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.