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Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Heroine of the Day

Today's heroine is Dona Gracia Nasi.

Born in 1510, thirteen years after the Inquisition expelled all Jews from Spain, she grew up in Portugal with her family of Marranos - Jews who lived outwardly as Christians, but secretly as Jews. Her Christian name was Beatrice de Luna. She married Fransisco Mendes, whose wealthy family also fled Spain to Portugal. She was widowed at the young age of 26, at which time she went to live in Antwerp, joining her brother-in-law's family who had set up a business there. There, she used her family's wealth and connections to help other Marranos flee from the Portugese Inquisition. When her brother-in-law died in 1542, she inherited control of his business and the family fortune. While running the business successfully, she continued to put herself in danger by helping secret Jews escape. She was arrested once for her efforts, but managed to escape through the connections she had made as a successful businesswoman. She then fled Antwerp to Venice with her family, running from the rulers of the Inquisition who were trying to halt the rescue work she was doing, as well as get their hands on her fortune. The family continued to move throughout Europe, finally finding haven in Turkey. There, she was able to live freely as a Jew. She promptly changed her name back to Gracia Nasi, and began to live openly as a Jew. From Turkey, Nasi continued to help huge numbers of Marranos escape. She also used her wealth to become a patroness of Jewish scholars and supported the building of printing presses to disseminate Jewish works. She was a charitable woman, and was storied to have fed eighty paupers a day from her home.

Nasi risked her life both to help save those of other Jews, and to live her own life openly as a Jew. Living in America today, where the law protect our rights to practice our religion to the extent that it does, it's hard to imagine what life must have been like for these Marranos. It's harder still to imagine risking everything, as Gracia Nasi did, to be able to perform the mitzvot we take for granted every day.

For more information on this truly heroic woman, who brought so many Jews out of a life of fear and secrecy, see here and here.


Blogger queeniesmom said...

Thanks for a great post!!! I can only imagine what it must have been like for my father's family fleeing from country to country as the Ottoman empire shrunk.

Thanks for telling the other side of history. Too often it's one-sided (I won't get into the arguements that I had about minhag vs. din in school).

12:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Best one yet, OM. It is fascinating to know that figures like this existed in pre-modern eras.

12:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Love it. Again.

12:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Excellent work again!
This type of research/reading should be mandatory for all Jewish women. There is such a derth of (known) female role models for Jewish girls. Thanks for uncovering a few for all of us.

I will be reading these to my daughters.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beautiful. Thank you.

11:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good post. I nominate Bella Abzug.

5:47 PM  
Blogger Rebecca said...

Other heroines you might research: Glikl of Hameln, Henrietta Szold, Rebecca Gratz.

12:00 AM  
Blogger orthomom said...

Thanks Rebecca. Rebecca Gratz was last week.

8:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What a great site »

2:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Enjoyed a lot! »

11:17 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

A very late comment in relation to the date of the post's publication, but...

I give my highest recommendation to Naomi Ragen's The Ghost of Hannah Mendes for mandatory Jewish reading.

Maya Norton

The New Jew: Blogging Jewish Philanthropy

7:49 PM  
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