Doņa Gracia Nasi

A philanthropist, known as the heart of her people.

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Beatrice de Luna Mendes now controlled one of the largest fortunes in Europe, and through her business acumen she forged connections to rulers throughout the Western world. Despite her growing power, however, she could not protect the family from all outside dangers, and soon a new threat presented itself. In 1536, a Catholic nobleman, Don Francisco d'Aragon, sought Reyna's hand in marriage. Beatrice Mendes took immediate action. With no warning, she, her daughter, Reyna, and her sister Brianda with her young daughter (also named Beatrice) left the Mendes mansion. Packing only their jewels and as many personal possessions as possible, they fled to Italy and before long appeared in Venice. Forty boxes filled with valuables were left behind in Antwerp.

Still regarded as New Christians, the Mendes family was not required to live in the Venetian ghetto. Although Beatrice continued supervising her business and lived in luxury, those years (1545-1549) were not peaceful ones. Beatrice's sister Brianda, the widow of Diogo Mendes, challenged her for control of the family fortune, and as long as the matter remained undecided, neither of them was permitted to leave Venice

Physical and Spiritual Aid

When the case was finally settled in 1549, Beatrice Mendes went to the court of Ercole II d'Este in Ferrara. The Duchy of Ferrara, already the home of BenvenidaAbrabanel and her family, was more hospitable to Jews, and it was here that Beatrice began using her Hebrew name, Hannah, or Gracia, and took on the family name of Nasi, the Hebrew word for prince. Other Portuguese Jews simply called her Signora or La Dona. From Ferrara, Dona Gracia continued to help crypto-Jews leave Portugal.

In addition, she contributed to the printing of Hebrew books in Spanish translations for the benefit of the conversos. In 1553 the Hebrew Bible was translated into Spanish and published in two editions, one for Christians and one for Jews. It became known as "The Ferrara Bible" and was dedicated to the noble-hearted Dona Gracia Naci, the Very Magnificent Lady. Samuel Usque's Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel, a prose-poem in Portuguese, was also dedicated to Gracia, whom Usque called "the heart of her people."

In 1554, Gracia and her daughter returned to Venice and began to make plans to relocate to Istanbul. Joao now called Don Joseph Nasi, again followed Gracia. He arrived in Istanbul with his own retinue of bodyguards and servants, had himself circumcised in 1554, and returned to Judaism. He subsequently married Gracia's daughter, Reyna Nasi.

Forging a Community

In Turkey, Dona Gracia became the leading force in the Jewish community. She lavishly supported synagogues, schools, and hospitals all over the Ottoman Empire and carried on extensive trade in spices, grain, and wool with Italian cities, utilizing her own ships. When she pulled her fleet out of Ancona during the Jewish boycott of that city, there were international repercussions. Finally secure in Turkey, with close ties to the sultan's court, Dona Gracia sought to acquire some place of safety for other Jews. With that goal in mind, she leased land in Tiberius, a town in Palestine, then under Ottoman control. 

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Emily Taitz

Emily Taitz has a PhD in medieval Jewish history from the Jewish Theological Seminary. She taught women's history at Adelphi University and is presently co-editor of The New Light, a literary magazine.