IT is no exaggeration to state that Richard Zimler has changed Portuguese history.
Before his 1996 book The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon was published, very few Portuguese people knew anything about Judaism or the country’s rich Jewish past.
Richard was one of the prime movers behind the Portuguese government’s decision — in 2014 —to give citizenship to Sephardim who are able to provide evidence that their ancestors were from Portugal.
“I lobbied for it for quite a while,” Richard told me from his home in Porto.
The 66-year-old, however, is something of an anomaly among Portuguese Jews. For he is a true Ashkenazi, New York-born-and-raised, whose grandparents, on both sides of his family, emigrated to America from Poland.
Yet he has ended up a committed Lusophile — and, five years ago, he was was awarded the Medal of Honour, Porto’s highest distinction.
Richard, who moved to Porto in 1990 with his Portuguese husband Alexandre Quintanilha, taught journalism at the city’s university.
And it was 25 years ago that he penned The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, the first in his Sephardic Cycle series of independent novels.
It tells the story of Berekiah Zarco, a New Christian — descendents of Jews baptised into the Catholic Church — who lives through the Lisbon Massacre of 1506.
Richard said: “There was no prejudice about Judaism when I moved here, just complete ignorance. They knew nothing about their incredibly wonderful Jewish history and heritage.
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