Doña Gracia Nasi A Legend in her Lifetime

Gracia her Hebrew name was Hannah was born in 1510 in Lisbon Portugal to the wealthy and aristocratic Nasi family of Marrano Jews originating from Spain Marrano was the term commonly used for the newly converted Jews or Conversos as they were called They were officially al lowed to enter the world of Portuguese society on an equal basis although they were kept at a distance and often suspected of Judaizing tendencies Most of the Marranos in Portugal were those wealthy and well established Jewish families for whom conversion was merely a matter of social and economic convenience

Gracia was christened Beatrice de Luna and given the education and up bringing suited to her social standing Little is known of her early life but she had acquired sufficient knowledge of her Jewish origins and maintained close contact with other Marrano families in Lisbon Gracia’s brother Samuel Nasi had adopted the name of Agostinho Miguez and was appointed Royal Physician and Lecturer in Medicine at the University of Lisbon

Together with her younger sister Reyna (Malka) who was christened Brianda de Luna she shared in the strange double life of Marrano families forced to behave as devout Christians yet secretly holding on to the faith and customs of their ancestors After her brother’s death in 1525 Gracia took charge of her two young nephews Joëo (Joseph) Samuel Miguez (Nasi) and saw to their proper upbringing

In that same year she must have been stirred as were many of the Marrano community by the sensational appearance of David haReuveni at the royal court as the pretended representative of a Jewish kingdom in the East A young enthusiast Diogo Pires publicly reverted to Judaism and changed his name to Shlomo Molcho But his messianic pretensions and his common cause with haReuveni eventually led to an inglorious end for both of them

These events left a profound impression upon the young Gracia Yet her keen mind must have realized how ephemeral were such attempts at messianic deliverance and that more realistic solutions selfreliance and the use of economic power were the best means of salvation

Marriage to Francisco Mendes

At the age of eighteen Gracia Nasi married Francisco Mendes several years her senior a descendant of the notable Benveniste family from Spain Francisco Semah and Diogo Meir Mendes had been brought as young children to Portugal and forcibly baptized They grew up to inherit a vast family fortune and a prominent position within the Marrano community

The Mendes brothers gradually established themselves in the highly profitable spice trade and dealt in the import of precious stones and other valu able commodities from India and the Far East Their commercial enterprises extended soon to England and the Low Countries and in 1512 Diogo Mendes was sent to Antwerp to manage the new branch opened there

The House of Mendes

The immense profits made by the House of Mendes in Antwerp and its dealings with all the major banking houses in Europe allowed Diogo to create an extensive financial network linking all the main commercial centers along the trade routes between east and west This network however served a more clandestine purpose It provided the escape routes for Marranos threatened by the cruel hand of the Inquisition and the means for the transfer of funds to their country of destination

Francisco Mendes had remained all this time in Lisbon in order to protect his financial interests there and to assist his fellow Marranos to escape from Portugal For several years the threatened introduction of the Inquisition into the country loomed over their heads until it was given the authorization to act in 1536 and the gates of Portugal began to close Before he had time to wind up his affairs and to leave Lisbon Francisco Mendes took ill and died leaving his young wife and daughter to face the dangerous situation alone

Flight to England

Gracia NasiMendes now barely twentysix was forced to give her husband Christian burial and to take charge of his affairs She had promised him before he died that she would one day reinter his body in the Land of Israel She now decided to meet the challenge that fate had flung down before her and to leave Lisbon Taking her sixyear old daughter Reyna the Younger her sister Reyna and her two nephews Joseph and Samuel the resourceful Gracia secretly board ed one of the Mendes trading vessels bound for England with all her fortune safely stored among the cargo

England was then ruled by Henry VIII who had just broken with the Catholic Church over the question of his divorce from Catherine of Aragon This made for an even more favorable atmosphere for the Marrano refugees and a small community was established in London The House of Mendes was highly regarded there as the dominant trading establishment able to supply credit to the royal treasury and to finance largescale economic and political projects

On her arrival Gracia was met by the London representative Antonio de la Ronha a kinsman of the Mendes family described as the “tall oneeyed Master of Theology” He and the London agent Christopher Fernandez took charge of the valuables and goods Gracia had brought with her and supplied the necessary funds for her journey to Antwerp

Netherlands Interlude

After a stay of several months when most of the assets in Lisbon were brought over Gracia began her slow journey across the Low Countries Using the less frequented routes laid out earlier for Marrano refugees she and her family reached their destination safe and sound Her brotherinlaw Diogo was delighted to receive her and to find that she had salvaged most of the Mendes property in Lisbon He enlisted her as a full partner in his many enterprises and she proved a staunch support in his difficult dealings with the authorities and with the royal court in Brussels Diogo had become the uncrowned king of com mercial enterprise in Antwerp More than once he was subjected to accusations brought forward by jealous business rivals or even betrayed by those he had once aided but were bribed to turn informer

In 1532 Diogo was arrested for lá¨se majesté and released only through the vigorous protests of the city magistrates for fear of the damage it might cause trade and economy A large sum was set as surety for his good behavior and investigations were begun into his financial dealings in England France and Italy Many of his agents were thus exposed and put under arrest leaving large numbers of Marrano refugees stranded

By the time Gracia had joined him in Antwerp matters had quieted down and he was once more able to resume his activities though with far greater care and circumspection Soon afterwards he married Gracia’s sister Reyna and their daughter was named Gracia la Chica (Gracia the Younger) after her aunt

For the next six years Gracia moved in the glittering world of rich bankers and refined aristocrats Distinguished and influential personalities writers artists and eminent scholars and physicians frequented the Mendes home many of them Spanish or Portuguese emigrés

Family Trustee

So fully did her brotherinlaw trust her that in his last will he placed his entire estate and the assets of the Mendes banking house in Gracia’s hands nom inating her sole administrator and guardian of his daughter When he died in 1542 Gracia found herself in control of the entire Mendes fortune and responsible for the welfare of her family

Her first task was to defend herself against fresh charges brought against Diogo’s illegal activities with the aim of confiscating his property for the benefit of the imperial treasury Gracia employed every means available to counter such charges persuasive charms diplomatic wiles appeals and sworn testimonies in Diogo’s favor Much money and effort was expended to induce the Emperor Charles V to drop these charges They were finally withdrawn after a large loan was granted the Emperor to cover the expenses incurred in his war with Turkey

Don Joseph Nasi

By Gracia’s side to assist her in all these intricacies was Joëo Miguez (Joseph Nasi) her eldest nephew now twenty years old He had grown into a charming accomplished young man the favorite companion and jousting partner of Prince Maximilian nephew of the Emperor and the QueenRegent of the Netherlands

The young Joëo had worked his way rapidly up in the Mendes firm under the tutelage of Diogo and showed a brilliant flair for financial and commercial affairs His business acumen and diplomatic skills acquired through his many social and political contacts enabled him to defend Gracia’s interests She came to rely upon him more and more and thanks to him the House of Mendes con tinued to flourish and expand

By 1544 a new danger appeared Gracia’s daughter Reyna now nearly four teen was attracting numerous suitors captivated by her exceptional beauty and wealth Among these was the elderly nobleman Don Francisco d’Aragon a relative of the imperial family So anxious was he to marry the young Mendes heir ess that he agreed to share his prospective fortune with the Emperor and the QueenRegent if they would only obtain the mother’s consent

At first Gracia managed to decline the many invitations to attend at court by pleading illness to which she was often object When the proposal was finally made she adamantly opposed the union of her young daughter to such a decrepit old man risking royal displeasure by rejecting all overtures out of hand A lengthy correspondence between the Emperor and his halfsister shows how much pressure was being used to make her comply But she told the QueenRegent in no uncertain terms that she would rather see her daughter dead

Escape to Venice

Realizing by now that it would be perilous to remain in Antwerp any longer Gracia began to lay careful plans for her flight to Italy Through Diogo’s most

trusted kinsmen and business associates Agostino Enriques and Duarte Gomez funds were transferred out to the Mendes branches in Augsburg Lyons and Mi lan on the route to their destination Venice

The Mendes firm was now registered in the name of the Mendes heirs the younger Gracia and Reyna although Gracia herself remained guardian and trustee for her daughter and niece until they came of age Joëo Miguez named cotrustee and was to remain behind in Antwerp to take charge of the family business

Under pretence of taking a rest cure Gracia Reyna and their two daughters went in grand style to the fashionable spa at Aachen ( AixlaChapelle ) famous for its mineral springs But instead of returning to Antwerp the family traveled southward across the French border to Lyons an important trading centre being developed by European merchants The House of Mendes had already set up a major branch in the city and Gracia and her family were welcomed by the large Marrano community many of whom were indebted to them for their present safety and livelihood

Taking all the funds available to them Gracia and her family journeyed on across northern Italy to Venice the CityState famed for its dominion over the

Adriatic coast and the Mediterranean trading routes In spite of its gradual de cline it still held a commanding position in the world of international trade and commerce as the doorway to the East

Embargo on the House of Mendes

Back in Antwerp an embargo was placed upon the Mendes property and charges of heresy were brought against the two sisters Gracia and Reyna Men des to justify its confiscation Joëo Miguez who continued to conduct the family business as before pleaded their case before the imperial court claiming that the ladies in question were still Portuguese subjects and were therefore not subject to the jurisdiction of the imperial authorities In any case most of the property was held in trust for the young heiresses who were surely innocent of any crime or heresy

Prolonged negotiations were held over the matter with offers of substantial loans and credit to the imperial treasury to placate the Emperor and his sister the Queen Regent while Joëo cleverly began to redirect most of the trade to other European centers especially to Lyons By 1546 he reached a certain understanding with the Emperor who was grateful enough to knight the young man at Ratisbon for his loyal services to crown and country Not long after wards Joëo Miguez quietly left Antwerp to join his family in Venice having adroitly outwitted the imperial authorities

Queen of the Seas

Venice had reached the heights of cultural florescence with its grand pal aces churches theatre galleries and ornate buildings graced by and the portraits and paintings of Titian Tintoretto and Veronese and by marble statues stained glass windows and colorfull mosaics

Known as the Serenissima Daminante “The Queen of the Seas” it was an international trading metropolis and a central crossroad for merchants from Eu rope and the Orient Well dressed merchants and their wives in silks and sables paraded through the streets and piazzas while ships bringing all the wealth of east and west lay anchored in its harbour

In spite of being forced to live in the Ghetto the Jews of Venice thrived both culturally and financially They mingled with traders and bankers at the stockexchange and used Christian agents to carry out their business dealings It was a more open society with educated Christians and Jews sharing in the quest for knowledge and the appreciation of artistic creativity

Many of the Jewish families of wealth and prominence had come from Spain such as the famous Abrabanel family They were conversant with the best that Renaissance Italy could offer in the arts and literature in scientific and medical knowledge and in the luxurious style of life cultivated in Venetian society The influx of Marranos into Italy added to the intellectual and social ferment of the times But the Catholic Church began to be suspicious of Jewish and Marrano involvement in the Reformation movement and in the introduction of new ideas

The Mendes family took up residence in the most elegant quarter in the city near the Zecca (Mint) Gracia and Reyna became known as the wealthy de Luna sisters who entertained and lived in gracious retirement with their two beautiful daughters of eligible age They were now able to enjoy living in close proximity to their former coreligionists and to acquire greater familiarity with the world of Jewish life and learning

A Sister’s Betrayal

Gracia was well aware of the dangers still lurking for her in Venice in spite of its obvious comforts and attractions Joëo Miguez had already begun to make overtures to the Sultan of Turkey for their possible transfer to Constantinople through the good offices of Moses Hamon the Sultan’s physician Negotiations were underway to extend the Mendes banking concerns eastward to the Balkan countries under Turkish control and to prepare the ground for their eventual departure

What was not taken into account was betrayal from within the family Gracia’s sister Reyna had become increasingly dissatisfied with being denied any financial control over her daughter or her inherited fortune She was enamoured of gay Venetian life and luxury and wished to enjoy all that it offered without restraint

Gracia must have been well aware of her sister’s capricious nature and judged her incapable of assuming responsibility for her daughter’s future Their quarrel ended in Reyna’s spiteful decision to betray Gracia as a Judaizer and renegade to the Christian faith thinking this would automatically give her control over the family property Not only did she denounce her sister to the authorities in Venice but she even bribed the Mendes agent in Lyons to notify the French authorities of the same charges in order to claim the sizable assets accumulated there

Arrest and Imprisonment

Gracia was instantly arrested and imprisoned and her property was placed under embargo pending trial Far from gaining anything from her act of treachery Reyna was herself denounced as a Judaizer by the very same French agent who wished to gain control of the Mendes assets The two children the younger Reyna and Gracia were placed in a nunnery to shield them from undesirable family influence

Judicial proceedings dragged on for nearly two years while Joëo Miguez worked hard to bring diplomatic pressure to bear through his close contact with the Turkish court at Constantinople and Moses Hamon the Sultan’s Jewish physician There was also an understanding that Gracia’s daughter Reyna would be a possible match for his son Joseph Hamon Encouraged by the possibility of having the Mendes fortune and banking interests transferred to his country the Sultan was persuaded to send an ultimatum to the Venetian government demanding the release of the noble lady and her family whom he already considered as Ottoman subjects together with her property

That Gracia’s arrest had caused a diplomatic crisis on an international scale is evident from letters sent by the French Ambassador to Venice M de Morvilliers in July 1549 reporting in detail on developments in this affair Gracia was finally released and given a month to leave the city She was apparently reconciled once more with her sister and their daughters were returned to their custody But soon after this incident the entire Marrano community was expelled from Venice to avoid further complications with Turkey

Safe Haven in Ferrara

Once more reunited with her family and reconciled with her sister Gracia decided to postpone her journey to Constantinople in order to release the as sets still tied up in France She welcomed the offer of safeconduct to Ferrara then under the enlightened rule of the House of Este Jews from many parts of Europe had found a safe haven there and a Marrano colony was also established under the Duke’s protection Several synagogues were built for the different communities according to their country of origin

In Ferrara in 1550 Gracia Nasi finally came into her own She was now forty and had earned a welldeserved respite from her previous trials and tribu lations Here she was able to shed her false identity and to proudly resume her original family name of Nasi She devoted all her energies to improving the lot of her compatriots She fostered the publication of Hebrew Spanish and Portuguese works for the benefit of the Marrano community After years of isolation from actual contact with Jews they had to rediscover the meaning of traditional Orthodox Judaism

Return to Judaism

Gracia found herself drawn into the circle of highly educated wealthy and social minded personalities active in Jewish affairs and yet conversant with the world of Italian thought and culture She continued her support of the Marrano refugees and with the help of Joëo Miguez sent many of them eastward to settle in the Balkans or Constantinople

She was now recognized as their greatest and most faithful benefactress Literary works by Marrano authors were dedicated to her and she promoted the publication of the Spanish Ferrara Bible printed by Abraham Usque in 1553 And Samuel Usque in his Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel in which the tragic history of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews are recounted sings her praises fervently:

Nor should you forget the help which you have had: on the road from Portugal until you arrived in safety the Divine mercy in human guise the intrinsic piety of Miriam offering her life to save her brethren the great her people that infinite virtue and great prudence of Deborah in governing sanctity of Esther in helping those who are persecuted the much praised strength of the widow Judith in delivering those hemmed in by travail Such has the Lord sent to you in these days the fortunate Jewess Nasi

Thus she has been your tried strength in your weakness a bank where the weary rest a fountain of clear water where the parched drink a fruit laden shady tree where the hungry eat and the desolate find rest

Gracia became acquainted with the many women of like standing and mind who were deeply involved in community affairs and eagerly participated in the social and intellectual activities in Ferrara Doña Benvenida Abrabanel who had been exiled with her family from Naples had come to Ferrara ten years earlier and was like Gracia seen as a great patron of the community They must have found much in common and Doña Benvenida must have been of great assistance in helping to initiate the younger woman into her world of ardent and enlightened Judaism It is difficult to explain therefore why Gracia should have suddenly found it necessary to return to Venice at this time In 1551 a plague broke out in Ferrara and the local population blamed the Marrano refugees for being the carriers of the disease from the northern countries Many of the new arrivals were forced to stay outside the city limits Gracia sent food and sup plies to the distressed Marranos many of whom lost their lives in the attempt to reach some other port of safety She may have gone to Venice on a mission of mercy or it may have been to release some of her funds still tied up there

Whatever the reason she was once again apprehended by the Venetian au thorities and held hostage She was by now a selfdeclared apostate from Christi anity and could be condemned for heresy without more ado Once again there was a diplomatic uproar with envoys going back between Venice and Constan tinople And once again Venice retreated in fear of Turkish vengeance

Gracia’s debt to the Sultan of Turkey was now too great to ignore Her promise to come to Constantinople would have to be carried out and she be gan to prepare for the long and hazardous journey overland Her sister Reyna remained behind in Ferrara with her daughter Gracia the Younger now sixteen and betrothed to Samuel Nasi Joëo’s younger brother There is a beautiful portraitmedal of her which was commissioned from the artist Pastorino de Pasto rini with the name Gracia Nasi inscribed on it in Hebrew lettering As for Joëo he was hoping to marry Gracia’s daughter Reyna but his many commercial and political activities prevented him from settling down

Journey to Constantinople

In the spring of 1553 Doña Gracia Nasi and her daughter Reyna left Ferrara Four magnificent coaches were equipped and filled with their belongings Accompanied by their ladiesinwaiting and serving women and an armed escort of forty riders to protect them from marauding bands that roamed the countryside they set out on their journey

Their first stop was at Ancona on the Adriatic coast south of Ferrara which had a haven of refuge for Portuguese Marranos thanks to special privileges and guarantees given them by Pope Clement VII and confirmed by two succeeding pontiffs Gracia had many agents and business associates in Ancona and most of her trade was diverted through it after her banishment from Venice From there they sailed across to Ragusa ( Dubrovnik ) a city republic situated on the Dalmatian coast It had begun to vie with Venice as a trading port and Gracia had arranged to have her goods and property transferred through it Her agents obtained government protection for her merchandise in return for the payment of customs duties and rent for warehouse deposits

Setting out once more Gracia Nasi and her entourage followed the old Ro man highway across the Balkan Peninsula to Salonika This city had come under Ottoman rule in 1430 and attracted many waves of refugee Jews fleeing from European countries From the beginning of the sixteenth century a large influx of Marranos literally swamped the existing community of Jews from diverse origins and became the dominant cultural factor there Synagogues and yeshivot were set up and Salonika became a scholarly centre for talmudic and kabbalistic studies Gracia had contributed considerable sums in support of its many insti tutions of learning and continued to do so for the rest of her lifetime

Royal Welcome for Doña Gracia

The last lap of her journey was completed in grand style and her entry into Constantinople was an impressive one recorded in contemporary memoirs as a day of general celebration by the Jewish and Marrano communities established in the city Gracia was hailed as the Great Lady or Señora already famous for her bounteous generosity towards her compatriots and coreligionistsFor Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent of Turkey this was a moment of triumph as well Gracia Nasi represented one of the greatest financial empires in Europe and a symbol of his superiority over Christian hegemony The enor mous volume of trade in silk wool spices gems and many other valuable com modities which she and her gifted nephew had built up would promote Turkey as an economic and military power

Ever since the fall of Constantinople to the Turkish conquerors in 1453 Jewish refugees from all over Europe were encouraged to settle in the country and to take advantage of the liberal treatment accorded them by the Sultan When the Sultan Bayazid heard about the expulsion of the Jews from Spain by King Ferdinand he said: “Can you call such a king wise and intelligent? He is impoverishing his country and enriching my kingdom”

Hans Dernschwam a travelling agent of the Fugger banking house describes the Jews in Turkey in his travel diary:

In Turkey you will find in every town innumerable Jews of all countries and languages And every Jewish group sticks together in accordance with its language Wherever Jews have been expelled in any land they all come together in Turkey as thick as vermin; speak German Italian Spanish Portuguese French Czech Polish Greek Turkish Syriac Chaldean and other languages besides these As is their custom every one wears clothes in accordance with the language he speaks

In Constantinople the Jews are thick as ants The Jews themselves say that they are very numerous They live in the lower part of the city near the sea Those Jews that are old who have a little money travel to the Holy Land to Jerusalem and still hope that they will one day all come together from all countries into their own The welltodo Jews send money to Jerusalem to support them for one can not make any money there:

Many Marranos that is Jews who turned Christian as in Spain or voluntarily became Christians in other places; all come to Turkey and become Jews again The Jews of Constantinople also have a printing press and print many rare books They have goldsmiths lapidaries painters tailors butchers druggists physicians surgeons clothweavers woundsurgeons barbers mirrormakers dyers silkworkers goldwashers refiners of ores assayers engravers:

The Jews do not allow any of their own to go about begging They have collectors who go from house to house and collect into a common chest for the poor This is used to support the poor and the hospital

Gracia rented a large and luxurious mansion in the fashionable suburban area of Galata (Pera) where she lived in regal splendor She held open house to friends and associates and provided free meals for eighty unfortunate pau pers gathered daily round her table Gracia continued to live in her accustomed European manner and was allowed to retain her Venetian style of dress She was surrounded continually by her many agents and advisers and by a host of dependants soliciting her attention and support

One of her first obligations was to fulfill her promise to her dead husband and to reinter his body in the Land of Israel Palestine had come under Otto man rule in 1516 and the Sultan had set about reconstructing the ruined cities notably Jerusalem By some secret and highly complex arrangements the body of Francisco was brought from Lisbon and reburied in the Valley of Jehoshaphat at the foot of the Mount of Olives It was the Marrano belief that such burial would atone for having lived as professed Christians since “the land would expiate for the people” (Deut 32:43)

Marriage of Reyna and Joseph Nasi

A year after her arrival her nephew Joëo arrived in Constantinople and publicly declared himself of the Jewish faith He was now openly known as Don Joseph Nasi and his longawaited marriage to Reyna was celebrated He built a palace on the shores of the Bosporus called “The Belvedere” where he held court to princes and foreign dignitaries All his diplomatic experience his wealth and commercial expertise were now at the service of the Turkish court and he soon came to be on intimate terms with the Sultan and the members of his family especially his son Prince Selim

Dark Shadows over Italy

Meanwhile in Italy new and alarming currents were flowing across the country In reaction to the rising wave of Protestantism in the North the Catholic Church began to apply restrictive edicts The CounterReformation was soon in full swing ever since the election of the fanatical Cardinal Caraffa to the papal throne as Pope Paul IV in 1555

The Ghetto system was established in all cities under Papal dominion and the Jews had to wear the degrading badges which marked them apart Privileges secured under former Popes were abolished and the Inquisition was given power to act without restriction Public burnings of Hebrew books especially the Talmud were held and other repressive measures were enforced

Tragedy at Ancona

The Marrano community in Ancona already numbering a hundred families was now in grave danger They had been granted papal protection and safe conduct in 1547 to settle there and to develop highly profitable trade connections between Italy and the Levant Nevertheless in the autumn of 1555 the papal representative ordered the arrest of the entire community for trial and examination by the Inquisition

All appeals at least for the promised period of grace to enable them to de part with their property were denied Large amounts of money and merchandise were confiscated But the greedy representative was finally tempted by huge bribes to allow many of the prisoners to escape He himself managed to reach Genoa with his newly acquired fortune before being caught and extradited for his misdeeds while the fugitives from Ancona fled to nearby Pesaro in the Duchy of Urbino where they took refuge with local Marrano friends

As a result of this the prosecution of the remaining prisoners in Ancona now became merciless They were kept shackled to one another in iron chains pitilessly tortured and subjected to public punishment Many of them were close relatives and business associates of the Nasi family and some were Gracia’s own personal agents and longtime friends Deeply shocked at these horrifying developments Gracia appealed to the Sultan pointing out the enormous losses that the arrests in Ancona had caused to Turkish trade interests The Ancona merchants themselves feared that trade with Turkey would be diverted else where and begged the Pope to spare their city from expected reprisals

Ultimatums appeals and diplomatic negotiations were of no avail Only a few of the prisoners considered as being under Turkish protection were released The rest were forced either to perform public acts of penitence and punishment or to face execution Twentyfour prisoners chose to die rather than renounce their faith many of them belonging to the noblest families who had come from Spain and Portugal From April to June 1556 a series of executions were carried out and the martyrs died bravely declaring loyalty to the Jewish faith The tragedy of the Ancona martyrs left a searing mark upon Jewish memory and their story has been included in the lamentations for the Ninth of Av

The Ancona Boycott

Throughout this period Gracia was in great despair and anguish hoping that the worst would not occur When she heard from one of the fugitives about the executions at Ancona her fury was aroused In July 1555 a gathering of lead ing rabbis and community elders from all over the Turkish empire met at the Nasi mansion in Constantinople to hear the eyewitness account by Judah Faraj who had been sent by his fellow fugitives in Pesaro for this purpose

A general decision was taken to proclaim a trade boycott against the port of Ancona and to pronounce excommunication upon anyone who might violate it All trade and consignments of merchandise were to be diverted to Pesaro a decision welcomed by the Duke of Urbino anxious to develop the port as a trading centre

The boycott was duly proclaimed and accepted by all the rabbis of the dif ferent communities with the exception of Joshua Soncino Rabbi of the Great Synagogue in Constantinople Soncino’s stubborn opposition and the encour agement this gave a few other rabbis not to support the boycott defeated Gra cia’s plans In order to be effective a boycott would have to be total Since it was not so more harm than good was done to Jewish interests

For the first time Gracia felt the limits of her power and influence and it must have been difficult for her to accept such defeat What hurt even more was that for this once the Christian world might have been taught a welldeserved lesson by such a show of Jewish solidarity Yet Gracia’s bitter disappointment did not make her lose heart and may have even steeled her to act with greater determination and will to seek salvation in the Holy Land

Family Reunion

The failure of the Ancona boycott led to the expulsion of the Marrano com munities from Pesaro The Duke of Ferrara was also induced to expel the Mar ranos from his domains in 1558 Gracia managed to extricate her niece Gracia la Chica and her husband Samuel Nasi with the assistance of a special envoy sent by the Turkish Sultan The young couple with all their property intact were soon able to join the family circle in Constantinople

Gracia’s sister Reyna probably remained in Italy and may have tried once more to raise the question of the family inheritance It was decided in the in terests of family peace to submit the entire problem to the highest rabbinical authorities of that time and a decision in favour of Doña Gracia’s claim to most of it was ultimately given The presiding rabbi and judge was strangely enough the same Joshua Soncino who had so bitterly opposed her some years earlier over the Ancona boycott affair

Return to Zion

With all her financial affairs now in order and her ties with Italy finally broken Gracia turned eastward to her last and dearest desire – the rebuilding of the Jewish homeland She wanted to find the real home and haven for her persecuted brethren in Europe Messianic dreams were not enough they had to be given political and economic substance

She was well aware of the efforts being made towards renewed settlement in the Land of Israel and the renaissance of Jewish learning in Jerusalem and in Safed under the benign Ottoman government A new spirit was in the air a feel ing of hope and certainty that salvation was close at hand This was an historic opportunity not to be missed and she felt it within her power to realize it

Reconstruction of Tiberias

The times were propitious and her influence in the Turkish court could not have been greater In 1560 with the help of Don Joseph Nasi she submitted a proposal to the Sublime Porte in Constantinople to acquire the concession over Tiberias and sev en neighbouring villages in exchange for collecting the taxes and paying a high annual sum She promised that within ten years this amount would be increased tenfold

The plan was to establish an autonomous Jewish citystate which would be “the first flash of redemption” In spite of initial opposition by local Christians and Moslems Don Joseph Nasi was appointed Governor of Tiberias and his faithful steward Joseph ibn Adret was sent to supervise the rebuilding of the ruined city and the reconstruction of its walls for the protection of its citizens

Work was begun in 1563 and Arab workers from Safed and Damascus were ordered to do the building under the watchful eye of the Turkish janissaries sup plied by the Sultan It was interrupted for a while after one of the local sheikhs issued dire warnings against the rebuilding of Tiberias which according to a Talmudic prophecy would lead to the redemption of the Jews Only after the strong intervention of the Pasha in Damascus was work eventually resumed and the fortified walls were completed by the end of 1564

New buildings were put up over the cleared ruins of the old city synagogues bath houses and Spanish style patio residences for the prospective settlers Near the hot springs of Tiberias a grand palatial residence was under construction where Doña Gracia was expected to make her home The thousands of new settlers awaited her arrival with high expectations believing that her coming would herald a new era for the Jews living in the Land of Israel Scholars from nearby Safed joined in setting up schools of learning with the aim of restoring the former glory of Tiberias as a Torah and Talmud centre Don Joseph Nasi insisted that the settlers work on the land and in manual labor in order to “redeem the earth” and build a healthy economy As owner of the mo nopoly on the textile trade he imported sheep from Spain for the production of wool and planted mulberry trees for breeding silkworms in order to develop a profitable textile industry in Tiberias

Public proclamations were sent out calling on Jewish communities in the Diaspora to come and settle in the country and ships were chartered to bring over prospective immigrants Entire communities packed their belongings and embarked for Palestine Unfortunately some of the ships were attacked and sunk by the marauding fleet of the Knights of Malta who often captured Jewish prisoners for high ransom

Among such victims were the Jews of Cori to the south of Rome who decided to emigrate to the Land of Israel together as one group They sent a letter to other communities in Italy asking for help in collecting funds for the journey to Venice:

We the members of the exile in the Holy Congregation of Cori our eyes are always unto the Lord until He shall have mercy upon us we are indeed placed like sheep for the slaughter behold there came unto us the voiceof good tid ings our Lord Don Joseph to whom the Lord God caused to be given the land of Tiberias wherein God chose to be the sign and symbol for our redemption and the salvation of our souls

we became stirred with a single heart and made agreement among our selves to go to dwell under the pinions of the Almighty at the bidding of the honored lord the Prince

Sad to say all the grand extravagant plans so heroically laid by Gracia and her enterprising nephew did not reach fruition Most of the landowners eventu ally rented out their holdings to local Arab farmers and lived on a share of the produce They were constantly dependent upon financial assistance from Don Joseph who continued to support the colony so long as his aunt was alive

The Jews of Tiberias had been looking forward to her coming among them and looked up to her as their honored Lady haGveret as they called her Al though her home situated close to the hot springs on the Lake shore was long since ready Doña Gracia delayed her departure from Constantinople finding it difficult to break away from her many interests and pursuits She is also said to have suffered some recurring illness which kept her in constant need of medical attention

Eulogy for the Señora

Doña Gracia Nasi died in 1569 shortly before her sixtieth year and was mourned by Jewish communities throughout Europe and the Turkish Empire She was remembered in scholarly publications for her eulogized in all the synagogues and bounteous charity Moses Almosnino the rabbi of the Livyat Chen (Chaplet of Grace) Synagogue she had founded in Salonika delivered an eloquent address comparing her work among her people to that of the great hero ines of the Bible to Miriam Deborah and Esther Poets of the HispanoJewish school wrote elegies in her honour lamenting her death as mother and gracious benefactor of all the dispersed Marrano communities she had helped to save

In a funeral oration words of deep sorrow and high tribute were spoken of Doña Gracia:

She is no more the noble Princess the glory of Israel the splendid flower of exile who built her house in purity and sanctity She has protected the poor and saved the afflicted bringing happiness to this world and joy in the world to come

Gad Nassi is one of the foremost Israeli scholars on the life of Doña Gracia He collaborated with WIZO Israel and the Municipality of Tiberias to organize a commemoration of Doña Gracia Nasi in 1990 For the first time in its his tory the city of Tiberias paid homage to its beloved Señora He has participated previously in the annual conference of the Society of CryptoJudaic Studies and he advocates rapprochement between cryptoJewry of Sephardic descent and Sephardic Jewry as a valuable and unexploited field for the elaboration and integration of their reciprocal spiritual identity

Rebecca Toueg was born in 1932 in Shanghai China Her parents were Iraqi Jews who grew up in Bombay India and went to China with Sassoon enter prises Dr Toueg attended British schools in Shanghai and came to Israel in 1951 with her family As an undergraduate she studied English Literature at Hebrew University did an MA at Tel Aviv University then a PhD in philosophy at Haifa University She taught English literature at Tel Aviv University and worked in the World WIZO Department of Education prior to becoming an editor and translator for the Research Authority at Haifa University

Appreciation is given to Drs Gad Nassi and Rebecca Toueg for giving HaLapid the right to reprint this text

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