Diary of a Black Jewish Messiah: The 16th-Century Journey of David Reubeni through Africa, the Middle East and Europe 
by Alan Verskin.
Stanford, 189 pp., £23.99, January 2023, 978 1 5036 3443 5
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David Reubeni​ posed a puzzle to contemporaries; he still poses one today. The Mediterranean world was turbulent in the early decades of the 16th century. The Ottoman Empire toppled the Mamluks in 1517, giving the sultan control over Egypt, Syria and much of the Arabian Peninsula; Western Christian rulers feared that they might be next. In the wake of Martin Luther’s censure of the Catholic Church, the Holy Roman Empire was deeply divided. The Italian states suffered invasions made more violent by the use of newly developed firearms; Rome was sacked by the troops of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, in 1527.

Many of the Jews who lived around the Mediterranean were on the move, and not by choice. Those who hadn’t converted to Christianity were expelled from the domains of the Spanish crown in 1492, and from the kingdom of Portugal in 1497. The experience of diaspora – initially in North Africa, Italy and the Ottoman Empire – was traumatic. In Italy, the physician and writer Judah Abravanel, who had been separated from his young son, lamented: ‘Time with his pointed shafts has hit my heart/And split my gut, laid open my entrails,/Landed me a blow that will not heal,/Knocked me down, left me in lasting pain.’

In such uncertain times, many dreamed of a distant saviour. Christians across Europe believed in the existence of Prester John, a Christian ruler thought to be based in East Africa, or perhaps the Indian Ocean. They thought that if he could be reached and convinced to launch a military intervention, it might just turn the tide against Ottoman expansion. There were also rumours of a non-Christian ally in the East, the ‘grand khan’ Christopher Columbus had hoped to find in the Indies. Many Jews believed that the Lost Tribes of Israel – who were thought to inhabit an independent Jewish state somewhere beyond the Muslim lands – would rescue the Sephardic Jews in their exile.

For a while it seemed that they might. A man calling himself David, son of Solomon, claimed that he was the brother of Joseph, a Jewish king who ruled in the Arabian desert over three hundred thousand men – or two and a half of the lost tribes. One of these was the tribe of Reuben, hence the name Reubeni. The man had skin so dark one witness compared him to a ‘Kushite’, or Nubian, and a body covered with scars. Reubeni travelled first to the Sudan, Egypt and Syria and then, via Venice, to Rome and Tuscany, before finally visiting Portugal, Spain and the German lands. At each stop he tried to rouse Jews and Christians to defeat the common Muslim enemy; his ultimate goal was ‘to gather Israel from all over and bring them to a settled land’. He was received by rulers and prominent figures almost everywhere he went. He met the pope, the kings of France and Portugal, and the Holy Roman Emperor. As he explained: ‘I have come in search of artisans – skilled in manufacturing weapons and firearms – to travel to my land to manufacture them and teach our soldiers.’ The combination of European artillery and Jewish troops, he suggested, could defeat the Ottomans.

Reubeni spoke only Hebrew and Arabic. He kept kosher and observed religious fasts. But there were signs that he might be a fraud. He was penniless – he claimed that his money had been stolen in Cairo by a treacherous Egyptian – and expected to be housed and fed free of charge. He travelled with a motley and constantly changing coterie of hangers-on and servants, who were always getting into quarrels with one another and with him. Perhaps the pope and the kings agreed to meet him on the off-chance he might be the genuine article. As the historian Zvi Ben-Dor Benite has explained, Reubeni’s story might have seemed plausible because of ‘the long legacy of debates about the [lost] tribes that placed them in the distant, old, southern edge of the world … and furnished them with military prowess’. Reubeni got a hearing, but no Christian ruler was persuaded to fund or arm him. Some Jews proved more receptive. Reubeni insisted, quoting Amos 7:14, that he was not ‘a prophet nor the son of a prophet’, nor ‘a sage or a kabbalist’, but ‘merely an army commander’. Yet many of his followers believed him to be more than a diplomatic envoy – perhaps even the messiah.

Slippery figures like Reubeni usually flit in and out of the historical record. What makes his case exceptional is that he kept a diary: a bracingly frank account of his travels on three continents, written in a colloquial, idiosyncratic Hebrew (the diary might have been taken down by a scribe, so we don’t know whether this reflects Reubeni’s way of speaking). It’s now available to Anglophone readers in unabridged form, translated by Alan Verskin, who has also produced a detailed introduction and notes. The first mention of the diary is in an Inquisition document from 1639. There was also a copy in the 19th-century collection of a Jewish bibliographer in Frankfurt. On his death the copy was sold to the Bodleian Library, but it went missing in 1867. Fortunately, it had been transferred onto tracing paper; Reubeni’s words survive only in this diaphanous facsimile.

The diary begins in 1521 with his departure from the Arabian desert, followed by an effortful journey across the Red Sea. After a stay in what he called the kingdom of Kush (possibly the Funj sultanate, which lay in what is now Sudan, north-western Eritrea and western Ethiopia), he reached Cairo, and from there travelled to Jerusalem, stopping in Gaza and Hebron. Disguised as a Muslim sayyid, or descendant of the Prophet Muhammad, he was received coolly by local Jews. In Egypt the most powerful Jewish figure didn’t let him into his house: ‘If you were to stay in my home, you would bring trouble upon me.’ In Jerusalem prominent Jews appear to have shunned him. (Still in disguise, Reubeni prayed at the Dome of the Rock, on the Temple Mount.) More generously, the Jews of Gaza helped fund his travel to Venice, which he reached via Damietta and Alexandria. But in the Venetian ghetto, too, his reception was frosty. ‘If the rest of the Jews give,’ one person told him, ‘I will give my share.’

Reubeni had greater success with the Christians of Rome. He came under the protection of the learned humanist Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, in whose household the Jewish scholar Elijah Levita studied kabbalistic works. Cardinal Egidio was also godfather to the Moroccan diplomat Leo Africanus, who had been captured by Christian pirates in 1518 and converted from Islam to Christianity in 1520. During the cardinal’s spell as papal legate in Spain in 1518, he commissioned an early Latin translation of the Quran by another convert, Juan Gabriel of Teruel, which Africanus later corrected. Reubeni must have encountered Levita and Africanus, though ‘to the enduring frustration of historians’, in Verskin’s words, there is no account of these meetings.

In Rome, Reubeni was accused of wanting to convince local Sephardic conversos to return to their ancestral religion. Unconverted Italian Jews didn’t always welcome him either. ‘I have no desire for Jerusalem,’ a wealthy Sienese Jew told him. ‘I desire nothing but to stay here in Siena.’ In 1525 Reubeni left Rome and set sail for Portugal. Egidio had brokered Reubeni’s audiences with Pope Clement VII, who had then written Reubeni a letter of introduction to John III, the king of Portugal. The only European ruler whose ships sailed to the Indian Ocean, John was the right person to approach about a conquest intended to be launched from the Red Sea. He took Reubeni seriously at first, and promised him ships, but soon came to distrust him. For one thing, Reubeni had welcomed too many conversos into his home. This was a sensitive issue because the conversos of Iberia, though nominally Christian, remained susceptible to Jewish messianic hopes. A few decades earlier Inés of Herrera, a young conversa who had apocalyptic visions, started to gain a wide following; she was tried by the Holy Office and burned at the stake at the age of twelve. To make matters worse, during Reubeni’s time in Portugal a high-ranking gentile called Diogo Pires was inspired to convert to Judaism. According to the diary, he asked Reubeni to circumcise him; fearing the repercussions for both men, Reubeni refused. Pires performed the act himself and took the name Solomon Molkho. He soon left the country and became a messianic prophet himself. Reubeni was ordered to leave Portugal and decided to return to Italy via Spain, where he was arrested when his letters of introduction were called into question.

The diary breaks off at this point. There is a brief epilogue written by an Italian Jew who had served as his chamberlain and who tried to sort out his messy financial affairs. What happened to Reubeni next can be pieced together from other sources. He was freed by the Spanish authorities, and eventually made it back to Italy, where he was caught forging a letter from his brother in Mantua in 1530. A local rabbi denounced him as ‘this evil Haman’ (the villain of the Book of Esther) for putting Italian Jews at risk. He returned to Venice, where the local Jews treated him ‘like a messiah’, according to the geographer Giovanni Battista Ramusio. Reubeni was reunited with Molkho, who by then had his own following, and the pair set out for Regensburg, intending to meet Charles V at the Imperial Diet of 1532. The Jewish leader Josel of Rosheim left town when he learned of this plan, keen to show that he had nothing to do with it. This was a wise move: Charles V had both men arrested and sent back to Italy, where Molkho was burned at the stake later that year. Reubeni was imprisoned for several years, first in Mantua and then in Llerena in Spain. He was tried by the Spanish Inquisition in 1538 for proselytising Judaism, condemned and burned at the stake – possibly the only unconverted Jew ever to be prosecuted on those grounds.

The diary paints an unflattering portrait of its author. Reubeni could be an ungrateful guest, describing the home of one host as ‘a bad house with a bad smell’. When his interpreters stayed for Passover, he complained that they ‘caused me great expense because they ate a lot and had a taste for delicacies’. He also complained about servants: one of them, an early follower called Joseph, was prone to violence. It probably didn’t help that Reubeni seems to have seen wages as optional: ‘the servants who attended me did so on account of their love of God and did not ask for any payment.’ The diary is equally candid about his own bad temper. On encountering a locked door in a house where he was staying, he found an axe and smashed it. When one converso criticised Judaism, Reubeni reached out to strike him. His nemesis at the Portuguese court, a courtier called Dom Miguel, provoked particular rage in Reubeni, but anyone who displeased him or refused to do his bidding was ‘a complete villain’.

One question​ the diary leaves unresolved is that of Reubeni’s appearance. The contemporary consensus was that his skin was dark, even ‘black’. His follower Daniel da Pisa referred to his ‘black visage’; another witness described him as ‘black as a Nubian’. In the 16th century, Reubeni’s dark skin would have been as likely to inspire wonder as to trigger a sense of racial superiority. It’s true that Jews didn’t have entirely positive views about Black people. The 12th-century Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela wrote that in the land of Kush lived ‘the black slaves, the sons of Ham’, who ‘have not the intelligence of ordinary men’. He believed that they went around naked, grazed like animals and committed incest. Tudela wasn’t alone in taking sub-Saharan Africans to be the descendants of Noah’s son Ham. In a puzzling passage in Genesis, Noah curses his grandson Canaan (‘a servant of servants shall he be’), even though it is Ham, Canaan’s father, who has sinned. The passage doesn’t mention blackness, yet from the Middle Ages onwards it was taken to justify the slavery of Black people. As David Goldenberg has shown, this specious interpretation was adopted by Christians and Muslims as well as Jews. Writing in 1627, the minister John Weemse expressed a view that had become widespread: ‘This curse to be a servant was laid, first upon a disobedient sonne Cham, and wee see to this day, that the Moores, Chams posteritie, are sold like slaves yet.’

There is no evidence that Reubeni thought of himself as Black. In the diary he never describes his physical appearance or expresses a sense of kinship with the Black people he encounters. In Portugal, he purchased two enslaved young Black men, whom he called ‘Kushite slaves’. When the older one got into a fight with another member of Reubeni’s retinue, Reubeni had him tied up, beat him with sticks until they broke, then ordered that he be given one hundred lashes. While some scholars have argued that Reubeni came from Abyssinia, others have suggested that he was Indian or Yemeni. Some have thought him an Ashkenazic, Yiddish-speaking Jew, others a Sephardic, Spanish-speaking one. It has even been suggested that he might not have been Jewish at all. Verskin writes that this debate is ‘fruitless’. By characterising Reubeni as ‘a Jew of colour’ (not a term he would have recognised), Verskin is making the point that neither Reubeni nor his interlocutors considered the different facets of his identity to be incompatible.

Even the most charitable view of Reubeni must contend with the non-existence of the Jewish kingdom he claimed to represent. Did he believe his own story? His diary entries give nothing away. Other aspects of Reubeni’s narrative have also been called into doubt. Only the European leg of his journey can be corroborated with other sources. Some historians have argued that Reubeni made up his travels in the kingdom of Kush. It’s true that their mythical quality sets them apart from the rest of the diary. The otherwise naked Kushite queen and her attendants wear gold bracelets on their arms and legs and ‘cover their genitals with hand-crafted, golden chainwork’. Inevitably, an enslaved girl attempts to seduce Reubeni, but he resists. The Kushites eat ‘elephants, wolves, leopards, dogs, camels, scorpions, frogs and snakes’, and there’s some light cannibalism for good measure.

But Reubeni shouldn’t be judged too harshly for making misleading statements, assuming different identities and keeping his true motivations to himself. In an age before photography, ID documents and searchable government databases, he was far from unique in pretending to be someone he was not. Assuming a false identity was so common that Miriam Eliav-Feldon has described the Renaissance as an ‘age of imposters’. Dissimulation was essential for Iberian Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity, as it would soon be for their Muslim counterparts who were also forced to convert. People on the move sometimes assumed the identity that seemed most useful: the merchant Samuel Pallache was a practising Jew in Amsterdam and a loyal converso in Spain.

As a Jew, Reubeni posed a threat to the kingdoms of Spain and Portugal, where his religion had been outlawed and even converted Jews were under suspicion. As a self-proclaimed political emissary, he posed a risk to anyone who welcomed him. Every time he travelled, there was a chance that his letters of safe passage would not be recognised. A pure grifter could have found less dangerous ways of making a living. But it seems that Reubeni may have recanted in the end. In 1993, Elias Lipiner uncovered evidence that he converted to Christianity at the eleventh hour, which would have allowed him to be garrotted rather than face the pyre alive. (Verskin doesn’t mention Lipiner’s discovery.) The obvious comparison is with Sabbatai Zevi, a 17th-century mystic and rabbi from Izmir who claimed to be the Jewish messiah then, when threatened by the Ottoman authorities, converted to Islam to save his own life, much to the embarrassment of his followers.

Nineteenth-century scholars tended to judge Reubeni sternly. The historian Heinrich Graetz described him as ‘an adventurer who intentionally deceived others’, while Adolf Poznański, a scholar of Judaism, thought him ‘devoid of all wisdom and learning, capricious and ignorant’. But after the First World War he was reclaimed as a Jewish patriot and a Zionist avant la lettre. In 1925 Max Brod, Kafka’s literary executor, published a historical novel called Reubeni: Prince of the Jews. Brod, who had seen Molkho’s prayer shawl and flag in Prague’s Pinkas synagogue, made Reubeni a Jew from Prague like himself. His Reubeni seeks to reawaken the pride of his fellow Jews; his goal is ‘to create a free people, without distorted souls and shrivelled bodies – a happy people, in whom the whole earth shall rejoice!’ The novel was adapted for the stage and performed in Tel Aviv in 1940. Four years later the Yiddish author David Bergelson wrote a play called Prince Reuveni, which draws parallels between the Inquisition and the Holocaust. Bergelson’s Reubeni wants the Jews to have ‘a foothold somewhere on earth’. The play ends: ‘you fight, my people, that is, you live, my people.’

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