The Last Jew is a study in contrasts, as history is tainted by the overweening zealotry of religious fanaticism. The Church hierarchy is so intimidated by cultural differences and fearful of the power of alternative belief systems that they govern the lives of True Believers by removing any source of temptation. The tentacles of the Inquisition are far-reaching as the Spanish monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, guided by the machinations of the infamous monk Torquemada, order the summary expulsion of all Jews living in Spain in 1489.
Only conversion to the True Faith can provide a reversal of fortune for the dispossessed. Through the sacrament of Baptism, former Jews are allowed to become Christians, creating a class of "conversos", or New Christians. The conversos are never entirely safe from persecution, however, and remain viable targets for the periodic display of autos-da-fé (act of the faith). This public burning of mercilessly tortured and denounced heretics is meant for the amusement and edification of Old Christians; frequently personal retribution, jealousy and avarice are the hidden motives behind accusations. In such turbulent and dangerous times, fear and suspicion are endemic while trust is in short supply, even among friends and relatives.
This particular story revolves around Yonah Toledano and his nemesis, Fra Bonestruca. Yonah is a young Jew, son of a silversmith, orphaned by the powerful priest during a raid on the elder Toledano's house. Bonestruca's unusually attractive countenance belies a violent and avaricious nature that strikes a chord of fear into anyone drawn into his circle of influence. Fleeing the wrath of the Inquisitors, Yonah assumes the name Ramon Callico. His travels lead him throughout Spain, while he poses as an Old Christian, but privately acknowledges himself the embodiment of "the last Jew".
At each new destination, Yonah/Ramon reinvents himself -- peon, gypsy, armorer, physician -- and he inevitably selects someone to trust with his true identity. Unbelievably, Yonah is never betrayed by any of his chosen mentors. Eventually achieving status as a physician of some reputation, Yonah ministers to Bonestruca in the friar's last days before his pitiful and swift descent into madness. Revenge is suddenly irrelevant, as nature accomplishes well-deserved punishment for years of transgressions and evil intent. Gordon's Yonah leads a charmed life; most of his enemies meet their just rewards, ultimately vanquished by circumstance, the triumph of good over evil, the result a plot too often transparent and facile.
Noah Gordon is no Sharon Kay Penman, but his writing is fluid enough to sustain interest, especially regarding details: the methods of the Inquisitors, the lucrative market for sacred relics, and the relocation of vast numbers of beleaguered Jews. Historically accurate, this anecdotal rendering of the Jewish Diaspora from Spain would be more interesting were the characters not cast in such blatantly black and white roles. With few exceptions, Yonah is the epitome of kindness and nobility, while his enemies are riddled with the most heinous faults and inadequacies. Yet the true hallmark of humanity is found in our very ambiguity, the shades of gray where the moral imperative becomes subjective and choice is made difficult by mitigating circumstances.
Yonah discovers text relating to the concept of retribution while clandestinely studying sacred Jewish tomes. He ponders, "If Jews were in power instead of the Church, would they also use God to destroy unbelievers? Was it an axiom that absolute religious power must bring with it religious cruelty?" A question worth consideration.