The Debt of Tamar

By – May 13, 2013

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.

Dr. Julie Stern Joseph has been edu­cat­ing Jew­ish high school stu­dents and adults for over 15 years. She spent five years study­ing Tal­mud and Jew­ish Law, earned an MA in Medieval Jew­ish his­to­ry from NYU, and holds a doc­tor­ate in Jew­ish Edu­ca­tion from Yeshi­va University.

Discussion Questions

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

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

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • 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?