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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For many years, the medallion she saw in the museum was indeed thought to be a representation of Dona Gracia. But there is no visual documentation of her, says Keren. “There is no painting, definitely no picture. In fact, there is no direct testimony relating to her. There are no diaries, no letters, no text she herself wrote. There is no object that is associated directly with her. Her name appears only in external documents, written by the authorities in the countries in which she lived and was active.”

Hidden siblings

It was not just Dona Gracia’s eventful life that drew Keren. In retrospect, after that decade of research “and almost living in her company,” she realized that her attraction to the 16th-century woman was generated in part by her own personal biography. “Strong women and complex identities were elements in the milieu in which I grew up,” she says.

Her mother, Inger, was born in Denmark to an upper middle class Christian family. She studied social work in Edinburgh and did her internship in London under Anna Freud, the daughter of the founder of psychoanalysis. There she encountered Jewish orphans from World War II and decided to help.

In the mid-1950s, Keren relates, “Inger met with the Israeli ambassador to Denmark to ask how she could be of assistance. He suggested that she go to Israel and help treat elderly Holocaust survivors in Jerusalem. And that is just what she did. She went to Jerusalem and was employed as a psychiatric social worker. She met my father, Shlomo Borer, a writer and journalist, at a party, and they were married three months later.”

Her mother “never really fully belonged here,” Keren says. “She possessed a complex personality made up of several identities that sometimes seemed contradictory and sometimes could be peacefully integrated. Naturally, something of this passed to me as well. I think that writing about Dona Gracia helped me come to terms with that complexity − hers and mine − more easily.”

Keren, 50, was born in Tel Aviv and grew up in the city’s solidly middle class Old North section. “As an only child, I was always certain that I had a hidden brother or sister,” she recalls. “At one stage I was absolutely sure of it and I poked around in my parents’ things looking for information about them. “Alternatively, it also crossed my mind that I might be an adopted child. Later, I discovered that this is often the case with only children. I met a few others, and they had gone through the same stage.

“My mother died four years ago,” she continues, “and I took home many crates containing her effects. Some of them are still sealed. I am now slowly starting to open them. There is also a language barrier in connection with what she left behind, which is why I am now learning Danish. Regrettably, my mother thought that if I were to learn two languages as a child, I would connect less to the place I lived in and would not have a mother tongue, in the sense of ties and roots. So she spoke only Hebrew to me, and with my father also English. I only heard a great deal of Danish in the house when my grandparents from Denmark came to visit for a month every year when I was a girl.”

Keren did her military service as an announcer on Army Radio for three years. There she met Naftali, who was a civilian technician at the station, and married him when she was 20.

Following her service she enrolled in Tel Aviv University to study history, and had dreams of an academic career. But her background and experience at Army Radio led her to audition as a continuity announcer for Israel Television, which at the time operated the only channel in the country. “In the early 1980s they were thinking of returning to that format [an announcer between programs to tell viewers what was coming up next] and they held screen tests for the job. From the auditions they always took someone for a different job, such as to host a music program or join the sports unit. And every year I went home to get on with my life.

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