Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi was a woman of many names and talents. Born in Lisbon, Portugal, in 1510, to a Sephardi Jewish family forced to pose as Christians to survive the Inquisition, she was baptized Beatriz de Luna. When in 1553 she entered Constantinople, where her family was to finally find a safe haven from persecution, she was hailed in an extravagant parade as “The Queen of the Jews all the way to the sultan’s majestic palace,” as Marilyn Froggatt tells us in Dona Gracia’s Secret.
In 1555, by then controlling a vast maritime business empire, she arranged for an embargo of the port city of Ancona, where the pope was forcing Jewish “conversos” to either be baptized or face a brutal death. Although her bold move ultimately failed, and a massacre did take place, she was able to secure the release of 72 imprisoned Jews and was celebrated by a poet as “the heart of the Jewish people.”
When she died at the age of 59, eulogies proclaimed her “a noble princess” and likened her to biblical heroines such as Yael, Deborah and Judith.
That summary alone is enough to show readers that Dona Gracia is an excellent choice for the first volume in the Gefen Publishing’s series, “Extraordinary Jewish Women.”
Froggatt, a Canadian who holds a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Toronto and an master’s degree in Jewish studies from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has produced a slim, but well-researched book that tells Dona Gracia’s story in a way that grabs the reader’s interest from the start. And what a story it is.
In her teens, Dona Gracia discovered that her family was Jewish and promised her dying mother she would live according to Judaic traditions and do all she could to help other “conversos” – secret Jews – escape persecution. She kept that promise at great peril, sometimes with greater success than others. Her project to enable Jews to resettle the ancient city of Tiberias, for example, failed but is another testimony to her vision, courage and dedication.
Her promise led her to the home and heart of powerful Jewish businessman Francisco Mendes-Nasi, who taught her Hebrew – in an age when most woman were illiterate. They married and had a daughter but her happiness was short-lived. Francisco died, but not before he took the extremely unusual step of bequeathing his young widow his extensive business empire.
As the Inquisition spread lethally from Spain to Portugal, she took her daughter and younger sister, Brianda, and fled to Antwerp, where her brother-in-law, Diogo was head of another branch of the family enterprise. Diogo fell in love with Brianda, but their happiness, too, was cut short when Diogo died leaving another young widow.
This wealth, together with her hidden Jewish identity, put Dona Gracia and her family at greater risk than ever as the European monarchs sought ways to get their hands on her money and possessions.
They traveled to Venice, where they were able to live well, but only for a while. Following an argument with her sister, Dona Gracia was thrown in prison. With the help of her nephews and through the intervention of the Ottoman sultan, she was eventually released and moved to Ferrara, today part of Italy, where she felt safe enough to openly display her Jewish identity and begin using the name Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi.
It was her nephew Don Joseph Nasi, a top emissary of the Mendes conglomerate with friends in the highest of places, who told Dona Gracia of the invitation of Sultan Suleiman I the Magnificent to move to Constantinople and establish a free Jewish community there.
Through all her own travels and travails, she never forgot her promise to her mother and always used her wealth and brains to create secret escape routes for persecuted Jews as the Inquisition spread.
Dona Gracia was not only a feminist some 500 years before the term was coined, she is also a reminder of the often-overlooked Sephardi Jewish heritage.
Let’s allow Froggatt to sum up this Jewish heroine. “Dona Gracia Mendes is not a made-up character in a book or a movie. She is not a diva in an Italian opera. She was a very real person who lived five hundred years ago. If her life story seems too incredible to be true, that’s because she was such an extraordinary woman – and her actions were so exceptionally courageous.’”
My only criticism of the book is that it does not contain even one image of Dona Gracia Mendes Nasi, although Israel issued a stamp in her honor and her likeness appears on a commemorative coin and elsewhere. There is a small museum dedicated to Dona Gracia in Tiberias.
Although some believe she was buried behind the La Senora synagogue in Izmir, Turkey – a synagogue she founded and which was named after her – sadly, her gravesite remains one of Dona Gracia’s secrets.
Dona Gracia’s Secret - The Adventures of an Extraordinary Jewish Woman in the Renaissance
Gefen Publishing House, 2020
43 pages; $9.95