Imagining Life of Dona Gracia, Portuguese Jew and Richest Woman in World

Israeli Novel Profiles 16th Century Starlet

Who’s Dona? The best-known image of the famed Portuguese Sephardic Jew Dona Gracia was on a medallion. But a novelist discovered it is almost certainly not her.
Who’s Dona? The best-known image of the famed Portuguese Sephardic Jew Dona Gracia was on a medallion. But a novelist discovered it is almost certainly not her.

By Aviva Lori

Published November 24, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(Haaretz) — About 10 years ago, while visiting the Museum of Jewish Art and History in Paris, Israeli journalist Naomi Keren noticed an ancient silver medallion that bore the likeness of Dona Gracia Nasi. “I was taken aback,” Keren says. “What I saw contradicted everything I knew about the use of art in connection with portraits in the Jewish world, because of the Second Commandment about making graven images or likenesses.” Two other aspects of the medallion also came as a surprise to Keren: it carried the image of a woman at its center, and the accompanying inscription was in Hebrew.

“I didn’t know Dona Gracia’s life story, but the medallion piqued my curiosity,” Keren recalls. So much so that she spent the next decade delving into the life of the 16th-century Jewish stateswoman and businesswoman, and writing a historical novel about her. In the course of her research, she discovered that portraits were in fact a feature of Jewish art during many periods in the past. Ironically, the portrait on the medallion Keren saw in the museum turned out to be not that of the famous Dona Gracia but of her niece, who had the same name.

“Current research is almost completely certain that the woman on the medallion is not her,” Keren states. “The piece was minted in Italy in 1558, the year of her niece’s marriage, and at a time when Dona Gracia had not been in Italy for five years. Furthermore, the woman in the medallion is young, but in 1558 Dona Gracia was no longer a young woman. According to most evaluations, it is not her.”

Keren’s novel, “La Senora” ‏(in Hebrew‏), consists of imagined diary entries and letters written by Dona Gracia ‏(1510-1569‏). The first of these fictional letters was ostensibly sent in 1537 from Lisbon, Dona Gracia’s birthplace. The others are “postmarked” Antwerp, Venice and other scenes of her tempestuous life.

Initially, Keren set out to write a historical study rather than a novel. Before becoming a journalist, she obtained a degree in general history and an M.A. from the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. She completed her study of Dona Gracia two years ago, but was unsatisfied with the result.

The manuscript was neither sufficiently academic nor sufficiently literary, she felt. Her first thought was to extend the historical research and turn it into a doctoral thesis. Ultimately, though, in consultation with the literary editor Haim Pesach, she decided to take the opposite track and write Dona Gracia’s life as a work of fiction.

“As we know,” Keren says, “the study of history is always carried out from the present into the past. To know how things happened exactly, researchers need to be on hand in the past, which is of course impossible. We can draw very close to the historical truth − if we assume that it exists − but only up to a certain point. There will always be gaps that need to be filled in.”

From that perspective, she notes, “I think I did the maximum. I tried to research as thoroughly as possible the period in which Dona Gracia lived: the utensils people used, what kind of lavatories they used ‏(or didn’t use‏), what the fabrics they wore felt like on the body. I examined things that are perceived as extremely trivial, but wide gaps still remained. The research was unable to illuminate what she felt in any particular period of her life, for example; or what she thought about, or what bothered her.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • "Sometime in my childhood, I realized that the Exodus wasn’t as remote or as faceless as I thought it was, because I knew a former slave. His name was Hersh Nemes, and he was my grandfather." Share this moving Passover essay!
  • Getting ready for Seder? Chag Sameach! http://jd.fo/q3LO2
  • "We are not so far removed from the tragedies of the past, and as Jews sit down to the Seder meal, this event is a teachable moment of how the hatred of Jews-as-Other is still alive and well. It is not realistic to be complacent."
  • Aperitif Cocktail, Tequila Shot, Tom Collins or Vodka Soda — Which son do you relate to?
  • Elvis craved bacon on tour. Michael Jackson craved matzo ball soup. We've got the recipe.
  • This is the face of hatred.
  • What could be wrong with a bunch of guys kicking back with a steak and a couple of beers and talking about the Seder? Try everything. #ManSeder
  • BREAKING: Smirking killer singled out Jews for death in suburban Kansas City rampage. 3 die in bloody rampage at JCC and retirement home.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.