Tiberias's tribute to Dona Gracia

ByLYDIA AISENBERG
August 24, 2006 10:20

An exquisite hotel-cum-museum honors the life and time of a 16th-century Portuguese philanthropist.




Tiberias's tribute to Dona Gracia

dona gracia hotel 88. (photo credit:)

Tiberias resident Haim Hatzav has been conducting a lengthy romance with a very special lady for a number of years. Not that there's much future in the relationship, as the lady in question - Dona Gracia, a Jewess born into Lisbon high society during the Inquisition period - died more than 400 years ago. The House of Dona Gracia in Tiberias is a unique hotel, cultural center and museum attractively rolled into one. Apart from being a place where guests can rest their weary heads, the main goal of the House of Dona Gracia is to emphasize the involvement and contribution made by women to humanity and the Jewish people in particular. The special d cor, atmosphere and warm ambience transport one back many centuries. Passing through the door, one becomes a traveler in a historical time machine with elaborately dressed actors and mannequins. The incredible Renaissance period interior of the hotel-cum museum helps to make the journey back in time a fascinating experience. Apart from foreign tourists, Israelis have been visiting Dona Gracia's in large numbers since it opened a few years ago and has become the ideal place for those seeking a respite replete with historical and cultural content, not to mention culinary delights from days long gone. One-day seminars for young and old are also on offer, and a small theater features an in-house innovative addition - a writing table that can be pulled out from the armrest for those who wish to take notes. The hotel/educational facility is named after the extraordinary 16th-century Renaissance woman Dona Gracia (Nasi) Mendes, born in 1510 and one of the first generation of Portuguese Marranos (Jews forced to practice Christianity). At age 18, Dona Gracia married wealthy international banker, trader and fellow Marrano Francisco Mendes, but she was already a widow at 25. She fled Portugal with her children to join her brother-in-law Diogo, who managed a branch of the Mendes business in Antwerp and became active in assisting Marranos escape the Inquisition. Following the death of Diogo in 1543, Dona Gracia fled once more and settled in Venice. But when the Venetian authorities became aware of her Jewish origins, she was immediately imprisoned, and released only after a Turkish diplomat friend intervened. It was at that point that Dona Gracia became known by her Jewish name, Nasi. In 1553 she moved to Constantinople, where she became a wealthy businesswoman in her own right. A famous philanthropist, Dona Gracia Nasi assisted in establishing synagogues and yeshivas, as well as a host of charitable organizations, using her close connections with the Turkish sultan to help Jews and their communities. She was also involved in the rebuilding of Tiberias. Using her connections with the sultan and other leading Turkish personalities, she obtained rental rights for land in the Sea of Galilee town and some villages in that area. She deftly used her special status and business acumen to help Jewish settlement in Palestine during the time of Turkish rule. A postage stamp was issued in Israel in her honor, the portrait of Dona Gracia (who died in 1568) taken from a medal minted in Ferrara around 1551. On the stamp tab appears a drawing of Tiberias based on a 1681 lithograph by Dutch artist Cornelis de Bruyn. Today, at the House of Dona Gracia, her presence begins to be felt as storytellers such as Hatzav verbally weave the threads of her difficult but rewarding life. The story unfolds while visiting a variety of rooms and alcoves depicting the countries that Dona Gracia Nasi lived in and fled from to escape the mortal threat of the Inquisition. As the narrator describes her return to and practice of her true religion, her expansive acts of philanthropy, political influence and assistance to the town of Tiberias in particular, Theodor Herzl's credo "If you will it, it is no legend" springs to mind. It is fitting that a nonprofit establishment should be founded in honor of such a true Jewish woman of valor, and that it be situated in Tiberias after she did so much to help Jews settle and thrive there in the 16th century. Hatzav says that he became enamored of Dona Gracia - who was also known as Dona Beatrice de Luna - about 10 years ago when he was working as a journalist and before he became "more of a history detective." Left with a blank page to fill in a paper he was editing, he started to plough through a book with interesting aspects of the history of Tiberias. After he fell upon the story of Dona Gracia and her philanthropic connection to the town, he was hooked. "Undoubtedly, Dona Gracia got a raw deal from historians," says Hatzav. "But, of course, she was a woman and they were men!" Patron of the House of Dona Gracia is Ya'acov Amsalem, whose own story is fascinating as well. His grandfather Haim left Morocco in 1905 on a business trip, selling jewelry out of a suitcase on the Egypt-Syria train route. Haim had taken his 16 year-old son Avraham with him to learn the family trade. When the train from Egypt arrived at Zemach, where the River Jordan takes leave of Lake Kinneret, the locomotive broke down. With Shabbat drawing closer, a worried Haim asked the driver how long it would take to fix. "About a week," he answered. Apparently, the part had been sent back to Egypt for repair. When the jewelry salesman asked where the nearest synagogue was, he was toldthere were no Jews in Zemach, so the Amsalems were taken by mule to Tiberias, where they entered the first synagogue they came to. Rabbi Abulafia welcomed them warmly and invited them to stay at his family home. A week later, instead of leaving on the repaired train for Damascus, Avraham Amsalem found himself married to Fortuna, the hospitable rabbi's 12-year-old daughter. They parented 14 children, including the father of Ya'acov Amsalem, the present-day patron of the House of Dona Gracia in Tiberias.

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