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Influential Jewish Women in the Middle Ages

In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8th, Professor. Renée Levine Melammed shares with us the powerful story of influential Jewish women during the Middle Ages.

Full transcript below.

When we think about Jewish women during the Middle Ages does anyone come to mind? Not necessarily. Who was famous?  Who was well-known? There was one woman who definitely fits into this definition-Doña Gracia Nasi 

Doña Gracia Nasi was born in 1510 to a family of Spanish exiles who moved to Portugal in 1492 and was forced to convert in 1497. So, we’re talking about a family of converting Jews. Doña Gracia herself was Christian at birth, but came from a family that had very strong ties to its Judaism.  She married a fellow converso, had a child and was widowed rather young. She realized that it was dangerous to stay in Portugal because the Inquisition was being established, so she proceeded to move to Antwerp, where her brother-in-law had a thriving business and she joined him.

But the Inquisition followed them there and she realized that this was not a good place to stay. She left with her sister, her daughter and her niece via France and arrived in Italy. She first went to Venice, where she had debated where to live- in the ghetto with the Jews, which meant that she could no longer go about as a Christian – or outside the ghetto.

In the meantime, she ran into trouble because the authorities were told that she was practicing Judaism. She  was in prison shortly and then fled to Ferrara in Italy. From Ferrara, she proceeded through Ragusa which is Dubrovnik today and then to Istanbul. It is in Istanbul that she lived the rest of her life.

She had many plans. As an internationally known woman she helped fellow conversos flee by establishing an underground railroad. She had business agents all over the countries of Europe.

She helped refugees, she helped build synagogues and study houses, she fostered the translation of the Bible into Spanish so that her fellow Sephardim could read it. She came up with the idea of a major ban on the Port of Ancona because they had arrested and imprisoned and killed a number of her fellow conversos. She also came up with the idea of establishing a settlement in Tiberias, which she did not live to see and eventually fell apart because of her death.

From the above story you can see Doña Gracia Nasi was indeed an influential Jewish woman, with an international reputation and the most well-known Jewish woman in the 16th Century.

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.

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