(This fragment of a previously untranslated document in Ladino from Salonika eighty years ago reflects the continued focus on Doña Gracia by the descendents of the people she rescued It is from the Ladino publication Folyeton del Pueblo (Salonika 1929/5690) and discusses the role of Doña Gracia in protecting the anusim in the sixteenth century and then the fascination with the newly “rediscovered” extant communities of anusim in Portugal The complete document will be published in Ladino and English later in 2010 by Gaon Books)

During these times of renaissance of the Jewish people it is surely interest ing to remember the life story of a woman who played a very important role in Jewish life during her era Because of her initiative spirit her philanthropy her love for literature and above all because of her influence one can even say European politics our heroine can be classified as one of the most noble female figures that history guarded for us

We want to speak of the truly extraordinary life of Doña Gracia Nasi mother of Reyna Nasi the Duchess of the Island of Naxos To follow her noble and adventure filled career we will need to travel in the entourage of this woman through a great part of Europe We will need to get to know the Jews of Spain and the Portuguese Marranos to study the state of spirit that reigned in the sixteenth century in Antwerp in Venice in Ferrara in Ancona and to finally escape to Constantinople to the court of the Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent

Doña Gracia Mendes came from the Benveniste family She was born in Lisbon in 1510 Since she had converted at one point her Christian name was Beatriji de Luna In 1528 she married a coreligionary from the famous Spanish Nasi family whom had also been baptized and was called Francisco Mendes

From here a three centurylong trial was born On the Marrano’s part it was marked with an obstinate faithfulness to their family’s traditions On the Inquisition’s part it was marked with denunciations that were many times not justified and with unbelievably cruel measures The burning stakes were always ready to consume victims whom any blunder or denunciation put into the Inquisition’s hands

There are some who believe that one should not think that Marranos have disappeared in our times In 1925 an engineer who was sent to exploit a mine concession in Northern Portugal by chance discovered in the provinces between the Ediviera Hills thousands of Marrano families who were farmers living in the countryside For the most part these groups lost all contact with Judaism for more than two centuries

One should know that during this time in order to escape the terribly oppressive measures against them All Jews in Spain and Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism but they secretly keep ties to their parent’s faith They were called the Marranos The people suspected them not without good reason In the depths of their Christian hearts there were not convinced The Church and especially the Inquisition wanted to maintain the purity of Catholicism and they watched the Marranos rigorously The Inquisition had unlimited powers over these poor people whom they would throw into dark prisons or take them to the stake with the slightest misstep

Even with this the Marranos observed the holidays of Passover and Yom Kippur and their prayers for the deceased were very close to those of the Jewish orthodox cultOne remarkable fact: it is thanks to the old women that the tradition is continued Only they know the prayers and they recite them in front of the gathered community to celebrate religious holidays Only they transmit their knowledge to their daughters in acts of blessings and prayers It is therefore thanks to them that we see this curious phenomenon of Portuguese families that are conscious of their Jewish origins four centuries after their grandparents underwent conversion:

This document was made available:
Courtesy of Aviva BenUr
Henry V Besso Archives
Center for Jewish History
New York City

Vanessa Paloma is a performer and scholar of JudeoSpanish music and author of Mystic Siren along with other works She is a Research Associate of the HadassahBrandeis Institute and a specialist on Moroccan Jewish traditions