Among the many gifted American-Jewish writers, Richard Zimler is singular: He has lived in Portugal for the last 30 years and writes in English, with many novels related to ideas of faith and Judaism. His books are first published in Portugal, where they are regularly bestsellers, and then internationally.
His latest novel to be published in English, “The Gospel According to Lazarus” (Peter Owen Publishers), explores the deep friendship between Jesus, here Yeshua ben Yosef, and Lazarus, known also by his Hebrew name Eliezer, who was raised from the dead after four days by Yeshua. Zimler’s writing is richly detailed, his characters compelling. Even if readers know how this story will unfold, there are surprising turns in these pages.
The story is framed by Eliezer writing a scroll for his grandson, from his exile in Greece toward the end of his own life, offering his own gospel about the life and death of Yeshua; he is pained that his best friend’s views and mission are being distorted by his followers. Eliezer looks back to their childhood in Nazareth, when Eliezer once saved Yeshua from drowning, to his own pre-exile life as a mosaic-maker in Bethany, just outside Jerusalem. The two men speak like no one else, lacing their language with biblical texts and mystical references.
Zimler writes of mysteries and dreams, describing priests, bodyguards, oracles, the sisters of Eliezer, sandal makers, people hoping to get shards from Eliezer’s shroud after he is brought back to life, wealthy patrons of Eliezer’s mosaic art, woodworkers, those who betray and those who perform acts of compassion. Yeshua is not afraid of embracing lepers — he’s only afraid of how much they suffer.
Like Milton Steinberg’s classic novel “As a Driven Leaf,” an imagined biography of the Talmudic figure Rabbi Elisha ben Abuya, “The Gospel According to Lazarus” is a portrait of belief and daily life in ancient Israel, grounded in research.
I first encountered Zimler, who grew up in Roslyn Heights, L.I., through his excellent 1998 novel “The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon,” a work of historical fiction that became an international bestseller. Among other works, he has written four novels about different branches of the Portuguese Jewish Zarko family introduced in “The Last Kabbalist,” with the latest one, “The Incandescent Threads,” already out in Portugal.
Zimler lives in Porto — where he received the city’s highest distinction, the Medal of Honor, in 2017 — with his partner, scientist Alexandre Quintanilha, who is a member of the Portuguese Parliament. While he recognizes that he’s off the radar as an American writer or a Jewish writer, Zimler finds a certain freedom in that. But since Portugal is such a small country and he’s well-known there, he hears directly and regularly from a lot of readers.
When asked if he thinks of this new work as a Jewish story, he replies, in a telephone interview, “I really do. Jews throughout history have had different approaches to Jesus, ranging from total contempt and dismissal as a minor figure, to a recognition that there may be something important and mystical in his words and actions that we can examine as Jews. You don’t have to convert to Christianity or see him as the Messiah in order to respect him and want to know more about his methods and purpose. You can simply see him as Yeshua ben Yosef, a Jewish preacher and healer who must have been deeply charismatic in order to have raised such strong opposition and attracted such devoted followers. Maybe his message can add to our understanding of first-century Judaism.”
About his version of Yeshua, Zimler says, “For me a key moment in the book is when Eliezer explains why he thinks Yeshua is so charismatic — it’s something I’ve noticed about people who can focus the attention of others and inspire others — he says that when Yeshua is talking to you, there’s nothing else that exists in the world. For me, Yeshua is someone like Nelson Mandela. When he walks into the room, you know there is something different about him — his presence, dignity, an aura that others don’t have. I’m not completely clear where it comes from. But he’s got it.”
Several times in our conversation, Zimler refers to himself as secular or non-religious. When I question his attraction, over his many books, to religious and spiritual themes, he says “I am drawn to the big questions, the universal themes about whether we have a purpose, about faith, about the origin of evil. My characters are searching for their own place in the world, their own identity, trying to make sense of the cruelty around them, and in the case of Eliezer (Lazarus), the idea of justice.”
Zimler started reading Greek myths at age 7, studied comparative literature at Duke University and later returned to study Jewish texts. “I wanted to know the ancient stories. Mythology deals with big topics: Is there a God? Is there a transcendent reality? What does that mean for our lives here? In my novel, I tried to mix that in with the realities of daily life at the time.
“Each book for me is a gate. You open the gate and pass through. Each novel brings me to a different landscape, to a new understanding of the world – and of myself. Each book is an exploration of those doubts that still bother me. Kabbalah was an important discovery. It gave me permission to be the way I wanted to be, to not accept other people’s interpretation of scripture, to understand the place of human beings in the world. It gave me permission to write my books as I wanted. I have to thank Gershom Scholem and other authors who changed my life,” he says.
The 1989 death of his older brother from AIDS-related complications in part was an inspiration for this novel. Zimler says that taking care of his brother during his protracted illness changed him forever.
“His suffering and my own moved me through a gate into a different period of life. Those who’ve lost a sibling or dear friend at a young age invariably think: If someone so promising — with so much life — can die young, then where is the justice in life?”
“At the moment Jerry died,” he continues, “I passed through a second gate into a world that didn’t seem to make any sense — because he wasn’t there and never would be. It was almost impossible for me to adapt. And one of the results of that — of living in that ‘impossible’ world — was my need to write ‘The Gospel According to Lazarus.’ Like me, Lazarus questions the justice in the world when Yeshua is taken from him.”
“So in examining Lazarus’ reaction to his old friend’s death, I was, in a sense, exposing my own fragilities, regrets and bitterness. Within the narrative — through my exploration of the friendship between Lazarus and Yeshua — I did my best to write honestly and movingly about the single worst trauma that I ever faced.”
He adds, “I hope that readers will reclaim this as a Jewish story. Jews have the tendency to see Jesus in the light of 2,000 years of future history, a future seen in terms of anti-Semitism and pogroms and hatred of Jews. I hope that people will just try to see Yeshua as a Jewish teacher, preacher and magician.”
For Zimler there’s also a message about “the sacrifices that all of us make to help the people we love, and how we get over the loss of them. We all have to deal with grief and betrayal. How do we find the courage to go on?”
“Lastly, at a time when unfortunately we are seeing a return to prejudice, injustice and exclusionary policies, it’s always useful to explore compassion, solidarity and empathy.”