The “Discovery” of Doña Gracia
By Dolores Sloan
Rising from the Footnotes of His-story to Recognition on her 500th birthday
In 1996, I decided that the book I was to write about the Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal would utilize biography. I reasoned that readers would get more out of a work of history about a distant place and age if they could identify with the persons who lived it. I would tell the story of the age through the lives of several notable Sephardic individuals of the day.
Most works of history are chronological in format. Mine would be too, but chronological for each of the four or five individuals I was to highlight. I had three prominent ones selected. They were Isaac Abravanel, financial adviser to four monarchs and biblical exegete; Abraham Zacuto, noted astronomer of the day whose celestial almanac and improved astrolabe would make possible the safe return of the explorers Columbus and da Gama; and Luís de Santángel, influential converso courtier to the Catholic monarchs, whose generous loan to them made Columbus’ voyage possible. I needed one more notable person and I wanted it to be a woman.
I’m not sure where I came across Gad Nassi’s little work Doña Gracia Nasi; it was either in the Santa Fe Public Library or UCLA’s Research Library. Writ ten in 1990 as a commemorative piece for the celebration of her life in Tiberias, it was a succinct portrayal of an awesome woman who, on widowhood at age twenty-eight, assumed leadership of a most powerful trading and banking firm in the Sixteenth Century. I learned that she then led her family on a seventeen-year odyssey to the Ottoman Empire . With her New Christian family able to practice the Judaism of their ancestors in Constantinople , she became the quintessential model for Jewish philanthropy, funding the printing of books, building of synagogues, establishment of yeshivas, and a genuine concern for the welfare of her people throughout the Jewish Diaspora.
So Gracia Nasi became the fourth notable Sephardic individual to serve as the book’s nucleus, the focus of Chapter Five, following a chapter on each of her aforementioned male contemporaries. Now I was to look for resources. Fortunately, I found Cecil Roth’s The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia , because other sources for this dynamic woman were, at best, a few pages about her or brief mention. When his-storians wrote about Sephardim in the sixteenth century Ottoman Empire , they gave more attention to her nephew, Joseph Nasi, who was named Duke of Naxos by Sultan Selim.
It is interesting that the true measure of her contributions almost escaped recognition by Cecil Roth himself, the prominent historian whose works on Sephardic Jews and Marranos would fill a long bookshelf. In the Preface to his venerable biography, he described how he had begun to write about “that ex traordinarily romantic figure of Jewish history, Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos,” but as his research progressed, Doña Gracia began to emerge “from the background and her features became clearer to me. I realized in the end that she was of importance in Jewish history, not as the habringer of her nephew but on her own account….What her nephew did during her life was almost entirely due to her inspiration and tutelage….” (pp xi-xii)
Roth was writing in 1947. It took almost a half-century before works began to appear in English on Doña Gracia. One of the first was a novel published in 2001 by St. Martin’s Griffin . Naomi Regan’s The Ghost of Hannah Mendes wove La Señora into the narrative as the inspiration for a Twentieth Century, so phisticated and secular family from Manhattan ‘s Upper Westside to transform themselves spiritually and view their Sephardic Jewish ancestry with pride.
Since then have appeared André Aelion Brooks’ almost 600-page biogra phy, The Woman Who Defied Kings (Paragon Books, 2002) and Marianna D. Birnbaum’s The Long Journey of Gracia Nasi (CEU Press, 2003), which contrib uted insight into the business acumen of Doña Gracia as head of the House of Mendes.
I begin Chapter Five of The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal with a snapshot summary. “It is easy to come under the spell of Gracia Nasi. Inspi rational, and revered in her days by Jews and conversos alike, this figure from post-expulsion, sixteenth century Sephardic history appeals to the twenty-first century enchantment with women who have expanded the gender boundaries of their eras.”
Even today, it is not regarded as typical for a woman not yet thirty to as sume leadership of on of the largest banking and trading enterprises of the day, with little preparation for the task, and manage it well for the rest of her life. Gracia Nasi not only accomplished this while the tenacious middle ages still influenced the dominant thinking and behavior in many parts of Europe and the Ottoman Empire, but she also applied her power to protect her people and initiate reprisal against their enemies. Widowed, she continued to use her great fortune and company ships to support a rescue operation initiated by her late husband and brother-in-law, to help Portuguese New Christians in danger of persecution flee for safer lands. She funded the building of synagogues, schools, and hospitals. She served as patron to worthy literary efforts, some of which are still regarded as classics. She was the driving force behind an economic boycott of the Italian port of Ancona to avenge the burning at the stake of twenty-four conversos. And she initiated a resettlement effort, designed to bring Jews from throughout the Sephardic Diaspora to Tiberias in the Holy Land . (p. 101)
I referred earlier to Gad Nassi’s work written for the celebration of her life in Tiberias. In the book’s Forward, Dahlia Gottan writes that in December 1990, “For the first time in over four hundred years the city of Tiberias paid homage to its one-time patron and saluted its beloved Señora.” (p. 3)
The celebrations continue. We have learned of plans to pay homage on the 500th year of her birth in Antwerp on February 9, 2010. It was to that city, then a hub of commerce where the House of Mendes managed its dominance of the lucrative spice trade, that the twenty-eight-year-old, recently widowed Doña Gracia fled Lisbon with her daughter, sister and nephews. After a brief stop in England , they reached Antwerp , where Diogo, her brother-in-law, awaited them. It was the first temporary haven in the seventeen-year journey. They would eventually cross the borders of eight states on their way to the Ottoman Empire , where they would be welcomed by Sultan Suleyman, who fol lowed the example of his predecessor, Sultan Bayazid, in harvesting the skills and resources of Sephardim expelled by the Catholic monarchs and harassed by the Inquisition.
Although it wasn’t a celebration, there was indeed an outpouring of grati tude and love for this remarkable woman at memorials on the occasion of her death, presumed to have been in 1559. Many were the eulogies for La Señora. In his tribute, delivered at the synagogue Livyat Hen that she had founded in Salonika, Rabbi Moses Almosnino compared her to the great women of the Bible; Miriam, Deborah and Esther. A poet of Salonika’s Hebrew-Hispanic school, probably Saadiah Longo, laments that “She is no longer, the noble princess, Is rael ‘s glory, the splendid flower of exile who built her house with purity and holiness. She protected the poor and saved the afflicted, bringing happiness to this world and rejoicing for posterity. (p. 123)
On the 500th anniversary of her birth, I have my own personal tribute. Thank you, Doña Gracia for your example of wise leadership, courage, generos ity and service to your people, my people, and for adding giant cracks to that glass ceiling for women.
Her leadership in the boycott of Ancona in 1555 is an example of her role in the larger Jewish community. The family had been in Turkey only two years, when the repressive situation in the Italian port of Ancona brought Doña Gra cia once again to international attention. Paul IV had become Pope in 1555, determined to rid his Papal States of New Christians openly observing Judaism. The entire Ancona community of Portuguese conversos, about one hundred individuals, had been arrested and tortured, preparatory to execution by fire. Among them was the local representative of the House of Mendes. Upon learn ing of the arrests, Doña Gracia won Sultan Selim’s support. He interceded to ask for the release of the prisoners and all seized goods. The Pope rejected the effort, and twenty-eight individuals, including an old woman and a boy, were burned at the stake.
With others, Doña Gracia desired revenge against the papal city, a prosper ous port, and used her considerable influence at The Grande Porte and through out the Ottoman Empire to secure support for an economic boycott, diverting goods instead to nearby Pesaro, in the duchy of Urbino. There, the duke had sheltered those conversos who had managed to escape from Ancona. The origi nal proposal was for an eight months boycott, after which the principals would decide whether to continue.
The boycott was opposed, however, by the prominent rabbi of Salonika, Joshua Soncino, who feared reprisals against the older, non-converso Jewish community that had not been harmed thus far because of its non-Christian background. He interpreted Talmud to call the boycott illegal. Doña Gracia and her followers, on the other hand, pointed out the danger that failure of the boycott would bring to those who had fled to Pesaro. There, she feared, the duke, disappointed at the undelivered promise of increased trade after making expensive harbor preparations, would no longer refuse to hand the Ancona ex iles over to the pope.
Soncino won the support of enough merchants and rabbis, many of whom had previously backed the effort, to destroy the unity required for the boycott’s success. Subsequently, more and more trade began to return to Ancona .
Doña Gracia had predicted correctly. The enraged Duke of Urbino soon ban ished all conversos from Pesaro , even those who had been long settled there. The refugees were preyed upon by ships from Ancona , one group captured and sold into slavery. The Pope was able to prevail upon even the relatively liberal Duke Ercole of Ferrara to destroy copies of the elegy on the Ancona executions, written by Poet Jacob da Fano, and close the press of its publisher, Abraham Usque. It was Usque who had printed the Spanish bible dedicated to his patron, Doña Gracia.
Roth singles out the boycott as perhaps the first time Jews had applied proactive, unified political and economic action to defend Jewish interests, rather than take the more traditional route of financial payments and prayer. He holds the boycott’s failure responsible for the belief that was to persist in the centuries to follow: that Jews would never unite to fight their oppressors. The generations to come were to witness unending persecution and agony for Jews in the Papal States and in Christian Europe.
Study of these events illuminates the character and methods of La Señora, using her power to get cooperating rabbis to excommunicate merchants break ing the boycott, and summoning influential people before her in the manner of royalty, demanding and cajoling them for their support. Synagogues not yet committed were warned of losing the Nasi stipends they had been receiving. Even the redoubtable Rabbi Soncino was called to her palace in the same man ner as lesser religious and commercial leaders, but to no avail.
“It was amazing that it was a woman who had taken the lead in this gallant demonstration that it was not always necessary for Jews to suffer passively,” Roth asserts.
Dolores Sloan is in her second decade of membership in the Society for Crypto-Judaic Studies, where she is on the board of directors and has presented at Society conferences. Former Editor of HaLapid , she chairs the Society’s Arts Programs Committee and is Editor of the Journal of Spanish, Portuguese, and Italian Crypto Jews . Her present work-in-progress is a novel about the descendants of Doña Gracia and other Sephardic notables of the late sixteenth century.
Dolly is former Director of Literature Programs for the New Mexico arts agency and former Coordinator of DWI state programs. She has been a mem ber of the English faculty at Mount St. Mary’s College, Los Angeles since 2001, where she also teaches “Women in Jewish History and Culture.” She lives in Santa Monica.