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Last year marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of one of the most well-known women in Jewish history: Dona Gracia Nasi.
As a result, Israel’s Ministry of Education proudly introduced a “Dona Gracia” unit into the school system so that every Israeli student would become acquainted with this impressive figure in Jewish history.
Just how important was this Portuguese conversa? Does she deserve all this attention? The short answer is: yes, she does.
Beatriz de Luna was born into the Nasi family, a family of Spanish exiles who chose to emigrate to neighboring Portugal in 1492 rather than to submit to conversion to Catholicism. By the time that Beatriz alias Gracia was born in 1510, the Spanish Jews had experienced yet another trauma, this time on Portuguese soil. Rather than having any options, the exiles were forcibly converted in 1497 together with the local Portuguese Jewish community. Consequently, Gracia was born to converso parents, experiencing infant baptism as required by the Catholic Church.
The assumption is that her family judaized or secretly observed Judaism since the king had allowed this first generation of converts some leeway, promising not to investigate their practices, at least, not immediately. Unfortunately, or perhaps, fortunately, we have no information concerning Gracia’s childhood or practices since no Inquisition had yet been established and thus no trial records are available. Nevertheless, Gracia displayed such a strong sense of belonging to the Jewish people once she left the Iberian Peninsula that it is hard to imagine that her parents had not instilled these values in her at an early age.
At eighteen, Gracia married well, presumably the result of an arranged match to Francisco/Meir Mendes of the Benvenistes, also a family of Spanish exiles. He successfully managed a bank in Lisbon and dealt in precious stones and spices; we have no idea if and when he might have initiated his wife into the intricacies of the business, but by the time of his death in 1535, a mere seven years later, Gracia and her brother-in-law, Diogo, who was stationed in Antwerp, become full-fledged partners, for she was made the guardian of their daughter’s substantial inheritance.
Gracia and Diogo, a financial wizard, worked together for eight years, until his death in 1543. In 1536, she took her remaining family (daughter, sister and two nephews) to Antwerp, a wise decision since the Portuguese Inquisition began to show signs of life. Knowing that Antwerp was a temporary stop because it was under Spanish rule, she distributed the family fortune in various locales; in the meantime, she gained a loyal core of converso agents whom she had helped flee the Peninsula by means of an underground network.
After observing the Inquisition proceed against Diogo both during his lifetime and after his death, Gracia begins her journey eastward, planning to ultimately settle in the Ottoman Empire. Her Italian experience was none too positive, for she was arrested while in Venice and released; while there, she had to face the dilemma of choosing an identity, that is to say, to continue the façade of being a faithful Catholic or to risk becoming Jewish in the Catholic country in which she could be tried as a heretic.
In truth, until Gracia actually embraces her heritage, she was essentially a phenomenally successful businesswoman, a millionaire or multi-millionaire, whose reputation preceded her. She dealt mainly in wool, pepper, grain, cloth and textiles. When she left for Constantinople, it is via Ragusa (Dubrovnik) in 1552 because she had arranged for storage of her merchandise there. She entered the Ottoman Empire like royalty, accompanied by forty armed horsemen and four magnificent coaches, setting up residence in the exclusive European suburb during the rule of Suleiman I, the Magnificent.
Finally she could freely begin the life of a Jewish patron, supporting scholars, rabbis, publications, translations of the Bible into Spanish (the Ferrara Bible), and planning for the future. In 1556, she devised a brilliant plan calling for Jewish solidarity as punishment for Inquisitorial proceedings which resulted in the burning of her converso brethren in the Italian port of Ancona. She petitions the sultan for a firman (contract) to create a new independent Jewish settlement in Tiberias, aiming for a realistic economy based on agriculture, industry and export. Both of these plans were proof of her superb vision, regardless of the fact that neither was ultimately successful.
Dona Gracia was an outstanding woman, both generous and brilliant, attempting an economic boycott in the sixteenth century and dreaming of building a Jewish homeland where she hoped to move, but did not succeed due to her death in 1569. If there is going to be only one pre-modern woman whose life will be studied in Israeli schools, it might as well be the impressive Dona Gracia Nasi.
Renée Levine Melammed is Dean of the Schechter Institute Graduate School, where she is a professor of Jewish history. She is the academic editor of the journal NASHIM and the author of numerous articles and books on Jewish women and Oriental and Sephardi Jews. This article is part of her “His Story/Her Story” Friday Magazine feature series published bi-weekly this year by the Jerusalem Post.
Renée Levine Melammed, originally from Long Island, New York, received her degrees from Smith College and Brandeis University. Her dissertation and early research dealt with the lives of crypto-Jewish women in Spain and the way in which conversos coped with the issue of their identity; her current research is focused on women’s lives as reflected in the Cairo Geniza. She is an emeritus professor of Jewish history at Schechter, teaching courses in medieval Jewish history and gender studies as well as in Jews of Spain and Islamic lands.