Saturday, June 8, 2019

Q&A with Richard Zimler

Richard Zimler is the author of the new novel The Gospel According to Lazarus. His other books include The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon. He lives in Porto, Portugal.

Q: How did you come up with the idea for The Gospel According to Lazarus?

A: The idea came to me in a very disturbing dream I first had in 1989. To explain, I need to go back to a few years before that…

One of my elder brothers, Jerry, grew ill with AIDS around 1986. At the time, I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and he was working in New York as a clinical psychologist. I helped him through a series of debilitating opportunist infections, including one that caused lesions in his brain and left him with dementia for about a week.

It was tremendously upsetting, of course. In fact, I often felt as if I’d been trapped in a merciless, ongoing nightmare. Caring for him in New York hospitals – feeding him and walking him around in his wheelchair – also gave me frequent panic attacks. I constantly feared that I, too, might die young – if not of AIDS, then of some other disease or misfortune. 

Jerry died on May 6, 1989. He was only 35 years old. I was crushed. Losing a brother or sister makes you feel as if things in your life will never be right again. I was also trailed everywhere by guilt; after all, I’d failed to save his life.     

A few days after his funeral, I dreamt that Jerry had returned to life. In the dream, he was walking across the patio of a stone mansion where I was apparently a guest. With a rush of relief, I thought: He’s come back – everything will be okay now! 

From the window of my bedroom, I saw him walk into an annex at the back of the property. I didn’t go outside and follow him just yet. Somehow, I knew not to do that. When he returned to the patio, however, I rushed out of my room and joined him. But he didn’t greet me with excitement or affection. His expression showed sadness and disappointment.

In our brief conversation, he told me that he was aware that he had died and had returned to life. He also knew that he was greatly diminished and would never regain all the emotions that he’d once had. He would never again feel joy or delight.

His incomparably sorrowful face was the same one that he had showed me over his last few weeks in the hospital – the face of a young man who has been cheated out of the life he should have had.   

The dream returned to me several times over the next weeks and then vanished until 17 years later – when I was caring for my elderly mother in 2006.  

This time, my dream started me thinking about what Jerry would have been like as a middle-aged man. Would he still be living in Manhattan and working as a clinical psychologist? Soon the New Testament figure of Lazarus entered my mind. In the Gospel of John, Lazarus is characterized as Jesus’ beloved friend, and Jesus raises him from the dead. 

Over the next few days, I felt compelled to do pastel sketches of my brother from memory. In one of them, I drew a figure wearing a tunic – Lazarus. That’s when I had my first panic attack in more than a decade. 

To try to discover what disturbed me so much in the connection between Lazarus and my brother, I re-read the New Testament, which I’d studied at college in the late 1970s. I also began reading every book I could find about daily life in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus. 

It was at this time that I realized what might have been obvious to me but wasn’t: that Lazarus’ story represented my greatest wish, which was to bring my brother back to life. That was when I decided to make Lazarus the narrator of my next novel. After that, I achieved a calming sense of purpose for the first time in months.

Writing about Lazarus and Jesus seemed especially exciting to me because it would give me a chance to research early Jewish mysticism, a keen interest of mine for many years. 

Several months into my research, however, my exhaustion from taking care of my mother during the last years of her life caught up with me, and I was unable to find the energy to complete the project. As it turned out, I didn’t write a single word of prose for more than seven months. 

In late 2014, however, I once again grew excited about the possibility of writing about Lazarus. It had been eight years since my mother’s death, and I was strong enough to re-visit my feelings about her and Jerry, and consider the sacrifices we make to help our loved ones.  

During my period of research, I discovered that I wanted to give Lazarus and Jesus back their Judaism. In fact, I began to think of them in connection with their Hebrew names: Yeshua ben Yosef and Eliezer ben Natan. I decided that the most accurate way to portray Jesus was as a Jewish mystic and healer – as a charismatic leader following ancient traditions.    

After an initial nine-month period of research – and after accumulating a vast amount of notes from the nearly 50 texts I studied – I began to write the novel. I completed it two years later, nearly three decades after my initial dream about my brother coming back to life. 

Q: What would you say are some of the most common perceptions and misperceptions about Lazarus?

A: We tend to think of Lazarus and Jesus and all the other figures who appear in the Gospels as Christians, but they weren’t. They were practicing Jews. All their rituals and prayers were Jewish. The Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem was the center of their religious world.

To put it simply, Jesus never heard the word Christian in his entire life; that religious movement only started after his death. And according to the Gospels, he never renounced his Judaism. 

I grew very excited about the chance to give Lazarus and Jesus back their Judaism, but I had a problem; how to free myself and the reader from 2,000 years of Christian iconography and philosophy?

Happily, I discovered that by using Lazarus’ and Jesus’ Hebrew names – Eliezer ben Natan and Yeshua ben Yosef – I was able to free myself from previous perspectives on them. Their Judaism immediately came to the fore inside me. 

I’ve already received emails from dozens of readers about the book, and they’ve told me that reading my novel freed them as well. Some of the readers said that it was the first time that they’d read anything about Jesus that showed him to be a Jewish mystic and healer and placed him within the context of ancient mystical practice.   

Since the Gospel of John doesn’t say anything about Eliezer (Lazarus) after the crucifixion, we also tend to think that nothing more of interest must have occurred in his life. But in my version of the tale – in my recreation of the story – we discover what happened to him.

I won’t spoil things for the reader, but let’s just say that his life is threatened by those who plotted against his beloved friend, Yeshua ben Yosef.  So he gathers together his children along with Yeshua’s mysterious last gift to him and flees for safety. Where does he go and how does his resurrection continue to affect him?  Readers will have to get my book to find out! 

Q: What did you see as the right balance between the biblical version of the story and your own version?

A: I’ve been very faithful to the biblical version, which is contained in the Gospel of John, but I add context and depth.  What does John say about Lazarus? Only very little – that he was resurrected after being buried in a rock-cut tomb and was a dear friend of Jesus. He also tells us that Lazarus’ two sisters knew Jesus and that he got caught up in the plot that ended in his friend’s crucifixion. 

I’ve added elements that make the biblical story more wide-ranging and complete. After all, the biblical version fails to answer so many questions about Lazarus.

For example: Why did Saint John refer to him as Jesus’ “beloved” friend? How did he and Jesus first meet? Why didn’t Lazarus become one of the Apostles? Did Lazarus know Jesus’ mother and father? How did he react to coming back to life? Did he try to save his old friend from crucifixion? 

I answer these and other questions in my book. And it’s not necessary that readers be familiar with the New Testament to appreciate what I’ve done. It’s not a novel about Christian doctrine. It’s not even a religious book, by which I mean that it has absolutely nothing to do with rules and regulations or with current Christian notions about what’s good or bad. I avoid all that.

It’s about the deep friendship between Yeshua and Eliezer and what life was like for them in the Holy Land some 2,000 years ago.  It’s about how we make sacrifices for our friends and family and how we find the courage to go on after we suffer a deep trauma. It also gave me a chance to explore the mystical nature of Yeshua’s mission – what he, as a spiritual leader, intended to accomplish. 

Q: What kind of research did you do to write the novel, and did you learn anything especially surprising?

A: I read everything I could find about daily life in the Holy Land 2,000 years ago. I needed to know what kind of clothes people wore, what foods they ate, how they built their houses and a great many other details. And I needed to find out all I could about ancient Jewish practice, about the mystical techniques and beliefs with which a healer and preacher like Jesus would have been familiar.

The best clues we have to ancient Jewish mystical beliefs come from studies of what experts call Merkabah mysticism. This was a system of Jewish thought that used the symbolic language of the Book of Ezekiel – one of the books in the Old Testament – to describe the spiritual journey of the practitioner. So in my version, Jesus – Yeshua ben Yosef – adopts some of the language and practices of Merkabah mysticism. 

I ended up reading about 50 books about daily life in the Holy Land at the time of Jesus. This period of research lasted about nine months. I took more than a hundred pages of notes. But it wasn’t a sacrifice – I loved reading about life back then. 

One of the discoveries that surprised me was that the Holy Land was very much a multicultural society at the time of Yeshua and Eliezer. We tend to think of multiculturalism as a modern concept, but any big city in the ancient world was populated with many different peoples, all of them with their own systems of belief.

In ancient Jerusalem, there were Jews, of course, but also Romans, Greeks, Phoenicians, Nabateans, Samaritans and many others.  They would have all spoken their own languages and had their own preferences in terms of food and dress and music and everything else. Any shopkeeper in Jerusalem would probably have had to be conversant in at least three languages – Aramaic, Latin and Greek – to serve his or her customers.

In my novel, Lazarus did his apprenticeship as a mosaic-maker in Alexandria, a huge city that was the New York of its era, by which I mean it had many thousands of residents from all over the ancient world. It was a city founded and controlled by the Greeks, so Lazarus becomes fluent in that language and begins to think like a Greek citizen. So when he later returns to Jerusalem, he finds the city small and provincial, and a bit confining.  

Another surprise was the status of women. In the Greek communities of the Holy Land, they would have only rarely left their homes without being escorted by a husband, father or brother. They would have had very few educational options. In Roman households, women would have had much more freedom and, if they were from the middle class, would have studied Latin, philosophy, mathematics and other essential subjects.

In Jewish homes, women would have had a kind of middle status. For instance, they would have been able to leave their homes without an escort but would have only rarely been taught to read and write. That becomes important in my novel because one of Lazarus’ sisters – Marta – greatly resents their parents for not permitting her to pursue formal studies. Her anger spills over into her relationship with Lazarus and creates grave problems for him.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a series of novels about different generations of a Jewish-Portuguese family called the Zarcos. I called it my Sephardic Cycle. The first of these novels was The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, which was a bestseller in many countries, including America. I’ve published four of these books so far and I’m now working on a fifth one. The initial chapters are set in a mountainous village in Portugal in the 17th century.

The works in my Sephardic Cycle are The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, Hunting Midnight, Guardian of the Dawn, and The Seventh Gate. 

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Just that I hope your readers will like The Gospel According to Lazarus. They can write me at and follow me on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. At my website, they will find links to reviews and articles about the book.  

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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