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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Free widow

Keren developed an ambivalent attitude toward her heroine in the course of researching and writing the book. “On the one hand, it is clear that people in positions of power like this become manipulative and crafty,” she says. “At the same time, it is impossible not to esteem her and her activity. She leaves Lisbon as a young widow with little apparent knowledge of business, and within a few years becomes the manager of a worldwide economic empire.

“I also give her quite a bit of credit for remaining a widow and not remarrying,” adds Keren. “I think we can say with a great deal of certainty that this was a matter of choice; and also that her motivation was a desire to be independent. The point is that as a woman in the 16th century, you were always someone’s property. First your father’s, then your husband’s, and if he died you became your son’s property. In that period, only widows could remain independent women, move about freely, become merchants and develop what we now call a career. In certain senses, widows were accorded a special status in the social hierarchy in compensation for their loneliness. I think, too, that this was her way of remaining an independent woman.”

Keren adds that her work on the book “did not change me in terms of acquiring new feminist insights. Still, I think it was the closing of a circle with myself in terms of identities, which is a subject that continues to speak to me. I understood that it is all right to be both one thing and another. For example, in my private case − or in what I transmit to the family, and to my children − the fact that we have a Christian heritage and that this is nothing to be ashamed of, even if we live in a country of Jews.

“In a philosophy course I took at the Schechter Institute, I had a very hard time coping with texts from ‘The Kuzari’ [by 12th-century Spanish Jewish philosopher Yehuda Halevi]. There were passages there which, as the daughter of a convert, were extremely difficult for me to read, even to realize that such outlooks exist. The book talks about some divine spark which exists only in those who are born to Jews, and that those who join the Jewish people will never be able to be true Jews. I found that very hard to live with.”

That same complex identity − in Keren’s case, as a Jewish woman with Christian roots − was Dona Gracia’s fate, too. “As a daughter of Portuguese Marranos, she was born and educated a Catholic,” Keren explains. “She probably did not hear about her Jewish roots until she was an adolescent. The custom in many Marrano families was to reveal the secret around the age of the bar or bat mitzvah. We don’t know when she found out, though it was probably before her marriage. Her husband, in contrast, was born a Jew and was baptized as a boy. In her case it was simpler.”

In Christian countries, Dona Gracia had to present herself as a Christian woman, Keren notes, “even though everyone, including the authorities, knew she was really a Jew. The thing was to catch her out and place her in the hands of the Inquisition. The Inquisition, after all, was not aimed against Jews but against Christians who were not observing Christianity ‘properly.’ Technically, from the moment she was baptized and became a Christian, there was no way back. Because, if they found out she had taken that route, she would be condemned to death and all her property would be confiscated. The truth is that she had nowhere to go back to, because she had never been a Jew. The only place she could live publicly as a Jew was in the Ottoman Empire, under Muslim rule, because they didn’t really care one way or the other.

“As a Jew, she established a beit midrash [an institution of Jewish religious study] in Istanbul − again in her own inimitable way. She installed a rabbi as its head and underwrote the living expenses of the students for one year only. Afterward, they had to leave and yield their place to someone else who wanted to hear the word of the living God from the rabbi.”

Dona Gracia’s heritage is greater and more significant than the sum of her deeds, Keren believes. “I think there was a certain message that I wanted to convey through her character,” she observes, “a message about tolerance, and to show the existence of a great many shades within Judaism. That is where I think my connection with Dona Gracia was very powerful: In regard to identities, and the fact that different identities can coexist in harmony, one alongside the other, in the same person.”

Haaretz Magazine writer Aviva Lori conducted the interview with Naomi Keren shortly before her death. Shay Fogelman helped complete the article.

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