Jblog Book Club

A place for discussing interesting books, including those on Judaism, parenting, and general fiction and non-fiction.

Monday, November 13, 2006

Don't call her Dona Gracia Mendes

The Woman Who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi
by Andrée Aelion Brooks (At Paul, MN: Parason House) 2002

596 pages (103 of them notes & index)

The title of my review is based on one of the author’s pet peeves. Sometimes the subject of this biography is mistakenly called by her husband’s surname. In fact, records indicates, that Mendes was never used as her official or legal name.

This book fills in a lot of background on Dona Gracia’s world that could make the reader appreciate just how tough she had to be to accomplish what she did. She was generous, but also unwilling to give up what she felt was rightfully hers. She had an amazing head for the complicated financial transactions of those days. She was undaunted by powerful men. She was determined to accomplish her aims and was often daring in what she did. She was not someone you could treat lightly. In a word, she was formidable.

The book opens with the background of anti-Semitism, expulsion, persecution, and forced conversions that led to the phenomenon of the conversos (formerly referred to as Marranos), the secret Jews who worse the mask of Catholics in order to be able to stay in their country. Being a converso did not mean an escape from persecution. On the contrary, it put one in danger of being summoned by the Inquisition. Thus the threat of the Inquisition coming to a particular area meant that it was growing hostile to the conversos, who could be called to provide justification to the authorities not to pay their debts to them if they had taken loans or just to lay their hands on their wealth. Conversos like Dona Gracia, regularly delivered bribes to the pope’s agents with the understanding that it would forestall the Inquisition from spreading.

One of the consequences of living as a Catholic was being forced to die and be buried as one. The conversos did whatever was in their power to die in a Jewish manner and avoid the Last Rites. However, they still were forced into a Catholic burial. Once she was free to be openly Jewish in Turkish lands, Dona Gracia fulfilled the request of her husband in having his remains, as well as those of her parents disinterred to be reburied in the Mount of Olives in the Holy Land.

Here’s the somewhat convoluted family history. Beatrice de Luna married Francisco Mendes, the brother of her mother, Phillipa. Her sister Brianda married his brother Diogo Mendes. Dona Gracia’s daughter Ana, later known as Ryna Benveniste married Don Joseph Nasi, the son of Phillipa’s sister. Gracia Benveniste, Brianda’s daughter, married Don Samuel Nasi, Joseph’s brother (even though she had first been married in a sham Christian ceremony to Don Joseph.) The author’s disapproval of endogamous marriages, such as these, comes through quite clearly. As she in not familiar with halacha, she is bothered by an uncle marrying his niece, but actually suggests that Dona Gracia may have wanted to marry her brother-in-law after her husband’s death and that could have been an underlying point of tension between her and her sister, who had been set as Diogo’s bride. This is not very likely, but the author strives hard to find some suggestions of romantic feelings in a biography that is really devoid of affairs of the heart. There are, however, many affairs of finance presented in more detail than you may find interesting.

Don Joseph was a colorful character, believed by many to have inspired Christopher Marlow’s The Jew of Malta. He grew to be very influential with the sultan and won himself the title Duke of Naxos. In 1577 (eight years after his illustrious mother-in-law’s death), he had the work he had written in conjunction with a ghost writer, Ben Porat Yosef, published in Constantinople.

The Senora, or HaGevira, as Dona Gracia was known, is not the only strong woman described in her biography. There are a few pages devoted to Bivenvenida Abravanel, the niece of Don Yitchak Abravanel, (or Abarbanel, as he is referred to as the author of a sometimes controversial commentary on TaNach) who left Spain with his fellow Jews in 1492 (though he was supposedly granted special permission to stay by the king).

This woman “had also taken over her husband’s banking enterprise upons his death. She had similarly used some of her personal fortune to ransom Jewish refugees being captured by pirates in the Mediterranean.” In the duchy of Ferrrarra, these two powerful women lived within walking distance of each other. But Bienvendia did not have much sympathy for conversos (277)

In Venice there were openly practicing Jews, but they were confined to ghettos. In fact the ghetto in Venice is credited with the term, based on the word for the foundry which was located there.

Records that report her death date from spring 1569, though the author believes that it occurred earlier. On the absence of any clear record of her death, Brooks veers off into speculations about the possible causes: a treacherous and doomed attempt to get to the Holy Land –which she refers to in drawing a parallel to the Baal Shem Tov --, the cold spell that struck Constantinople in the winter of 1568-69, a fire built in the home to ward off the cold that caught her clothes. Her speculation grows even more wild in accounting for her death: “Jewish mystics believe in the constant transfer of divine energy from the heavenly sphere to earth and back again. Also central to these beliefs is the idea that the greatest souls of Israel ascend straight to heaven. There can be n o earthly grave. . . A mystic might argue that Dona Gracia was one of these great souls, sent down at a critical moment to ensure the survival of a large portion of the Jewish people. When her task was accomplished, there had to be a way to left her up again. That meant some king of disaster that could taker her body along with her soul: a shipwreck, a fire” (464 )

She is eulogized after her death and is remembered ten years later again upon the death of her son-in-law. Then the author reveals the depths of her ignorance of Jewish study by observing the following:

“After that – silence, except for the occasional remembrance in Judeo-Spanish literature. But these stories were written in a relatively unknown ethnic language and in an arcane form of Hebrew characters known as Rashi script [emphasis mine – this is what our kids are taught to read in third grade!] As such, they cast barely a shadow over world consciousness” (469)

Obviously, this book is not written form a frum perspective. While the author definitely sees her subject as a hero who was devoted to her people and her faith, she is not presented as a “holy woman” type. But there isn’t anything really anti-frum about it, though some may not like human failings to be pointed out in certain characters. You may wish to skim over parts that get very detailed in terms of how a business transaction operated. But there are many parts that are fascinating.


At 12/24/2007 11:12:00 PM, Blogger Ha-historion said...


At 1/13/2009 11:56:00 AM, Anonymous Khazarian8 said...

I don't understand why "Ariella" negates the value of the details of Renaissance financial practices. Not only has the author utilized effectively these hitherto ignored original and very relevant resources in fleshing out the story of Dona Gracia to a much greater extent than Cecil Roth in his biography of this great Jewish heroine at a time of great challenges to the Jewish people, but also has added greatly to the understanding of the evolution of international financial practices. For me, this book was a classic "page turner." Even better, it's one that I delighted in recommending to both my wife and my daughter.

At 3/04/2010 04:50:00 PM, Anonymous S. said...

Was she a "holy woman" type?


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