Has there been a more explosive time in Europe?

It's the year when Christopher Columbus set sail.

Yet it's also the year when the adventurer's royal sponsors let the Inquisition run amok in Spain. And the year when that nation, which for decades was the home of an extraordinary renaissance of Jewish and Arabic learning and art, expelled the Jews. (Not long after, the Muslims were expelled, too.)

These events are woven into a beautiful tapestry in Pennsylvania author Mitchell James Kaplan's debut novel, By Fire, By Water, which has been chosen as the region's annual One Book, One Jewish Community selection.

Kaplan will help launch the program with a book-signing Sunday at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington.

One Book director Rabbi Phil Warmflash says Kaplan's novel is a perfect fit for the program. "It is wonderfully written and wonderfully engaging," he says. "It talks about an interesting period in Jewish history which also has incredible implications for modern Jewish life."

Warmflash says the literacy program, which drew nearly 10,000 participants last year, will feature dozens of events through March in Philadelphia and the suburbs.

Kaplan, 53, became fascinated by late-15th-century Spain because it was riddled with contradictions: It was an era of radical advances, but also of massive repression.

"So much was going on," he says, "so much intolerance and disintegration - yet out of that came a man [Columbus] who discovered a place where tolerance becomes the law of the land."

Despite its epic sweep, By Fire, By Water is also an intimate portrait of a remarkable individual named Luis de Santángel, who becomes entangled in political intrigue and religious persecution. Santángel was King Ferdinand's real-life court chancellor and a trusted confidant. He had power and influence.

He was also a Jew.

Santángel's family long ago had converted to Christianity so they could advance in Spanish society. But like other so-called conversos, Santángel was suspected by the Spanish Inquisition of being a "secret Judaizer," and was eventually accused of assassinating a high-ranking Inquisitor.

Santángel sparked Kaplan's imagination because he stood in the midst of four cataclysmic events that helped shape the modern world: Columbus' voyage; the Inquisition; the expulsion of the Jews from Spain; and the conquest of Muslim-controlled Grenada and the unification of Spain.

Santángel, Kaplan says, was responsible for persuading Queen Isabella to sponsor Columbus and may have helped buy one of the adventurer's ships.

At the same time, the converso was an enemy of the Inquisition and tried to check its growing political power.

Kaplan says Santángel's story inspired him to engage with his Judaism on a deeper level.

"It spoke to something in my soul, for sure. It kindled a fire," says the author, whose next book will deal with the religious split caused in the first century by Jesus' followers.

The son of retired academics - his father was a professor of cardiology at UCLA, and his mother taught English literature in Germany - Kaplan decided to become a novelist when he was in high school.

His aspirations found fertile ground at Yale University, when he studied under the eminent American novelist William Styron.

Things took a different turn, and Kaplan spent the next two decades plying his talents in the film industry, first in Paris, where he met his wife, Annie. (The couple live in Mount Lebanon, near Pittsburgh, and have two sons, Ariel, 21, and Zeke, 15.)

In Hollywood, Kaplan wrote screenplays, under the name Chip Kaplan, for Ivan Reitman, Michael Ritchie, and Kirk Douglas, and saved enough money to take the time to write his first novel.

The events in By Fire, By Water may be 500 years old, but their effects are seen by Kaplan daily: His wife is a French-Moroccan Sephardic Jew from Casablanca whose family traces its roots to 15th-century Spain. ("Her mother talks about Queen Isabella as if she were here today," Kaplan jokes.)

"Jews in Morocco . . . had three identities that they felt proud of - their Jewish identity, their Spanish identity, and their Arab identity," says Kaplan, who sees this sense of multiple identities as a central part of what it means to be modern.

"One of reasons I think Luis de Santángel is a prototype of modern man is his mixed identity," says Kaplan. "Part of our condition, the condition of really everyone in America, even Native Americans, is that we all belong to mixed cultures today."

He adds, "Rootedness and identity are of great value. But [so is] . . . the ability to see beyond one's particular ghetto."

Religious fundamentalists, he asserts, use fables about their roots to erase history and deny that "religion, culture, and human identity evolve and change."

That, Kaplan says, is the message he hopes readers get from his novel.

"If people are more aware of the way religions have evolved and changed and adapted, I think it'll open us up to . . . finding ways to communicate between religious divides in constructive ways."

Kaplan admits his hope for such sweeping reconciliation is rather grand.

"So there is a little bit of a messianic delirium here, too," he says.

One Book, One Jewish Community

This year's One Book, One Jewish Community author, Mitchell James Kaplan, will discuss his novel, By Fire, By Water, Sunday at 7 p.m. at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am, 971 Old York Rd., Abington.

One Book programs will be scheduled at various sites in Philadelphia and the suburbs through March.

For information, call 215-635-8940 or visit www.acaje-jop.org/onebook.


Contact staff writer Tirdad Derakhshani at 215-854-2736 or tirdad@phillynews.com.