Doña GraciaWith the Warts

Letter to the Editor for HaLapid

If we persist in presenting our heroes and heroines without their foibles then those whose opinions differ from ours on these issues will present them for us often happily so sometimes with a vengeance

In 1507 after the massacre of thousands of new Christians in Lisbon when King Manoel lifted the prohibition on conversos to leave the country and removed for a time all social political and economic discrimination between old and new Christians the families of Doña Gracia and her husband chose not to emigrate to a country where they could practice Judaism freely Instead they chose to retain the facade of Christianity and successfully exploit the opportunities open to new Christians and their descendants for social upward mobility political gain and commercial wealth Only between 1536 with the royal decision to establish an Inquisition in Portugal on the Spanish model and 1547 when the massive new Christian diplomatic and financial effort to dissuade the Papacy from acceding to the Portuguese monarchy’s request failed were contingency plans to move the family’s fortune to a safer place initiated and gradually brought to fruition

Their apologists explain that the family was planning to do just that ie move their family and their fortune to the Ottoman Empire from the very beginning If this fabulously wealthy family hungered to return to Judaism I submit that they could have done so at any time with the spare change in their pockets and manage to live a modest but economically secure life elsewhere

But the family had seen life from the top and would not be satisfied with less ever again Had the jealous eyes of others on their wealth not been reinforced with the establishment of the conversobaiting Inquisition they like so many other conversos might have put off leaving Christian Europe indefinitely After all they had either been born or brought into Christianity as babes The oppressive religion was probably not quite the intolerable ogre that it had been for their forcibly converted parents They could wear the Christian veneer more lightly and play the role more naturally

Additionally their delay was justified by the rescue efforts and financial aid they and their international agents provided to conversos who chose or were compelled to leave Portugal at once

Maimonides in his compassionate defense of the twelfth century Morrocan Jewish Community forcibly converted by Moslem fundamentalists stipulates in his Epistle of Apostasy that a forced convert’s covert Jewish observance has value only if he is willing and ready to escape at the first opportunity to a land where he can return to Judaism openly even in the extreme case of having to abandon his family and property Later rabbis in the wake of the 1391 massacres in Spain ameliorated the harshness of this responsum out of sympathy for conversos who anguished over leaving their families behind and going to a strange land in penury However such was never even the worst case scenario for the Nasi family

Whenever Doña Gracia or her husband were accused of Judaizing by commercial competitors or jealous family members the only specific charge ever brought against them faintly related to crypto Judaism was their assistance and rescue efforts on behalf of their converso sisters and brothers No charges of covert Jewish ritual practices or clandestine services in their home were ever brought against them by family members professional or domestic staff or other new Christian witnesses They were spared the routine horrors of the Inquisition: filthy cells torture long periods between interrogations etc Their fortunes were never permanently confiscated They never marched in an auto de fe and they never wore a sambenito A tap on the wrist the distribution of generous bribes and the pulling of some political and commercial strings always sufficed to absolve them of any guilt

The family’s generosity to the Jewish people was lavish and legendary But they never skimped on their fabulous lifestyle for the sake of charity Likewise they insisted that neither they nor their retinue staffs or agents be required to submit to the discrimination restrictions and distinctive clothing required of other Jews in Italy or Istanbul

When they finally returned to Judaism and moved to the Ottoman Empire they established a synagogue and a rabbinical academy and contributed to the upkeep of many others But when they required a favorable rabbinical judgment or total community support for ventures they felt that as Cecil Roth put it in his Dona Gracia: Of The House of Nasi “if they paid the piper they expected to call the tune”

In conclusion I believe that what we have here is a very colorful very human and essentially very Jewish element in the tapestry that is the crypto Jew The Nasis were Jews in their hearts what our contemporary age has indelicately termed “cardiac” Jews Unlike Marcos Perez Bautista the comparably wealthy leader of the crypto Jewish congregation in Lima Peru in the seventeenth Century or the equally socially prominent Antonio Homem who led the cryptoJewish conventicle in early seventeenth century Coimbra the Nasis never took risks that would lead them to the stake But in their hearts they unquestionably loved and identified with their people and unstintingly assisted in their rescue and welfare Their legacy is the many eloquent testimonies to them expressing the gratitude of the Jewish people

Arye Hazary is a frequent contributor to Halapid

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Editor’s note: Doña Gracia was imprisoned twice in Venice after being denounced as a Judaizer planning to resettle in the Ottoman Empire and practice Jusaism Her brotherinlaw Diogo Mendes was arrested twice in Antwerp

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