It’s quite amazing to discover that there was once a woman so classy,
well-educated, refined and business savvy that she amassed fabulous wealth
(mostly from the sale of black peppercorns and other spices) and power in the
financial sector and had 16th-century Europe clamoring at her doorstep. It’s
even more amazing to discover that she was Jewish, saved untold numbers of Jews
from certain death, and yet her memory has, for the most part, been
But there’s a happy end to this story. In just a few weeks,
history will be rectified: There will be a festival in Tiberias in her
Born in 1510 in Lisbon, Portugal, into a
venerable family of Conversos (a.k.a. Marranos, Jews forcibly converted
to Christianity), Dona Gracia Mendes married her paternal uncle Francisco Mendes
(originally Benveniste), a wealthy trader who, together with his brother, owned
both a bank and a trading company.
When Francisco died in 1538, leaving
his young wife with an infant daughter, Dona Gracia moved to Antwerp to join her
brotherin- law and developed an “underground railroad,” helping hundreds of
fellow Marranos flee Spain and Portugal on spice ships from Lisbon to Venice,
and from there to the Ottoman Empire, where they would be safe..
brother-in-law died, Dona Gracia became the head of the Mendes commercial
empire, making her one of the wealthiest women in the ancient world, dealing
with monarchs, popes and even the Turkish sultan. But by 1544 she fled from the
Republic of Venice to the nearby city-state of Ferrara and finally to
Constantinople (today known as Istanbul) to escape confiscation of her wealth.
Two years later, when the pope sentenced a group of Conversos to death by fire,
she organized a trade embargo of the Papal States.
But Dona Gracia looked
for a long-term solution for the Conversos, and in 1558 she asked for and was
given a long-term lease on Tiberias from Sultan Suleiman.
attempted to develop the virtually abandoned city with a remarkable number of
projects, but the project failed when the Conversos themselves were reluctant to
return to the Holy Land. Dona Gracia died in Constantinople in 1569.
memory is now enjoying a revival. New York City and Philadelphia have proclaimed
Dona Gracia days, and Our Lady of Spices now has her own Facebook page with news
of Dona Gracia lectures, articles and festivals in Israel and all over Europe.
In Tiberias, there’s a hotel with a built-in museum in her honor, and an annual
festival, November 14- 17 in the city, the theme of which this year is women’s
empowerment. And if you ask me, she’s a woman who really deserves it. For
information: www.festival-donagracia.info or 1-800-88-88-58.AVAS FRESCAS
This simple classic centuries-old dish is popular
throughout the Sephardi world, particularly during the High Holy Days. I learned
it from a Turkish neighbor. Fresh green beans come in all shapes and sizes in
Israel around the High Holy Days. Some strains called lubia look like long snake
beans, others are yellow beans and speckled and plain green flat beans. All of
them taste wonderful made in this fashion.
The secret of this dish is no
stirring. Instead, gently shake the pot with the cover on so as not to damage
the cooked beans. The other secret is cooking over low heat.
fresh green beans (frozen whole green beans may also be used)
extra-virgin olive oil
2 onions, finely chopped
4 drained canned plum
tomatoes, chopped, plus 1⁄2 to 1 cup juice in can
1 tsp. each: salt, black
pepper, paprika, sugar
Top and tail the fresh green beans; and if they have a
“string,” remove it. Cut them in half. Heat the oil and add the beans, chopped
onions, chopped tomatoes and fry till golden. Add the beans, tomatoes, 1⁄2 cup
tomato liquid and spices. Cover and cook over low heat for 1 hour (30 minutes if
using frozen beans), adding the remaining half cup of can liquid if necessary
during the cooking process. Do not stir, just shake the pot to
Adapted from The Essential Book of Jewish Festival Cooking
Phyllis Glazer with Miriyam Glazer (Harper-Collins Publishers).LEAH
The Sephardi take on gefilte fish.
comes from Leah Gueta who, together with two of her many sons, is the owner and
proprietor of Gueta in Jaffa.
6 pieces firm white fish, cut into chunks
(about 1 kilo)
1 head garlic, cloves peeled and crushed
1 tsp. salt
1 to 2
Tbsp. hot paprika
1 Tbsp. sweet paprika
2 heaping Tbsp. tomato paste
3 to 5 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice
1⁄4 tsp. sugar
level tsp. ground cumin
1 level tsp. ground caraway
Wash the fish and season
with a little salt. (If using frozen fish, sprinkle with a little lemon juice as
well.) Let stand 5 minutes. Pat dry and place on a plate. Using a mortar and
pestle, pound together crushed garlic and salt.
Add the hot and sweet
paprika and mix well.
Heat 1⁄4 cup oil in a large skillet and cook the
garlic-hot pepper mixture over low heat. Lightly sauté for two or three minutes,
stirring constantly to prevent burning, till it turns a burgundy
Stir in a quarter cup water and the tomato paste (The “secret,”
according to Gueta, is to add the same amount of tomato paste as the garlic-hot
Cook 5 minutes over high heat, stirring
constantly, until the sauce is fragrant and bubbly.
Add the remaining 1
cup water and the sugar. Lower heat and cover, scraping the bottom of the pan
occasionally (the paprika has a tendency to stick to the bottom), for 10
minutes. The oil will separate from the paprika.
The consistency of the
sauce should be “thinner than ketchup,” Gueta adds.
Place the fish in the
pan in one layer and add warm water to almost cover. Sprinkle over the cumin and
caraway and a little more salt if necessary. Bring to a boil, cover and cook on
high heat for 5 minutes. Lower heat and squeeze the lemon juice to taste on top.
Cover and simmer 7-10 minutes till done.