One of the most important women in Jewish history, a 16th century banker who saved thousands of Jews during the Spanish Inquisition, and even tried to establish a state of Israel, was celebrated at the Library of Congress on May 29.
“But all of this was not enough to rescue her from obscurity,” said Andrée Aelion Brooks, author of “The Woman who Defied Kings: The life and times of Doña Gracia Nasi” (Paragon House Books), the first comprehensive biography of the truly Renaissance woman.
Brooks is working with a major Hollywood producer on a television mini-series about Doña Gracia Nasi, who defied not only kings and queens, but also an Ottoman ruler and the Pope.
How? Nasi used her:
- Contacts — “She knew them all, Henry VIII, Queen Elizabeth (it’s like the Tudors on steroids), Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent” of the Ottoman Empire…
- Inheritance and also the fortune she controlled through heading her late husband’s European banking enterprise, the House of Mendes. “Before there was a House of Rothschild there was the House of Mendes”, and she “ran it herself in a very aggressive way”.
- Brilliance and clever negotiating skills, to get out of “constant predicaments all her life…She stood tall in all these crises,” Brooks told the Library of Congress audience.
Doña Gracia Nasi (1510-1569), baptized Beatrice de Luna, built an “underground railroad” that transported Spanish and Portuguese conversos — Jews, like her family, forcibly converted to Catholicism — from the tyranny of the Spanish Inquisition to safety in the Ottoman Empire.
When 23 conversos were burned to death in the Italian port of Ancona in 1556, she threatened the Pope with reprisals from the Turkish sultan, and also persuaded traders to boycott the ports. The city was “brought to its knees.”
In 1560, she made one of the earliest attempts to found a settlement for Jewish refugees in the Tiberias area of Palestine, almost four centuries before the modern state of Israel was founded.
She was also a major patron of the arts, and supported creative works that perpetuated Jewish heritage, especially printing and publishing. The celebrated 1553 “Ferrara Bible” was one of many important works dedicated to her.
Nasi’s life and times sweep across Portugal, England, Belgium, Italy, Constantinople (Istanbul), and Tiberias.
Brooks’ decade of researching the fascinating the saga swept through seven countries and 13 languages. “It was a long slog,” the author noted.
“I was told time and again there are no papers on her; it’s a wild goose chase; you’re a fool. Well, that just sparked fire in my belly. I’m a journalist,” she said. “There are papers about her all over.”
The writer transformed her voluminous research of original, unpublished 16th-century documents — even a letter from the court of Henry VIII — into an absorbing, fast-paced adventure of this female role model’s ingeniousness, inventiveness, perseverance, bravery, and devotion to her forbidden religion.
Brooks, also the author of “Children of Fast Track Parents” and “Russian Dance”, was a contributing columnist for “The New York Times” for 18 years. An Associate Fellow at Yale University, she founded its Women’s Campaign School that teaches the skills needed to win elective office.
A related Library of Congress talk, “Jews and ‘New Christians’ in Portuguese Asia, 1500-1700” will be given by Dr. Sanjay Subrahmayan, a scholar at the Library’s John W. Kluge Center, on June 5 at noon in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
Might Doña Gracia Nasi’s extraordinary influence have reached that far?
For more info: “The Woman who Defied Kings: The life and times of Doña Gracia Nasi” (Paragon House Books) by Andrée Aelion Brooks, www.andreeaelionbrooks.com. Library of Congress, www.loc.gov.