Portrait of the Lady

Two men in Tiberias - a scholar and a hotelier - have made it their life's mission to bring to the world the amazing story of Dona Gracia, who led a 16th-century life of fabulous wealth, power and intrigue

It is possible to begin this story the way Dr. Tzvi Schaick of Tiberias begins it: One day, in the year 1545, an elegant coach stopped near one of the splendid stone palazzos surrounding Piazza San Marco in Venice. This was a stop on a long journey, shrouded in mystery and romance, that had begun in Lisbon and continued on to London and Antwerp. The entourage had passed through Lyon and Milan as well before reaching Piazza San Marco. The door of the coach opened and the richest woman in the world, a widow in her 30s, began a new chapter in a life story that fires the imagination.

The Dona Gabriela Hotel, Tiberias, Yaron Kaminsky
Yaron Kaminsky

Venice was not the last stop in the journey of her life. She was destined to go on to Ferrara, Ancona and Saloniki. Here servants carried behind her heavy chests filled with gold and precious stones. Popes, emperors, kings and nobles kept track of her movements by using spies and secret agents who followed her, and ambassadors in every capital reported on her deeds until she settled near the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, under the protection of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, the builder of the walls of Jerusalem.

Her heart yearned for Tiberias; according to Dr. Schaick, she dreamt of establishing an autonomous entity there for the Jews, something like a state.

It is not easy to decipher the secrets of her life; even her name changed again and again. When she was born in 1510 in Lisbon, daughter of a family of crypto-Jews with their origins in Spain, she was called Beatrice de Luna. Her father was Dr. Agostinho (formerly Shmuel ) Miques, who taught medicine at the University of Lisbon and whose additional Hebrew name was Nasi. When she was 18, she married Francisco Mendes, the largest spice merchant in Europe, who was 48 at the time and whose Jewish name was Tsemach Benveniste. They had a daughter. Those who knew her respectfully called her "the Lady." History knows her as Dona Gracia.

But this is not strictly accurate: History does not know her very well. Usually she appears at most as the mother-in-law of Don Joseph Nasi, a diplomat and businessman who wanted to be king of the Jews in a kingdom of his own: Cyprus.

Here we come to the essence of the Ph.D. thesis Schaick recently completed in the Jewish history department of Bar-Ilan University, under the supervision of Prof. Moshe Orfali: that Dona Gracia was the boss, whereas Don Joseph Nasi was merely her chief emissary and executor of her ideas, policy and initiatives. This is very important to Schaick, who believes Dona Gracia has been robbed of the place she deserves in history only because she was a woman.

The Lady's heritage

Schaick was born in Kibbutz Ginosar, but for most of his 65 years he has lived in Tiberias. For the past 10 years, the historian has been running the Dona Gracia Museum, which was established by a Tiberian tourism developer named Yaakov Amsalem. Above the museum is a hotel.

Amsalem is a story in his own right. His ancestors, Jews from Morocco, married members of the Abulafia family from Izmir, Turkey, who have been living in Tiberias since 1903. The Amsalem Global Travel Management group prospered until the outbreak a decade ago of the second intifada, when it looked as though everything had come to a standstill. Then Dona Gracia came to the family's aid: She, whose whole life had been a story of new starts, also guided the Amsalem family to a new start.

Yaakov Amsalem, 52, who served in the air force as a pilot, believes that from her celestial dwelling, the Lady is following the family's business interests and directing them to their benefit. The Terminal Palace Hotel (which sounds rather macabre in English ) became the Dona Gracia Hotel, and then Tzvi Schaick showed up and Amsalem decided - again, he says, in accordance with instructions Dona Gracia sent from above - to establish the center for Dona Gracia's heritage on its first floor.

This is a modest and appealing museum; each of its rooms is decorated with furnishings from one of the countries where Dona Gracia was active. Her life is reconstructed with the help of mannequins and objects from her times, and visitors are invited to have their picture taken in period costumes. Currently they are busy at the center preparing a three-day festival of Spanish-Jewish culture, which will begin on November 15. It will constitute a huge birthday celebration for Dona Gracia, marking the 500th year of her birth.

History knows only one portrait of her; it appears on a medallion struck in her honor, in her day. Nearly all the rest is veiled in mystery. A number of writers, among them Amnon Shamosh and Yitzhak Gormezano-Goren, have written about Dona Gracia, and her biography could easily fuel an opera, a film or a musical play, but in the meantime it is fueling mainly learned disputes among scholars.

Most of the information about her life is found in diplomatic correspondences. In the Turkish national archive, Schaick found documents confirming what is known about her. He believes there is additional material there. The difficulty is that there are not many researchers who know how to read documents in old Turkish.

A family scandal

Dona Gracia grew up into the new world that began with the invention of printing and continued with the discovery of America. Her life was shaped by the catastrophe that befell the Jews of Spain and Portugal, with their expulsion, but her success as a businesswoman also indicates the ability of Jews, and Jewish women in particular, to start over again and integrate into the Christian world. Her husband, Francisco Mendes, became rich mainly from trade in a spectacular innovation, which brought about a gastronomic revolution and became one of the symbols of aristocracy: black pepper. The peppercorns were brought from India and were as costly as gold. One pound of pepper sufficed to redeem and release a slave.

Mendes expanded his business and sent his younger brother, Diogo, to Antwerp to establish what within a short time became the second largest bank in the world. The Mendes family took care to preserve familial unity: Diogo married Dona Gracia's sister Brianda.

Upon her husband's death, Dona Gracia inherited his businesses, which included a fleet of ships, and after a brief period in London she settled in Antwerp, where she also became involved in the banking business run by her brother-in-law Diogo. Upon his death she inherited his property as well. Now she found herself facing a very angry and vengeful enemy: her sister Brianda. The latter claimed her husband's will was not valid and sued for his property. This feud between sisters developed into one of the greatest scandals of the 16th century, and set all of Europe's high society buzzing. The quarrel required settling under Jewish law and a number of the most prominent rabbis became involved, among them Joseph Caro, one of the greatest rabbinical arbiters ever and the author of the authoritative codification of rabbinical law, the Shulhan Arukh ("Set Table" ). He ruled (in a minority opinion ) against Dona Gracia and in Brianda's favor.

Brianda had no inhibitions and when her sister succeeded in leaving Antwerp and relocating to Venice with most of her property, Brianda informed on her, telling the authorities that her sister was still "a Jew in secret."

Dona Gracia was arrested, apparently, but managed to move to another city, Ferrara, with most of her property. There she was allowed to return to Judaism and her original name: Nasi.

The impression emerging from the documents Schaick cites is that Dona Gracia headed a large empire with direct connections to the rulers of Europe, some of whom she financed and some of whom she bankrupted. Her people were found in every capital: money changers and lawyers, seamen, enforcers and secret agents. All of them were pawns in a complex fabric of plots and machinations that spun not only the wheels of the economy and of diplomacy in Europe but were also heavily laden with ego caprices, jealousies and hatreds, impulses and courtships, sweet-talking flattery and bad-mouthing poison, betrayals and deceptions. When it was necessary to get rid of someone, he was beheaded or sent to the bottom of the sea.

According to Schaick, Dona Gracia financed the printing of the famous Ferrara Bible in Ladino (1553 ), was very active on behalf of Jews like herself who had been baptized as Christians, and defended crypto-Jews who were exposed to the authorities. Schaick says this touched the lives of tens of thousands of people.

At least one case is well-documented - Dona Gracia's attempt to impose a boycott on the city of Ancona. Its rulers persecuted Jews, 24 of whom were condemned to burning. Among them were two of her agents. In response she initiated a worldwide boycott of Ancona, which failed. Mostly the city's Jews opposed it, fearing it would make their situation even worse.

Dona Gracia doesn't forget

The wealthiest businesswoman in the world was always aware of the limits of her power, as a Jew. Everywhere she lived she planned the arrangements for her departure in advance, usually with her property, until she finally settled in Istanbul. The sultan welcomed her not only because of her wealth and not only because as a Jew she was an ally against the Christian world. The sultan welcomed her because his son and heir was connected with a group of roisterers close to Don Joseph Nasi, who in the meantime had married her daughter.

Don Joseph, the sultans' Jewish foreign minister, comes across in Schaick's doctorate as a kind of early Henry Kissinger. "The historians and authors of works of literature and plays were captivated by the figure of the manly, noble and charming figure of Don Joseph Nasi," writes Schaick, "even though there were also other sides to his personality - he was proud and arrogant, uncompromising and an indefatigable subversive."

Above all, it was irritating to Schaick that history tends to attribute to Don Joseph the initiative to establish Jewish autonomy in Tiberias. This is a glory Dona Gracia deserves, he writes.

Apparently the story is not manufactured out of thin air: Documents published by orientalist Uriel Heyd in the mid-1960s testify that Dona Gracia indeed purchased from the sultan a permit to collect the taxes in the Tiberias area. However, at that time Tiberias was less than a failed village, nearly void of inhabitants. An experienced and successful businesswoman like Dona Gracia would not have expected substantial profits from investing in such a remote corner of the world. Therefore, we must not dismiss outright the main argument in Schaick's doctorate, which was also proposed in the past by other researchers: Dona Gracia was not looking for profits in Tiberias. She wanted a refuge for crypto-Jews, perhaps an autonomous entity. In this context she initiated the construction of the city walls, remains of which are visible in Tiberias to this day.

And thus she found herself at the center of a national epic as one of the harbingers of Zionism, nearly 300 years before Theodor Herzl. However, there were not many who answered her call to settle the Land of Israel and she herself died before seeing the fulfillment of her dream.

Schaick has a bone to pick with her heirs: When Dona Gracia passed away, Don Joseph Nasi, by virtue of his position in the regime and his close friendship with Sultan Selim II, had at his disposal all the means and possibilities for establishing an autonomous Jewish entity in the Land of Israel, writes Schaick, but apparently he lacked his mother-in-law's Jewish political awareness and preferred Cyprus: "Thus Dona Gracia's great political vision came to naught."

Yaakov Amsalem, always attuned to his Lady on high, believes Tiberias can prosper on the heritage of Dona Gracia, just as Salzburg in Austria is prospering on Mozart's heritage.

And there is something more: Diplomatic documents Schaick cites in his thesis show that during the last years of her life, when she was living in Istanbul, Dona Gracia demanded of King Henry II of France that he pay her back a loan of 150,000 gold ducats - a sum that today would be equivalent to several hundred million dollars. Henry needed the money to block the influence and territorial spread of Charles V, king of Spain and Holy Roman emperor. Despite numerous attempts to collect the huge debt, a large part of it was never paid back and it remains open to this day.

Dona Gracia does not forget. From the place where she dwells on high, she is instructing Yaakov Amsalem to investigate the possibility of the inhabitants of Tiberias suing the French government for that debt, and he is indeed doing this.