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Jewish History’s Mystery Man

Rabbi Eliezer Eizikowitz

He appeared one winter day in 1523 in the Jewish ghetto of Venice with a fantastic tale of exotic lands and a lost Jewish kingdom, and grandiose political plans. The historical question marks left in his wake have never been resolved. Was David Reuveni a false mashiach and a conniving rogue, or a genius ahead of his time?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Nearly 500 years after his death, we have yet to pierce the shrouds of mystery surrounding one of Jewish history’s most enigmatic figures, David Reuveni (1490–c. 1538). On an otherwise unremarkable winter day in 1523, he suddenly appeared in the Jewish ghetto of Venice — the gateway to Europe for travelers from the East — telling a fantastic tale of journeys through exotic lands and a lost Jewish kingdom, and speaking of his grandiose political plan for Jewish salvation.

Despite the clearly fanciful nature of some of his accounts, Reuveni began to find doors to high places opening before him. Within a few weeks, he was sitting in the palace of Pope Clement VII, who engaged him in serious discussion about his visionary plans. The pope also provided him with letters of recommendation to Europe’s most powerful rulers. A mere few months later, Reuveni was welcomed to the Lisbon palace of King John III of Portugal (1502–1557), creating an upheaval among Portugal’s Anusim.

The Christian world was fascinated by Reuveni as well. Cardinals, princes, and kings listened to his stories and ideas with a mixture of curiosity and concern and derision. On the one hand, it was difficult for them to take him seriously, yet his words had too solid a factual basis to be completely rejected. Reuveni found himself in the center of the raging conflict between the pope and King Henry VIII of England (1491–1547), which would fatefully affect the future of Catholic sovereignty in Europe.

Then, at the height of his brief, tumultuous ascent to prominence, Reuveni vanished, leaving behind a trail of questions that have never been answered conclusively. Who was he, and where did he come from? And what was he truly hoping to achieve?

The theories that abound are almost as numerous as the historians who have studied his life. Some see him as a schemer, a conniving opportunist who took advantage of a beleaguered Jewish people thirsting for salvation. Others see him as a sort of false mashiach, a dangerous impostor at worst, and at best, an eccentric individual beset by personal demons.

Even his origins have sparked stormy academic debates. Some find the style of his speech a clear indication of German extraction; others have advanced proofs he was a member of the Jewish community exiled from Spain. A third group maintains he was a Yemenite or other type of Oriental Jew.

A majority of historians agree on at least one issue: Reuveni’s own version of his origin and activities ought not to be taken too seriously. For a variety of reasons, including his overambitious political designs and his fantastic descriptions of visits to the far reaches of Asia and Africa, these historians have rejected the possibility that his story contains even significant kernels of truth.

But might it just be that the simplest explanation is actually the true one and that the historians have gotten this episode wrong? A close examination of Reuveni’s historical period and the backdrop to his mission indicates it had a more serious, realistic purpose than historians tend to ascribe to it.


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