Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Portrait of Dona Gracia Nasi

Dear Dona Gracia: As we celebrate your 500th birthday (1510-2010) and your incredible accomplishments you rank among the most noble of women determined to succeed. Dona Gracia Nasi, born in Lisbon, Portugal (1510-1569) was one of the wealthiest Jewish women of the Renaissance who used her personal fortune and powerful contacts to help conversos (forcibly converted Jews) prime victims of the Inquisition to flee to safety in the Ottoman Empire. Dona Gracia Nasi’s negotiating skills, leadership and fierce commitment to her Jewish faith serves as a role model for women of all religious persuasions. Her unwavering courage and leadership is a story worth the telling and inspires women today.
Dona Garcia lived at a time in which her actions, setbacks and strategies were surprisingly modern, and that is only one of the reasons I include her in this series on amazing women of the ages. Consider her name, for example, she never known by her husband’s name Mendes and like other women of the l6th century, she retained her birth name, Beatrice de Luna, until she took her original Hebrew name in the Ottoman Empire, where she could live openly as a Jew. Never underestimate the powerful convictions of a woman such as Dona Garcia. She took control of her personal life and never relied on one doctor’s opinion concerning a medical concern but immediately sought another doctor’s opinion.
Beatrice de Luna was born into an ancient, venerable family of “Marranos,” (New Christians), that fled Portugal when Spain expelled its Jews in 1492. She married into the eminent international banking and finance dynasty of Mendes, and in 1528 when she was 18 years old, she married Francisco Mendes in a public Catholic wedding and then a Crypto-Judaic ceremony with the signing of a ketubah (a formal contract in a Jewish religious marriage). Francisco, along with his brother Diogo, ran a powerful trading company and bank of world repute with agents across Europe and around the Mediterranean. Following the opening of a sea route to India, they became important spice trader. After her marriage she was known as Dona Beatrice Mendes and in private life, called by her Jewish name, Gracia Nasi. (Dona is a formal title meaning “Mrs.” Gracia is the Spanish equivalent of Hannah)
Dona Beatrice Mendes was widowed in 1538 leaving her with an infant daughter, Brianda. Following her husband’s death she went to Antwerp, where her brother-in-law Diogo Mendes had moved the family business years earlier. At his death in 1542 she took up the reigns of management and not only ran the family’s banking business but the trading and shipping empire as well. She became a celebrated banker and as Diogo had done before, she continued using the family’s contacts and international resources to help Jews escape the Inquisition, and by doing this act of bravery, her family was also constantly in danger.
You may rightly wonder what prevented Dona Garcia from re-marrying? Remember she was a woman of her time but she knew the compulsory rules of the day. In the Renaissance Dona Garcia could not remarry and bear more children without making grave sacrifices. The laws of those days would have immediately handed control of her money and business to her new spouse. Instead she became a powerful woman managing the Mendes commercial empire and becoming a successful businesswoman. Legend has it that she was a fierce negotiator, tough and determined when it came to collecting debts, whether from fellow Jews or the royal courts of the day. Her enormous wealth put her into a position to influence kings and popes dealing involved commercial activities, loans and bribes. Payments to the Pope, for example, delayed the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal. She even maintained her own lobbyist at the Vatican against the expansion and grisly deeds of the Inquisition.
During her travels through France, Italy, and Turkey the Inquisition pursued her and greedy local rulers attempted to confiscate the family fortune. With amazing determination, business acumen, shrewdness and diplomacy, she managed to escape each assault and continue to build the family business. Dona Beatrice and her family finally reached Turkey in 1553, where they settled near Constantinople, finally free to live as a Jew. She de-Christianized her maiden and married names and was called Garcia Nasi. She built synagogues, yeshivas and hospitals. Gracia Nasi a noble and sainted woman of the ages died near Istanbul in 1569.
The remarkable life of Dona Garcia Nasi deserves full disclosure as only a scholar can produce. Andree Aelion Brooks, award-winning author of a new biography of Dona Garcia Nasi called, “The Woman Who Defied Kings,” published by Paragon House (2002), presents the incredible story of Donna Garcia Nasi, the 16th century Jewish woman banker who developed an escape network that saved thousands of her fellow converses from the terrors of the Inquisition. Ms. Brooks is an associate fellow at Yale University and a former contributing columnist to the New York Times. She can be reached at A Journey into the Life and Times of "La Senora," the first commemoration in honor of the 500th birthday of Dona Gracia Nasi was presented by
Ms. Brooks at The brotherhood Synagogue on June 6, 2010.

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