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The Last Jew, a novel written by Noah Gordon in 2000, is a wonderful example of historical fiction. Set in Spain around the time of the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, the protagonist, Jonah, starts his adventures as a 15 year-old Jew without family or friends. In a country where it is a crime punishable by death to even shelter a Jew, he tries to survive and maintain his Jewish identity as the last Jew in Spain. Like the best historical fiction, we learn lots of fascinating history while enjoying a suspenseful plot and a cast of noble and villainous characters.
Before the expulsion, there are the “Old Christians”, the Jews, the Moors, and the “New Christians” (recently converted Jews or Moors). But if you are a Jew, conversion to Christianity may not save you. That’s because of the Spanish Inquisition, a special tribunal of the Catholic Church charged with crushing heretics and apostates. The grandfather of more recent witch hunts, the Inquisition used torture and terror to achieve its ends. Those found guilty (often on false evidence) were burned alive at the stake, or, if they were lucky, strangled to death before the flames consumed their bodies. The public executions bore the sinisterly ironic name of auto-da-fés, literally an “act of the faith”.
But our hero somehow stays one step ahead of the Inquisition, peregrinating through the Spanish countryside, experiencing love in its many forms, and searching for his true vocation. Along with much else, we learn about the legal (and illegal) trade in sacred relics, medicine in sixteenth century Europe, and the splendours of the doomed efflorescence of Moorish culture in Grenada. At the story’s end, we are left with Jonah’s wistful attachment to his family and his old religion, in the face of the hostile alien culture around him.
The cover art on the paperback edition I read is a reproduction of Goya’s painting, “The Inquisition Tribunal”, which itself rewards a close look. Anyone who likes history, adventure, and romance, will certainly enjoy this book.
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