Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books

The Long Journey of Gracia Mendes

Marianna D. Birnbaum


Texte intégral

1When Jews moved to towns in the nineteenth century, they participated in the social rise of their entire generation, regardless of faith. But in the sixteenth century, if a Jew displayed a competitive attitude and a kind of success that led him or her into the society of the gentile burghers of the Renaissance, something unusual, even unnatural happened.

2Gracia stepped out of her own circle and adopted a lifestyle meant for Christians only. Living beyond the Golden Horn, she had a European, aristocratic household, with imported furniture, silks, and brocades. Her family and her servants wore European clothes, and the family members were addressed as Don and Señora. They corresponded in Spanish and Italian, not in Turkish or Persian. Their way of life had little to do with that of the Jews in Byzantium: it mirrored solely the style of Habsburg Europe. Their foreign habits notwithstanding, in the Ottoman Empire Gracia and her coreligionists thrived, whereas in Europe they could not penetrate the wall of obstacles created by the Christian society that loathed and feared them at the same time.

3Although scholars have speculated about it, there is absolutely no documentation to support the frequently voiced claim that Messianic ideas spurred either Gracia or Joseph to reestablish the Jewish settlement of Safed. Messianism that permeated Sephardi society in the early modern period was obviously known to both. Of people Gracia had admired, Isaac Abravanel was a Messianist; so were many Jews in Salonika, forming a separate community there. In 1516, when the Ottomans took Palestine, there was an upsurge of acute Messianic expectation that enjoyed mass as well as some rabbinical support.

  • 1 For more on this subject, see Uriel Heyd, Ottoman Documents on Palestine, 1552–1615 (Oxford, 1960) (...)

4Sixteenth-century Spain had many mystical authors who were avidly read by the secret Jews. A letter from the township of Badajoz—written on March 30, 1528, in Spanish, but with many Portuguesisms, and signed by the local Inquisitor, Doctor Laya—deals with Messianic movements in that region. The Inquisitor refers to “infestation of the faith and the offence to the Catholic Kings.”1 Nevertheless, there is no real evidence to connect Gracia’s strong Jewish commitments to any literature she might have read. Several authors—primarily Cecil Roth—sought to establish that connection without reliable proof of their claim.

5Revelations and visions were reported, and some Messianist leaders performed public healings, using non-Jews as witnesses. But these were limited to the region. The most devoted Messianists settled in Jerusalem, not Safed.

6There is no record to prove that Gracia ever moved to Safed “in order to die there.” On the contrary, the eulogies point to her death and burial in Constantinople in 1568 at the age of fifty-eight. Rabbis and scholars, beneficiaries of her generosity, admirers of the nobility of her manner and her courage, showered Gracia with praise.

  • 2 Fernand-Halphen, p. 164; Roth, p. 132.

7In his oration, Rabbi Soncino, her earlier adversary, claimed: “She was not merely the most serene princess and the glory of Israel, a splendid flower in exile, who honored her home by its purity and sanctity. She protected the poor and helped the afflicted … to make them happy in this world and to have them welcomed in the next.”2 He praised her for building the House of Israel, with her purity, wealth, and treasure.

  • 3 Roth, p. 132.

8Emanuel (Immanuel) Aboab also spoke of her with appreciation, extolling her excellent virtues and noble deeds, “about which many books could be written.”3

  • 4 Fernand-Halphen, p. 161.

9Amatus Lusitanus called her “a woman adorned by all virtues,” and Rabbi Almosnino referred to her as “crown of the glory of goodly women.” Gracia’s earthly presence was called a ”divine compassion in human form.”4

  • 5 Roth, p. 31. See Merry E. Wierner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1993), p. 2 (...)

10Centuries of Jewish persecution, climaxing in the Holocaust, animated some modern scholars to view Gracia’s life in an anachronistic light, even claiming that she was an early Zionist, who assisted a Jewish and converso flight out of danger and helped establish an “Underground Railroad” to bring them to a safe haven. This term, borrowed from anti-slavery literature, was first used by Cecil Roth, but it recently reappeared in a feminist text.5

11Indeed, some documents do record the number of Iberian families reaching relatively safe destinations in Europe. For example, an old nurse of the Nasi family landed in the Low Countries. Yet except for allusions and ambiguous mention in eulogies after Gracia’s death, nothing proves that the Mendes family actually participated in an organized action to save Jews and conversos. More likely, they secretly financed some flights and helped refugees after they had reached safety.

  • 6 Some scholars, following Roth, interpreted Samuel Usque’s statement in Consolaçam: “[Y]ou have don (...)

12In the Ottoman Empire, any open knowledge of such activities would have jeopardized the family’s business dealings with Christian countries and, while still in Europe, such intelligence would have put their lives at risk. Therefore, even if necessary secrecy is responsible for the lack of evidence, a caveat must be added to the discussion. Also, calling Gracia a Zionist displays dangerously anachronistic thinking because it transfers a modern concept to a period when no one would have entertained the idea of creating a secular Jewish state in the Holy Land, where a sizeable portion of the population waited for the immediate arrival of the Messiah to rebuild the Temple and usher in a new age of sanctity and peace.6 Gracia and her son-in-law wanted to establish a Jewish economic center in Safed that would aid Jewish employment and self-sufficiency and at the same time help increase the family’s wealth.

13As shrewd as they were when it involved their business affairs, Gracia and Joseph had a commitment to human (and humanist) values. They pursued a wide range of goals in order to help the poor. In the end, those generous efforts saved them from estrangement from their impecunious coreligionists.

  • 7 In 1568, Selim II, his friendship with Joseph notwithstanding, ordered all Jews to wear distinctiv (...)

14It is evident that Gracia’s story cannot be taken as representative. Hers was an exceptional life. Gracia’s accomplishments were unique, and hers alone. Her achievements did not become path breaking. Her unusual talents notwithstanding, she succeeded because she had the support of an immense family fortune to back her efforts. Her life was too singular to offer more than a glancing insight into the lives of her less fortunate contemporaries. Nor did Gracia’s powerful figure bring about a change in the fortune of her fellow Jews; even less so into the lives of Jewish women. Their treatment, depending on the momentary whims and interests of rulers, remained as arbitrary as ever.7

15There are no extant records in which Gracia directly expressed her political ideas or religious feelings, and I do not speculate about them. I have faithfully chronicled her private and public activities, and her role as a mater familias, supported by the available documents. Those facts alone should prove beyond doubt that Gracia was a woman of singular intelligence, imagination, and perseverance, whose actions were ennobled by her unyielding faith and spiritual grace. She knew how to dream without boundaries and had the courage to make her dreams come true, regardless of the limits forced upon her by her faith and gender. An independent thinker, Gracia presents a life that affirms the fundamental importance of human dignity for centuries to come.

16Los Angeles,
December 31, 2001.


1 For more on this subject, see Uriel Heyd, Ottoman Documents on Palestine, 1552–1615 (Oxford, 1960). The inquisitor’s claim was published by Carlos Carrete Perrondo and Yolanda Moreno Koch, “Movimiento Mesianico hispano–portugues: Badajoz 1552,” Sefarad 52 (1992): 65–68.

2 Fernand-Halphen, p. 164; Roth, p. 132.

3 Roth, p. 132.

4 Fernand-Halphen, p. 161.

5 Roth, p. 31. See Merry E. Wierner, Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, 1993), p. 21.

6 Some scholars, following Roth, interpreted Samuel Usque’s statement in Consolaçam: “[Y]ou have done more than all of them to bring forth into the light the fruit of the plants that lie buried in its darkness” (p. 37) to mean that she helped Jews escape from Christian Europe. I believe Usque meant that Gracia brought back conversos to embrace Judaism openly.

7 In 1568, Selim II, his friendship with Joseph notwithstanding, ordered all Jews to wear distinctive clothing that would set them apart from the Muslims. In the Habsburg lands, in 1572, Maximilian II, Joseph’s friend from his youth, expelled all Jews from his empire; in 1576, Murad III ordered a hundred Jews who wanted to settle in Safed to be deported to Cyprus.

© Central European University Press, 2003

Conditions d’utilisation :