Diary of a Black Jew­ish Mes­si­ah: The Six­teenth-Cen­tu­ry Jour­ney of David Reubeni through Africa, the Mid­dle East, and Europe 

  • Review
By – April 20, 2023

Some sto­ries seem so unbe­liev­able that one feels they must be true. Such is the case with Diary of a Black Jew­ish Mes­si­ah, a remark­able chron­i­cle of the elu­sive six­teenth-cen­tu­ry Jew­ish trav­el­er David Reubeni. The text was com­plet­ed in 1527, only sev­er­al decades after the trau­mat­ic expul­sion of Jews and Mus­lims from the Iber­ian Penin­su­la, a time of cul­tur­al tran­si­tion and mes­sian­ic fervor. 

In his diary, Reubeni makes auda­cious claims about him­self, his trav­els, and his char­ac­ter. He iden­ti­fies as a mem­ber of an African roy­al fam­i­ly descend­ed from one of the ten lost tribes of Israel. The diary is writ­ten in a mat­ter-of-fact tone that may be intend­ed to give an air of credibility.

The diary opens with Reubeni embark­ing on a per­ilous jour­ney to Europe for mes­sian­ic pur­pos­es that are slow­ly revealed as the nar­ra­tive pro­gress­es. He begins in the land of Kush in Africa, where he dress­es as a Mus­lim sayyid (a descen­dent of the prophet Muhammed). Reubeni is greet­ed warm­ly and gen­er­ous­ly by near­ly every­one he encoun­ters, receiv­ing gifts and offers of hos­pi­tal­i­ty. There­after he trav­els to Egypt, where he is swin­dled out of his for­tune before depart­ing for Europe. He aban­dons his Islam­ic garb and set­tles in Rome. He gains pow­er­ful Jew­ish admir­ers and, astound­ing­ly, is grant­ed mul­ti­ple meet­ings with the Pope. But after repeat­ed dou­ble-cross­ings, Reubeni sails to Portugal.

In Por­tu­gal, he reveals the true nature of his mis­sion: to lay the ground­work for the return of the Jews to their ances­tral home in the land of Israel, bro­kered through peace­ful diplo­mat­ic rela­tions between Islam­ic and Chris­t­ian empires. Over time, he gar­ners favor with many con­ver­sos (Jews forcibly con­vert­ed to Chris­tian­i­ty). One adopts the name Solomon Molkho and, to Reubeni’s hor­ror, cir­cum­cis­es him­self in a fit of mes­sian­ic expec­ta­tion. Reubeni is accused of per­form­ing Molkho’s cir­cum­ci­sion; and because Judaism is for­mal­ly out­lawed, this endan­gers both the Por­tuguese con­ver­sos and Reubeni, who is accused of attempt­ing to return them to Judaism. Defeat­ed, Reubeni embarks for Italy but gets ship­wrecked in Spain, where Jews are allowed only with autho­riza­tion from the emper­or. The diary ends as Reubeni is released after a short impris­on­ment by the Span­ish Inquisition.

In 1530, Reubeni joined forces with the for­mer­ly rebuffed Molkho to con­tin­ue his diplo­mat­ic-mes­sian­ic mis­sion. Ulti­mate­ly unsuc­cess­ful, they were arrest­ed by the Inqui­si­tion, with Molkho being burned at the stake in 1532. Reubeni like­ly met a sim­i­lar fate years later.

Through­out the diary, Reubeni strug­gles with avari­cious, deceit­ful, and bel­liger­ent ser­vants. Yet he also gives mon­ey gen­er­ous­ly, engages in ascetic prac­tices such as extend­ed fast­ing, and grants for­give­ness to most of the peo­ple who have cheat­ed or slan­dered him.

Diary of a Black Jew­ish Mes­si­ah includes an intro­duc­tion that sit­u­ates Reubeni’s diary in its his­tor­i­cal con­text and attempts to ver­i­fy some aspects of Ruebeni’s fan­tas­tic tale. The author exam­ines Reubeni’s geo­graph­i­cal and bio­graph­i­cal descrip­tions, using them to inves­ti­gate whether Reubeni trav­eled as wide­ly as he claimed.

Con­tem­po­rary read­ers may be trou­bled by the ease with which Reubeni buys and sells slaves and ser­vants, as well as his exoti­cized descrip­tions of Africa and the Mid­dle East. Per­haps these wrongs speak all the more to the com­plex­i­ty of this beguil­ing ear­ly mod­ern Jew.

Bri­an Hill­man is an assis­tant pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Phi­los­o­phy and Reli­gious Stud­ies at Tow­son University.

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