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.
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(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.”


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