Email this review


A sturdy, if only moderately imaginative fictional recreation of the life and apostasy of Shabbatai Zevi, the 17th-century messianic figure who electrified Jewish Europe and western Asia. Born in Smyrna, a scholarly prodigy, young Shabbatai also has nightmares and divine injunctions to contend with. (""Go, Shabbatai. Go save the sun."") When he's early married, this dazzling young rabbi, the flesh fails him; with a second wife, there's a second impotence. Consummation for him is spiritual: blasphemously uttering the name of God, without euphemism, in the temple with the Torah (about which he has had explicitly sexual fantasies) in his arms. But it isn't until Shabbatai meets Sarah--a young Jewess, once raped, once a nun--that he becomes convinced that he must declare himself to be the Messiah, presenting himself before all Jewry. A stormy course follows: disciples (the Kabbalist Nathan of Gaza, a homosexual Englishman who lusts after Shabbatai more than he reveres him); travels; miracles; setbacks; followings. And it leads in the end to Constantinople, where the Sultan offers Shabbatai the choice of either death or conversion to Islam. Readers conversant with Gershom Scholem's masterpiece of scholarship on Shabbatai will find Wolf's outline of the facts just that: an outline. And though, as fiction, the book is suaver than Bernard Martin's That Man from Smyrna (1978), it still lacks necessary drama--describing rather than animating Shabbatai's internal fireworks. Nonetheless: a decent novelization of the oddest chapter of frustration in all Jewish history--a fair enough version for those unwilling to tackle the Scholem classic.

Pub Date: Oct. 25th, 1982
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin