One of the Greatest Women in Jewish History
DONA GRACIA MENDES (1510-1569)
The House of Dona Gracia in Tiberias is a unique hotel, cultural center and museum to emphasize the involvement and contribution made by women to humanity and the Jewish people in particular.
Dona Gracia Mendes was one of the most remarkable women in Jewish history. Her achievements included the only known boycott of an Italian port (Ancona) in response to their torture and burning of Jews.
Her family lived as secret Jews in Portugal after the forced conversion of 1497. Known to the outside world as Beatrice de Luna she married Francisco Mendes one of two brothers who controlled a growing trading company.
The House of Mendes probably began as a company trading precious objects becoming important spice traders following Portuguese explorations that led to the development of the Indian sea route.
Following the death of her husband she took over his role in running the business with his brother Diogo taking sole charge when Diogo died. Later she brought in her nephew, who became the illustrious Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos.
She had two secret goals in running this large international enterprise. The first was to reach a land where she could be free of the threat of the Inquisition and practice Judaism openly. The second was to help her fellow crypto-Jews to reach freedom.
For a former Jew, attempting to leave Christian lands is prima facie evidence of heresy. While assisting many others to freedom she found it was easier for poor persons to leave than for someone as important as herself as her movements made her more visible. First, any assets left behind would be confiscated and second, the advantages to rulers of housing the head, and hence the administrative home, of such a large business.
She managed to take her family to Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara (where she declared her Judaism) and finally Constantinople. In the process she was arrested by the Inquisition, accused of heresy by her sister (Diogo’s widow) and caused an international incident while in Italy by being placed under the protection of the Sultan of Turkey .
In Constantinople she used her wealth to help individuals and communities, supported academies of learning as far away as the newly revived Jewish settlements in Palestine and sponsored printing presses which were invaluable in keeping Jewish texts alive.
After the heinous torture and burning of Jews in the Italian city of Ancona she used her wealth and influence to organise a worldwide boycott by Jewish merchants of the port of Ancona. Unfortunately, both from fear of reprisals and conflicting Rabbinic opinions this effort was unsuccessful even though she had the support of such figures as the great scholar Joseph Caro.
Gracia was universally venerated for her strength and courage and good works. Rabbi Moses di Trani, quoting Proverbs 31:29, said of her that "many daughters have done virtuously, but Hanna hath excelled them all.”
Excerpt, Chapter Five of
The Sephardic Jews of Spain and Portugal:
Survival of an Imperiled Culture
in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries
By Dolores Sloan
The family had been in Turkey only two years, when the repressive situation in the Italian port of Ancona brought Doña Gracia once again to international attention. Paul IV had become Pope in 1555, determined to rid his Papal States of New Christians openly observing Judaism. The entire Ancona community of Portuguese conversos, about one hundred individuals, had been arrested and tortured, preparatory to execution by fire. Among them was the local representative of the House of Mendes. Upon learning of the arrests, Doña Gracia won Sultan Selim’s support. He interceded to ask for the release of the prisoners and all seized goods. The Pope rejected the effort, and twenty-eight individuals, including an old woman and a boy, were burned at the stake.
With others, Doña Gracia desired revenge against the papal city, a prosperous port, and used her considerable influence at The Grande Porte and throughout the Ottoman Empire to secure support for an economic boycott, diverting goods instead to nearby Pesaro, in the duchy of Urbino. There, the duke had sheltered those conversos who had managed to escape from Ancona. The original proposal was for an eight months boycott, after which the principals would decide whether to continue.
The boycott was opposed, however, by the prominent rabbi of Salonica, Joshua Soncino, who feared reprisals against the older, non-converso Jewish community that had not been harmed thus far because of its non-Christian background. He interpreted Talmud to call the boycott illegal. Doña Gracia and her followers, on the other hand, pointed out the danger that failure of the boycott would bring to those who had fled to Pesaro. There, she feared, the duke, disappointed at the undelivered promise of increased trade after making expensive harbor preparations, would no longer refuse to hand the Ancona exiles over to the pope.
Soncino won the support of enough merchants and rabbis, many of whom had previously backed the effort, to destroy the unity required for the boycott’s success. Subsequently, more and more trade began to return to Ancona.
Doña Gracia had predicted correctly. The enraged Duke of Urbino soon banished all conversos from Pesaro, even those who had been long settled there. The refugees were preyed upon by ships from Ancona, one group captured and sold into slavery. The Pope was able to prevail upon even the relatively liberal Duke Ercole of Ferrara to destroy copies of the elegy on the Ancona executions, written by Poet Jacob da Fano, and close the press of its publisher, Abraham Usque. It was Usque who had printed the Spanish bible dedicated to his patron, Doña Gracia.
Roth singles out the boycott as perhaps the first time Jews had applied pro-active, unified political and economic action to defend Jewish interests, rather than take the more traditional route of financial payments and prayer. He holds the boycott’s failure responsible for the belief that was to persist in the centuries to follow: that Jews would never unite to fight their oppressors. The generations to come were to witness unending persecution and agony for Jews in the Papal States and in Christian Europe.
Study of these events illuminates the character and methods of La Señora, using her power to get cooperating rabbis to excommunicate merchants breaking the boycott, and summoning influentials before her in the manner of royalty, demanding and cajoling them for their support. Synagogues not yet committed were warned of losing the Nasi stipends they had been receiving. Even the redoubtable Rabbi Soncino was called to her palace in the same manner as lesser religious and commercial leaders, but to no avail.
“It was amazing that it was a woman who had taken the lead in this gallant demonstration that it was not always necessary for Jews to suffer passively,” the historian Cecil Roth asserts in his biography The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia.
15-18TH OF NOVEMBER, 2010
The Dona Gracia Festival invites you to a moving 3 night and 4 day experience, where you will be swept away by the culture of the countries touched by Dona Gracia's thread of life: Portugal, Spain, Belgium, Italy, Greece, Turkey – and Tiberias, as well.
Two great original productions in the new "Berku" Amphitheater, with esteemed artists and performers in a unique setting
A joyous festivity in the promenade
A sampling of activities - Fascinating meetings with Creators and Artists
Stories and narratives from Father's house
Dishes from Mom's kitchen
Secrets and mysteries of Tiberias - guided walking tour
Bus tours of the area
Tour of "The Dona Gracia Museum"
Sail on Sea of Galilee
And much more to come .....