Doña Gracia Nasi
By Paulette Kershenovich Schuster
Doña (Lady) Gracia Mendes will not be forgotten since her contributions to humanity and to the Jewish community are so large. Gracia’s struggle against the world dominated by men enabled her to set a precedent for other Jewish women to follow (i.e. Esperanza Malchi). Always expecting the impossible she overcame strife in order to salvage her beliefs both in Judaism and in human destiny. Conquering the unattainable, she was able to bring palpable compensation to those unspoken voices of oppression, as well as justice by way of liberation to those individuals who needed someone to ease their salvation. Gracia was able to achieve these endeavors and more.
The life of Doña Gracia is a constructive dialectic of the changing realities for Marrano (clandestine Jews) Jewry in the sixteenth century. She enhanced Jewish culture and education through her mercantile activity. In order to under stand Doña Gracia’s life efforts, rightful acknowledgment must also be given to her nephew, Joseph Nasi (1524-1579).
Early Life and Development
Doña Gracia Mendes was born in Portugal in 1510 (d. 1569) as Beatriz (Hanna) de Luna, thirteen years after the forced conversion of all Portuguese Jews. She was given a Christian name since her family had become Marranos. As part of the elite, her family chose the life of secrecy and intrigue in order to remain in Portugal .
In 1528, Beatriz married Francisco Mendes, a wealthy banker who acted as a broker for the purchase and sale of commodities overseas, and transmit ted payments from one country to another. Francisco also owned a business in precious stones. They had a daughter named Brianda (Reyna), who was later to continue in her mother’s footsteps of philanthropy and community leadership. Unfortunately, Beatriz’s married life was abruptly shortened by the premature death of Francisco in 1537.
As a young widow, Beatriz tried to weather the harsh conditions endured by the Marranos, which were intensified by the implementation of the Inquisi tion, subjecting Marranos to torturous deaths for betrayal of the Church or for Judaizing (act of professing Judaism). Eluding persecution from the Inquisi tion Beatriz left Portugal with Reyna (her daughter), her sister Reyna, and her nephew João Miguez (Joseph Nasi), and they traveled via England to Antwerp (capital of Flanders). In Antwerp her brother-in-law, Diogo, ran a branch of her late husband’s trading and banking business (established in 1512). Beatriz and Diogo became full partners, and consequently the business continued to flour ish under their direction.
Beatriz was able to penetrate the stern walls of the male-dominated finan cial world probably by allocating large sums of money to various “causes” of the local elite (i.e. charities, libraries, schools, hospitals, etc.). Through such acts she was able to create a sentiment of trust between the Christian community and the Marranos, which eventually led to subsequent business transactions between them. Beatriz did not feel comfortable in Antwerp despite the high position she enjoyed in the elite of society. Beatriz could no longer bear the fal lacy she was living as a Neo-Christian; she longed to return to her Judaic roots. Such feelings of inadequacy were intertwined with thoughts of leaving Antwerp due to the increasing sentiments of anti-Semitism. Covertly, during this period, Beatriz, was able to rescue Portuguese Jews fleeing the Inquisition by way of an underground operation through her network of trade and business.
All preparations had been made for departure when Diogo died in 1543, leaving Beatriz manager and trustee of all family business operations. This act of benevolence by Diogo would later prove to be a major issue of contention between Beatriz and her sister Reyna. At about this time, Reyna (daughter) was proposed marriage by a Catholic nobleman, Don (Sir) Francisco de Aragon. Fearing repercussions if their family secret were ever revealed, Beatriz together with her daughter and sister fled to Venice in 1545 leaving much of her prop erty behind. While still in Venice, in 1549, Emperor Charles V (1519-1558) at tempted to confiscate her fortune but was unsuccessful since the Nasi family by this time (particularly Joseph) had acquired enough economic power to gain the protection of the Venetian government. Charles V’s attempt could be regarded as a reprisal (against the Jews for collaborating with the Ottoman Empire) for the siege that Suleyman had placed on Vienna twenty years before. The siege had challenged the Habsburg Empire and undermined Charles V’s leadership, thus, it was necessary to demonstrate who held the upper hand. In this case, it was evident that the Habsburg Empire was losing its power, while the Ottoman Empire was becoming an important new force in international politics.
Due to unresolved petty rivalries, concerning family property rights, Gracia was denounced before the Venetian local authorities as a Judaizer by her own sister Reyna (Diogo’s widow) and sent to prison. Joseph Nasi however, had secured Turkish diplomatic intervention on her behalf and was consequently able to release her. It was in the best interest of the Ottoman Empire (i.e. the Sultan) to have the Nasi and other affluent Jewish families in good standing since they controlled maritime activity. The Sultan forged alliances with wealthy Jewish families (like the House of Nasi) in the Ottoman Empire, a system that helped maintain social and economic order.
After Gracia’s release she fled to Ferrara. It was there she felt liberated enough to profess her Judaism openly. Beatriz renamed herself, using her given name of Gracia Nasi de Mendes. In Ferrara, she became a patroness of letters, even hav ing a Torah dedicated to her in 1553. With the dedication of a Torah to her, Gracia was elevated to a new status within the Jewish religious community. She was no longer seen as just a passive woman but rather as a great pillar of society. In part Gracia was able to rise to such a position through monetary contribu tions, an act that carried no distinction between men or women. Charity was regarded as altruistic, and if done to enhance and promote Jewish scholarship, all the better. Through such simple acts of altruism, Gracia rose to the highest ranks in an acceptable way, one guided and promoted by spiritual means.
In Ferrara , Doña Gracia continued her remarkable work by using her mon ey and influence to promote the escape of fugitive Portuguese Marranos to Italy until she left for Turkey later that same year (1553). Doña Gracia and Joseph both appealed to Suleyman and through the influential Jewish court physician Moses Hamon, convinced the Sultan of the commercial and financial advan tages to Turkey if it allowed the Nasi family (and other Jewish families) to enter the Empire.
From the end of the fifteenth century, refugees from Spain and Portugal streamed into the Ottoman Empire and were readily welcomed by the Sultans. Thus, the Ottoman Empire received the Nasi family with open arms. Needless to say, however, that these acts of kindness were not entirely altruistic. The “Jews constituted a far more valuable and far more reliable element” in terms of their paying taxes ( kharadj ) since they were unbelievers. “The Jewish community was considered to be a separate ‘nation,’ the equivalent of a millet, and was thereby permanently obligated to pay an annual tax.” According to Islam, Jews, “as peo ple of the book” were a minority to be tolerated under their traditional status as ahl al-dhimma (protected people). Although Doña Gracia, as the ketkhuda or kahiya (woman of affairs), dealt with the fiscal affairs of the Jewish community, the rabbis were responsible for the direct payment of the taxes to the Court. The Ottoman Empire was also in dire need of “a class of city-dwellers, merchants and craftsmen, who could practice the handicrafts that the Turks so painfully lacked and, moreover, prevent commerce from being entirely in the hands of those whose interests were specifically anti-Turkish.”
The importance of the Jews in the Ottoman Empire at this time had dimin ished due to the withering effects of the Inquisition on their financial activity and international trade. The result was less capital; subsequently they carried less weight in political affairs. The Nasi family was an exception to this rule.
In the Ottoman world Gracia lived among the elite, dominating Jewish life with her philanthropies, and supporting hospitals, synagogues (i.e. Galata), schools and scholars in Constantinople and Salonika. Through the establish ment of such synagogues and adjacent yeshivot (Jewish Orthodox schools), Gracia was able to preserve the Sephardic tradition and was also able to lead the Jewish population vis-à-vis religious education. It could be speculated that this was Gracia’s way of compensating for years of obscure religious existence.
Through her own search for an identity, one vested in a rediscovery of Judaism, she was able to influence the religiosity of an entire generation. Gra cia’s contributions extended far beyond the religious sphere. The extent of her monetary contributions were not just destined to the establishment of insti tutions but also to promote Sephardic tradition and create alliances between the Ottoman Empire and the Jewish community. Through such alliances, Gracia was able to mitigate (along with Joseph of course) political decisions dealing specifically with the Jewish community. Her financial standing earned her significant concessions within the Empire. She used these concessions to augment her own position within the Court and as an important tools to be used at the appropriate times.
Gracia’s merchant ships carried on a large overseas business, trading wool, pepper and grain, and she was the largest importer of textiles. The textiles were later used in weaving, dyeing and cloth manufacture, a practice that was introduced and widely practiced by Sephardic Jews. The blue cloth produced was later transformed into uniforms for the Janissaries (the elite military force). It was through this clothing trade and due to Joseph’s growing influence in the Divan, the Second Court of the Imperial Palace , that Gracia was able to acquire greater access to the Imperial Harem. Through her wealth and shrewd business mind, she was able to obtain “favors” (euphemism for concessions or bribery) from Sultan Selim II (even while he was Crowned Prince), or chestrated through Joseph’s political contacts. Even though Joseph played a subordinate role to Gracia, he received more public acclaim at the time, due to gender biases embedded in that male-dominated world. As is often the case in male-dominated traditions, women like Gracia were often relegated to the side lines, being acknowledged but given a lesser status (i.e. Miriam and Han na). Through special concessions and close personal and political ties, Gracia was able to enter the harem as a supplier of textiles (for the manufacturing of dresses) for the ladies of the Court and precious stones. There were even rumors of an affair between Gracia and Suleyman’s son-in-law Rustam Pasha, the Grand Vizier from 1544 to 1561 (with a short break in between).
Gracia’s entrance to the harem was also linked with her close friendship to Esther Kyera, who is known to have assisted as a beauty consultant and midwife to the women of the harem. Both she and Gracia also served as links for the women of the Court to the outside world. This liaison was crucial in order to sustain some kind of variety in the women’s lives, and thus, not succumbing to utter monotony. Given Doña Gracia’s involvement in the Court, she probably had a close relationship with Nur Banu (1530-1583), who was keenly interested political affairs of the Court. She was Sultan Selim II’s favorite wife and the mother of the future Sultan Murad III (1574-1595).
The growing importance of the imperial palace as a center of government gave women both greater physical proximity to the Sultan and expanded oppor tunity for building networks of influence; and the chaos in the system of suc cession to the throne resulted in a more central role for royal women. Gracia’s contact with them enhanced her own influence with the Jewish community.
Women’s influence extended beyond the dynastic household, one such in fluence was their ownership and exploitation of property. A woman’s economic independence derived from her rights under Islamic law to the mahr (dowry) and to fixed shares of the estates of deceased kin. Such wealthy women had ac cess to socio-economic power. A large portion of women’s public charity was aimed at helping other women with upper mobility. Gracia having already exer cised the practice of charity in order to assist the Jewish community at large, also founded synagogues (probably including mikvehs as well) especially for women in such places as Istanbul and Izmir .
In 1554, Gracia was joined by Joseph who had married Reyna (her daugh ter) and as a result was now closely associated with all of her enterprises. Shortly thereafter in 1556-1557, Gracia attempted to organize a punitive boycott of the port of Ancona in Italy, which “was the main port of the Papal state and also served as a base for the extensive trade with Florence,” in retaliation against its burning at the stake of twenty-six Marranos accused as renegades of the Chris tian faith. She was able to secure the intervention of Suleyman in favor of the ac cused, who were Turkish protected subjects, including her own business agents. The boycott was also intended to divert trade to the port of Pesaro because of persecutions by the Pope Paul IV (1555-1559) against Marranos. The boycott is said (within the Jewish circles) to have failed due to poor facilities of the port and fear of further repercussions by the tyrannical Pope Paul IV against the Marranos. Yet, there is doubt whether those were the real reasons. Rather, the boycott failed due to the fact that it was initiated by a woman. It was unheard of for a Jewish community and its rabbis to adhere to the leadership of a woman. The rabbis did not oppose Gracia’s piety, philanthropy or nobility and pureness of soul with which she founded synagogues and yeshivot; however, they were unsympathetic to her assertiveness in guiding the community, since she broke away from the pre-established mold of a passive and subservient woman within traditional Judaism.
At first glance Doña Gracia appears as a silent figure, existing only in rela tion to her husband. As the discussion above has demonstrated, this was not the case; Doña Gracia played a remarkable role in Jewish development. Of all the women of the sixteenth century, she seems a striking contrast to the image of a gentle, submissive and dutiful Jewish woman. This is not to undermine the role exercised by women at this time, as has been clearly indicated by the example of Esther Kyera. Yet the coveted role that Gracia earned as savior of Jewish lives cannot be diminished. Although, this role as savior is not inclu sive to all the incredible achievements Gracia managed to accomplish in her lifetime. Through her financial position and power, she was able to penetrate various barriers not only within the Jewish community but in the Christian and Muslim worlds as well. Her contributions to the Court, transactions within the business sphere, and extensive maritime activity are indicators of her power and influence. Her achievements are proof of her intellect and skil ful endeavors which have earned her a coveted position in Jewish history. “No other women in Jewish history has been surrounded with such devotion and affection. No other women in Jewish history, it seems, has deserved it more.”
Paulette Schuster is currently completing her dissertation on “The Syrian-Jewish Community in Mexico City in a Comparative Context” at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Her interests include women in religion/spirituality, feminist activism/community, spiritual traditions, women in Mexico and Latin America, women in Judaism and women and gender studies in the Middle East. Born and raised in Mexico City and the United States, she now lives in Israel with her husband and three children.