A Review of ‘The Last Jew’ by Noah Gordon
As I wander through the beautiful countryside of Spain stumbling upon towns little known to me that were once the seats of great houses and kingdoms I realise that Spain is not just a country that was known to have ruled over half the entire world at one point. Not so long ago it was also a country with a very tumultuous past. Each of these cities is centered around a huge cathedral and a castle. Invariably the castle is of moorish origin with Visigothic or Roman foundations and the cathedral is built on top of either a torn down mosque or a Synagogue. This pattern is particularly noticeable in cities that went back to the Christian fold during the 700 year long period know as the Reconquista.
To understand this book better we must take a little detour from the story and take a close look at Spanish history. Spain was first settled by people from Central Europe, North Africa and sailors from across the Mediterranean. This was followed by the Roman conquest and after the decline of Rome, Spain emerged as a Visigothic Kingdom that was soon replaced by the Taifas and Emirates of the Moors. Moors were Muslims from North Africa and the Levant who conquered most of the Iberian peninsula save a little haven of Christendom in the northern most part of the country. Catholic Christians from this part of Iberia then embarked on a 700-year-long reconquest of Spain starting from the north. This culminated with the defeat of the Emirate of Granada in 1492 under the aegis of Queen Isabel the first and her husband Ferdinand of Aragon. Not very long after the conquest of Granada, the catholic monarchs issued an edict of expulsion which forced every citizen of Spain to either convert to Roman Catholicism or if they do not wish to let go of the religion of their forefathers, to leave Spain. Many moors and Jews left but a lot of them also converted to Catholicism to continue living in Spain.
Despite embracing Christianity, it was not an easy life for those who stayed back because under the influence of her personal confessor Queen Isabella the first decided to launch the Spanish inquisition tasked at ensuring that the people who had converted to Catholicism were true to it and did not slip back to the religion of their forefathers. This greatly impacted the new ‘Conversos’ when the clergy would whip the crowd into a frenzy and usually attack the former Jewish quarters in the cities leading to bloodshed, forced confessions and horrific capital punishments for those found guilty. These events were usually characterised either by the aristocracies needing to wipe off debt or to seek new ones which usually done in exchange for royal patronage or protection.
The last Jew is the story of Yonah Toledano, the son of Helkias Toledano a silversmith in the city of Toledo in central Spain. The story begins on a dramatic tone when Yonah’s elder brother is murdered while on an errand to deliver a reliquary to the local priory. A local physician is tasked by the abbot of priory to find the lost reliquary and also solve the mystery of the murdered youth. While the physician conducts his enquiries, the edict of expulsion is issued and Yonah and his father plan to flee Spain and seek shelter in the countries to the east. This task does not prove easy as a local friar working for the Spanish inquisition is threatened by the investigation into the death of Yonah’s elder brother and instigates a mob to lynch Helkias and Yonah. As Yonah escapes and seek shelter in the house of his neighbour, a devout catholic christian, Yonah is implored to convert to Christianity and escape the rage of the mob. This does not sit well with Yonah and he flees from the city and thus begins his many year journey across the length and breadth of Spain as he tries to hold on to his identity as a person of the Jewish faith although he is not able to express it outwardly.
The trials and tribulations of Yonah Ben Helkias Toledano are not of great interest here. Nor is the cruelty of the powers that be or the finally delivered justice and vengeance against his brother’s killers. Nor are the various disguises and professions that Yonah takes up to survive during this period. What forms the most important part of the story to me is the fact that Noah Gordon tries to capture the heart and soul of an individual who is forced to lead a double life. How does one hold on to a very important part of his identity but also keep it secretive because the result of any deviations in his outward appearance being detected is a very cruel death. Yonah struggles to both keep his identity as the last Jew in Spain a secret and also struggles to hold on to that identity. Throughout the novel he calls himself the descendant of Abraham and the cultural successor to the millions of Jews that had lived before him in Spain and calls himself an heir to that precious inheritance of culture, language, rituals, rites and religion. One of the very endearing things that I see is that he remembers the Jewish calendar by reciting the date to himself every day. The first animal that he has, a donkey who is his companion throughout this first part of the journey, also has two names a Hebrew one and a Spanish one. This represents the dichotomy and duality of Yonah’s life. On numerous occasions that arise in front of him where he could convert to another religion and choose the easy way out, Yonah refuses to comply with the world around him and continues to be the last Jew in Spain with the sword of death hanging on his head. To be Yonah and not Ramon Callico is not only hard but also perilous. Being circumcised he has to be very careful even while performing an act very simple and natural to the human body as egesting waste. Every time he interacts with a crowd he has to make sure that his identity is not revealed. This must be particularly hard because there is no perceivable end to this double life. His story unlike that of a spy’s doesn’t have a climatic ending where he can ride triumphantly into the sunset.
One of the things that I do not like a lot about this book is that it does not have a clear enemy or motive as most other historical fictions do. The enemy in this book is the perilous daily existence of an outlaw in the society. His very life is an act of defiance and his every breath an act of rebellion. Towards the end of the story characters who are introduced in the beginning of the story as villains are more or less dealt with but you do not have the satisfaction of seeing any epic struggle or battle in the end where the hero triumphs over evil men. That being said the book does end on a very positive note and although the ending is really just the beginning of another long journey, it does so on a hopeful note. I particularly enjoyed Noah Gordon’s style of quick writing without the addition of many flowery sentences or archaic use of language. Nor does he pretend to begin sentences in Spanish with an occasional ‘Hola’ thrown in which I must admit I would have been pretty jarring. The book is quite gripping too as I finished most of the reading on a sunny Friday afternoon when I had the day off.
As I travel around Spain I realize that people of the Jewish faith have not only suffered post the inquisition but have for time and eternity been the target of religious zealots of all kinds only because of their faith being an easy excuse to cover up other reasons they are targeted for. I hope this dark phase of history does not repeat for people of any faith colour language or ethnicity. As times evolve I realize the nostalgic good old times were not particularly good for everyone save a tiny sliver of the population and this universality of human suffering is at the very core of our history as homo sapiens. This also leaves me with great hope for the future because as we evolve and become more accepting of the differences of every individual and look beyond the myopic lenses of labels that we attached to individuals we tend to respect other human beings for no other reason except that they are our fellow living creatures here on a very short visit to planet earth.