The Debt of Tamar

St. Martin's Press  2015


A fantastical Jewish tale told by debut author Nicole Dweck, the Debt of Tamar travels beyond continents and outlives the sands of time. Beginning in sixteenth century Portugal, the Ottoman Empire, and Palestine, then jumping five centuries to Nazi-invaded Paris, then to the newly established State of Israel before landing in present-day Istanbul and New York City, the story manifests its own momentum. In each location, the reader encounters new characters that connect the insatiable love of five centuries to its twenty-first-century resolution.

Dweck’s fictional characters are inspired by the precarious status of the Jews in sixteenth century Europe, as conversos fled the Inquisition and found refuge on the shores of the Ottoman Empire. An innocent but forbidden love develops in Istanbul, where the lovers are torn apart by the father of the Jewish girl, Tamar. As a Portuguese refugee, he will not allow his daughter to abandon her faith and marry a Muslim, even though he may be the son of the Sultan. Her father witnessed what happened to Jews in Portugal when they worshipped openly: they were burned alive at the stake. Perhaps spurred by his painful memories of watching the auto de fe, he exiles Tamar to the Ottoman Protectorate of Palestine where she can be protected from abandoning her faith.

Murat, the son of the Sultan, despairs and mourns for his lost love, Tamar. A holy Sikh appears and provides Murat with some comfort, explaining to him that Tamar will return because she owes his family a debt. The Sikh explains that the unpaid debt created an imbalance in the universe, one that can only be restored by paying off that debt. Tamar has assumed the debt her family owed Murat’s father for giving them refuge and religious freedom in the Ottoman Empire. Murat waits his entire short life for Tamar to return.

From the title, readers might assume that the novel is based on the biblical stories of Tamar either in Genesis 38 or in 2 Samuel 13. While the name Tamar has a biblical origin, the title of the book and the concept of “debt” are Dweck’s creations. In fact, her discussion about the universe’s debt-imbalance appears to be a fusion of Newtonian physics with the Hindu principle of “Karmic Debt.” According to Newton’s Third Law of Motion, in the material universe, every action has an equal and opposite reaction that affects. Perhaps on a more mundane level there is the Jewish concept of “measure for measure,” a biblical theme commentators thread through the Book of Genesis. Karmic debt, on the other hand, implies that the measure for measure does not need to open within the same generation. An unpaid debt can pass from one generation to the next. Hence, the debt incurred by Tamar in the sixteenth century only resolves, unconsciously by the characters, in the twenty-first century. Dweck’s philosophical underpinnings frame the reader’s eventual appreciation of the intricate puzzle that is solved.

Dweck dances between her magic and realism. The fast-paced story reads of enchantment, but the author never promises a utopian ending. On one hand, Dweck offers the reader a love story; on the other, the reader experiences the harsh realities and sacrifices of love lost. Finally, on a deeper note, the reader can ponder some of the larger thematic and philosophical issues: is it acceptable for a parent to keep secrets from his children? Can children choose their own fate? If certain aspects of one’s life may be determined by fate, then what does it mean to have free will? Dweck’s Debt provokes these and more questions through a thrilling and engaging tale.

Discussion Questions

  1. Throughout the novel, people of all faiths come in contact with one another and find their lives inextricably linked. Some of these characters are devoutly religious people who serve as heroes and heroines throughout the story. And yet, the role of faith also serves as a catalyst for some of the most shocking and brutal events. What is the role of religion in the novel and in history? Is it a positive force, a negative force, or perhaps something else entirely?

  2. Discuss the roles of love, faith, and loyalty, which often come into conflict with one another in the novel, in the lives of the characters. How do you balance them in your own life? Is one more important than the other?

  3. Do you think it was right for Dona Antonia to hide the family’s faith from José and Reyna? What would you have done in a similar situation?

  4. How did you feel when José sent Tamar away? Did you understand his decision? Why or why not? What do you think Tamar’s life was like in Tiberias and beyond?

  5. Discuss the similarities and differences between Dona Antonia and Reyna. In what way does Dona Antonia shape Reyna as she becomes an adult and mother herself? Who do you imagine Tamar grew up to be like?

  6. Marie Rumie displays immense courage when she agrees to take in David as her own. During World War II, countless families were saved during the Holocaust by righteous Christians willing to risk their own lives and families to hide Jews in their homes. How do you think you would have reacted if you had found yourself in Marie’s situation?

  7. Both José Nissim and David Herzikova never had the opportunity to know their birth parents, as both sets of parents were murdered as a result of their religious affiliation. How do you think the experience of being orphaned in such a similarly traumatic manner shaped both men? In what ways are their journeys toward self-discovery and healing similar, and in what ways are those journeys different?

  8. By the end of his life, we learn about David Herzikova’s mindset through the letter his writes to his estranged brother, Edward, and in particular through this passage: “I’ll not mince words with you now. I’m dying, Edward. And nothing of the past seems to matter now. I have a daughter. Her name is Hannah. It may sound silly, but I do not exaggerate when I tell you that she is the most precious thing I have in this world. All the hurt is gone. The bitterness has faded, and for the first time in my life, I can see clearly. She is all that matters to me. And it is my greatest fear that when I die, she’ll be left alone in this world.” Do you imagine that José Nissim felt similarly or differently about his own daughter toward the end of his life? Do you think he regretted his decision or was he absolutely convinced of the righteousness of his act throughout his lifetime?

  9. We know that José Nissim could not tolerate the idea of his daughter marrying outside the faith that his parents had died for. Had David Herzikova lived just a few months longer, do you think he would have disapproved or welcomed Hannah’s relationship with Selim?

  10. Discuss the relationship that Selim and Hannah share. Is their bond romantic or perhaps, something more?

  11. Although Selim and Hannah do not end up sharing their lives with one another, there still considered to be “soul-mates.” Do you think they will meet again in another lifetime, or have their destined paths finally veered off in different directions? Is the universe satisfied, or are the stars aligning for yet another reunion, in another lifetime? Discuss the term "soul-mate." What does it mean to you?

  12. Selim Osman and Edward Rumie both struggle to come to terms with past sins and lost brothers. How are their struggles similar, and in what ways are they unique? Does either of them ever find the redemption they are seeking? Why or why not?

  13. In the last chapter, Ayda states the following to Hannah: “You knew him. I mean really knew him, without all the noise and clutter and misunderstanding that comes with knowing too many details of a person’s family history. It’s one of the reasons he loved you so.” Do you agree or disagree with Ayda? Can learning too much about a person’s family get in the way of getting to know the person?

  14. The term “Mida Keneged Mida” is a biblical principal that asserts that God rewards and punishes “measure for measure.” (Or in western culture, “What goes around comes around.”) How does this philosophy relate to the novel and in particular to the notion of The Debt? Do you feel satisfied that The Debt was repaid, or might there be other ways in which it lingers on?

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