back into the economy. And Zimler himself can’t help pointing out that the measure comes “70 years too late” for Jews with Portuguese roots—especially those in occupied Greece—who were denied rescue from the Nazis by the country’s fascist regime. Indeed when one diplomatic consul, Aristides de Sousa Mendes—known as the “Portuguese Schindler”— issued thousands of visas to fleeing Jews, he was persecuted by the country’s dictator António de Oliveira Salazar.
Jewish tourism is also afoot. In 2001, an ambitious “Rede de Judiarias,” or net-work of Jewish quarters, also referred to as the “Route of Sephardim,” was created by Jorge Patrao, a determined tourism official who needed “more than one snowfall a year” to draw business to the country’s smallest mountain state. By now, nearly 30 towns have been funded to research and restore ruined remnants of synagogues, mikvahs and more, as well as creating exhibits and Jewish museums (including one designed by Eduardo Souto de Moura, one of Portugal’s leading modern architects). A non-Jew who has turned himself into one of the leading experts on Sephardic history, Patrao explains that an initiative aimed at stimulating rural economies has been transformed into a vehicle to “reclaim all of remote Portugal’s true identity. It’s a way for these towns to unearth their true past.”
Zimler has proved to be far more than a one-pogrom pony, going on to write nine more books of historical fiction thus far. Four (including The Last Kabbalist) are part of what he terms a “Sephardic Cycle”—a group of fully independent but interconnected novels about different branches and generations of a Portuguese Jewish family in disparate times and places. In Hunting Midnight (2003), Zimler follows Sephardic Jews through the Napoleonic period, then to the American South. In Guardian of the Dawn (2005), he uncovers a buried history of Jewish persecution in Goa, Portugal’s Indian colony, taking to task Saint Francis Xavier along the way. With The Seventh Gate (2011), he fast-forwards fictional generations to explore the moral dilemmas of a Jewish girl during the rise of Hitler and the Nazis’ treatment of the disabled.
More recently, The Warsaw Anagrams (2011)—which won the Marquis de Ouro prize as Book of the Year in Portugal— traces a psychiatrist’s search for the mur-derer of his beloved seven-year-old nephew in the Warsaw Ghetto. In his latest novel, The Night Watchman (2014), Zimler departs from his usual use of Jewish characters and themes: A bicultural (and bipolar) police inspector in Portugal investigates the murder of a well-connected Portuguese businessman which enmeshes him in a lurid world of shady political corruption and sexual violence that triggers memories from his childhood.
The author has also ventured into more controversial territory. In his 2005 The Search for Sana, for example, an investigation into a young Palestinian woman’s suicide reveals hope and despair between Arabs and Jews in a Haifa neighborhood. Joao Guerra, an outspoken member of Lisbon’s Jewish community, used the book to term the author a political “naïf.” “But it’s not a pro-Palestinian book!” Zimler demurs.
Zimler is not without critics. There are occasional grumblings that his prose is too populist. Rare mixed reviews have taken him to task for “a burdensome need to sound profound,” an inability to wear his “prodigious knowledge lightly.” These complaints have not deterred his devoted following of readers. Several of his books have won important prizes in Europe, and all nine have been Portuguese best sellers—four went on to be number one. In a country where book sales of 2,000 are considered decent, The Last Kabbalist has sold over 60,000. In addition, several books have proven popular in the United Kingdom—The Warsaw Anagrams was a Kindle best seller there.
Yet Zimler has not been similarly lauded, or even read much, in the land of his birth. “It’s who you know among editors and reviewers in the U.S., and I am off the radar,” he explains. Why he is less renowned at home is unclear. Perhaps there simply isn’t enough curiosity in the United States for tiny Portugal, or Goa, or the other places and epochs he explores.
To Jacob Staub, Zimler’s works may be too nuanced for Jewish-American readers. “Zimler stands out as a writer who does not reinterpret history in order to bolster contemporary Jewish identity,” he says. “Jewish characters are protagonists, not heroes or symbols or models. You don’t read him to be inspired by Jewish virtue. You read him to immerse yourself in first-rate fiction that brings the realities and dilemmas of Jewish lives to light.” One British reviewer may have hit upon an explanation by observing that Zimler’s tales “feel more powerful in Portugal than America, because that is where he found his fictional heart.”
Literary fame has given Zimler the stature to become an advocate for progressive causes in a traditionally conservative culture. The private man has embraced a public agenda—making a point, unlike most expats, of actively engaging in local causes. “I’ve become a Portuguese citizen,” he points out. “So I think I have a duty to participate in the civic life of this country to the fullest.”
He has been open in his criticism of his adopted country. He drew ire when he dared to chastise the late and lionized Jose Saramago, an avowed atheist, when Saramago bemoaned the lack of “moral guidance” in the Old Testament—to Zimler a serious misreading. He has attacked Portugal’s leaders for taking budget slashing to extremes. “The current neo-Liberal government is trying to return to a time when only a very small elite got a good education,” he said in an interview this summer with Vida magazine. He has even taken to expressing his opinions about the current state of Portuguese affairs on his website. “Imagine a country with the lowest salaries in Western Europe, where about 40 percent of young people are unemployed, and where 50,000 shops went out of business in 2011 and 2012,” he writes in a blog post. “Now also imagine one of the two political parties running this country proposing that it needs less education—fewer years of schooling— in order to overcome its economic woes. Keep in mind that leaders of this same populist party also recently affirmed that there is no reason why basic civil rights—such as freedom of speech and religion—shouldn’t be subject to a popular vote.”
Zimler also speaks out on women’s rights, abortion, gay rights and the treatment of migrants. Says legislator Alda Sousa, Zimler is a “natural communicator” who is seen not as “an American or a Portuguese but a citizen of the world.” As a strong supporter of public education, Zimler accepts invitations to speak at some 50 to 60 public high schools around the country each year. “Most Portuguese writers consider this beneath them,” he laments. Giving talks on the Holocaust and the Inquisition, he admits that he sometimes feels like a bearer of bad news and “this country’s honorary Jew.” But he spends much of the time answering questions about how writers live and work, offering encouragement to “find your own learning without teachers and authorities.”
Ultimately, among young people, the talk turns to the fact that he is openly gay. “The reason I agree to touch on my sexuality is that I know that there are young lesbians and gays in the small towns—and not so small towns—who are feeling lonely and scared,” he explains. “While Alex and I never had any difficulties, that may be because Portuguese tend to respect university professors. If we had been a plumber and carpenter, for instance, I’m not sure what the reaction would have been. Generally, it is okay to be gay here as long as you don’t bring it up as an issue. Very few writers here are out of the closet. Even the young ones.”
In The Night Watchman, he directly confronted Portugal’s contemporary social ills. “One big surprise awaited me as I wrote the book: I discovered that I was far more interested in the moral crisis affecting Portugal than the economic one,” he says. “That was the controversial aspect of the book in Portugal, because I discussed corruption and influence-peddling, and how these crimes affect people’s lives—and how they often go unpunished.”
Despite his overall popularity, Zimler has not been embraced by Portugal’s small Jewish communities. “In the New World,” he observes, “we’re so free within our Judaism. We can pick and choose amongst the traditions, believe this part and not believe the other part. In Europe, with the Holocaust and all that has happened, the communities are very closed. You are either in all the way or out.” He admits he is slightly bitter. “In Brazil, it’s ‘Welcome, cousin,’ but here in Porto, I’m just not one of them. I’ve had little support from the congregations and they never organized events for my books.” As he explains, “There has been resentment at my writing the Jewish story in Portugal, because I was not ‘one of them.’”
Still, he hopes his works—which seem to confront evil with equal parts outrage and forgiveness—have helped a bit to counter any rise in anti-Jewish sentiments in Portugal. “I think there are two kinds of anti-Semitism in Europe at the moment, and they overlap. First, the campaigns against Israel have given the old bigots a chance to speak openly about their dislike for Jews.” The second kind is more surprising to Zimler. “Even after the Holocaust, so many educated European still openly believe the old lie about Jews controlling the world.” He’s less concerned about Portugal—where Jews (or North African Muslim migrants) hardly exist—but does worry about “open hatred” for Jews in Spain and elsewhere on the continent.
The Lisbon Book Fair is a sunny Mediterranean fiesta. Amid booths peddling Port wine, chorizo and egg tarts, Portuguese authors hold autograph sessions that seem more like chummy encounters at a sidewalk café. Even after nearly two decades, Zimler’s lines of adoring fans are always among the longest. “Wherever he appears, there is sure to be a large audience eager to hear about his work,” says Director of Lisbon’s Film Festival Elena Piatok, adding: “He has become an indispensable figure on the Portuguese literary scene and not just the Jewish Portuguese literary scene—where he is absolutely the one and only!”
I watch as one thrilled Zimlerite puts forth A Sentinela [The Night Watchman], trembling with excitement at getting the author’s dedication. “His characters are unforgettable, whether contemporary or five centuries back,” says another breathless devotee, who previously won a contest to have dinner with any local literary figure and chose Zimler. “It helps that my readers here are the most generous in the world,” says Zimler. “They often stop me in the street to thank me for my books. They sometimes even tell me how my books have changed their lives.”
The last word belongs to the final autograph-seeker in line. Clutching her dog-eared copy of The Last Kabbalist, university student Maria Manuel Cruz says, “It’s our national shame that we need someone like him to make us confront our own history. But we do. And he does it so well.”