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5 Adar II 5765 - March 16, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly







The Nesi'im — Princes of the Golus

by Y. Ben Avi

Part I

Very few chapters have been recorded on Jewish history in the Golus that are in any way comparable to that of Don Yosef Nasi, the Duke of Naxos, and his aunt, Donna Gracia. They were born into a wealthy family in the Marrano community in Lisbon, Portuguese noblemen on the outside and loyal Jews in secret. The fear of the Inquisition led them far from their birthplace and after years of moving from place to place and of adventures, they settled in Constantinople. They openly returned to Judaism. They supported Jewish communities and talmidei chachomim on a massive scale and earned the admiration of the gedolei hador, among them the Beis Yosef, the Mabit, and the Mahari ben Leib. Their political and economic power, and their ability to set international processes in motion were unprecedented in Jewish history. The saga of the Nasi family.


The year 1510 (5270) heralded no brighter future for the Jews of Portugal than had the years that preceded it. Many of those who had been expelled from Spain still wandered the streets of Europe and the east, vulnerable to attack and far from any peace.

In North Africa, Ferdinand the king of Spain began his journey of conquest, and reports went out about Jews being murdered and others sold as slaves. Time and time again, the Jews of Lisbon, whose situation was relatively good, were called upon to provide the funds to redeem the captives.

The de Luna family too, was asked to aid their suffering brethren, and they indeed gave generously of their wealth. They were the notables of the community, an illustrious family which had changed their Jewish name to de Luna as an aspect of the way of life that had been forced on them as Jews. On the outside, the lives of the Marrano Jews in Lisbon was no different from those of their gentile neighbors — though they were always aware that even the slightest suspicion was sufficient for them to find themselves under harsh investigation.

But that was on the outside. In the recesses of their homes, far beneath the exquisite salons, there pulsed a real Jewish life. On Shabbos and on festivals and any time they were able, the Jews would slip away to secret hiding places which were well guarded and remove the mask of their forced, oppressive lives. For a short time they could be themselves: faithful Jews who yearned for the day when they could return to their religion without fear.

A daughter was born into the de Luna family, the second of three children. The name given to her was Channah, but everyone called her Gracia. Her Christian name was Beatrice.

Her childhood was conducted in the shadow of the special way of life that characterized the community. Even as a little girl they taught her their secret. She learned to understand that she was a Jewess, but that the tribulations of the times did not allow her to live openly as such. For her bas mitzvah she was given an elegant siddur, covered in gold, and she knew that all her life she would live strictly as a faithful bas Yisroel.

When Donna Gracia was 18 years old, in 1528, she married a prominent member of her community. Francisco (Tzemach) Mendes was also the son of a distinguished family in the community, wealthy bankers on the outside and Jews in secret.

The wedding was held in public in front of the populace, but the real ceremony was held in secret when a rabbi married them according to Jewish law.

Francisco and his brother Diogo (Meir) were owners of the Mendes bank, one of the wealthiest in Europe. Their enormous wealth opened doors for them, and they were frequently invited to the royal palace. Shortly afterwards, the bank extended its operations, and it opened a branch in Antwerp. Diogo was sent to run it. Soon the branch in Antwerp became larger than the original.

In Lisbon, Donna Gracia's home was run like a typical aristocratic household, with menservants and maidservants fulfilling their every request. Two years later her daughter Malka was born, who was given the public name Reina.


At that time Gracia's brother Shmuel, who served as physician in the royal palace, died. She took his sons Yosef and Shmuel into her home and had them educated as the children of noblemen. At the same time she took care to give them a Jewish education and their secret lives as Marranos apparently left a deep impression on them.

Yosef, or Juan as his Christian name went, soon proved to have outstanding talents. When he grew up, his aunt Gracia took him with her on her visits to the king's court.

In 1536 (5296), Francisco suddenly passed away after only eight years of marriage. The young widow had to contend with, besides her private tragedy, her responsibility to her nephews and to her young sister, Breinda. She also had to take the place of her husband in the administration of the enormous bank.

As if that were not enough, the Marranos found, to their horror, that the laws of the Inquisition were now applied in Portugal, just as they had been in Spain. Gradually, the knowledge began to sink into Donna Gracia's heart that she would have to leave her birthplace. Already during her husband's lifetime, a plan had been prepared for a move to a place where they could openly return to the commandments of Judaism, and now the time had come to implement it.

She told her acquaintances and neighbors that she needed to travel to Belgium on business, and she got on a ship heading northwards. Even today it is not clear how she managed to take out all her extensive possessions from the country. There were those who maintained that she also cleared out a portion of the royal treasury.

At first Donna Gracia stayed in London. Although the family business was in Antwerp and her brother-in-law Diogo was one of the largest bankers there, she was afraid of the Inquisition there. Karl the Fifth, the Belgian ruler, was a zealous Catholic who also ruled over Spain and sympathized with the Inquisition.

Donna Gracia knew that only three years earlier there had been a trial in Antwerp against Diogo who was suspected of being Jewish. In the end, he was rescued from the danger that hovered over his life only because the Kaiser was then in need of his money. Thus it was crucial for Donna Gracia to be assured that she would not be persecuted as a Jewess, and that her possessions would not be harmed.

In the face of her economic status and the enormous wealth that she would bring into the city the government could not refuse, and so she settled in Antwerp.

The Escape

At the beginning of the 16th century, Antwerp was at the peak of its prosperity. The city, the richest in Europe at that period, was considered a vital economic crossroads. Significant numbers of the merchants who filled its streets were Jewish Marranos. Donna Gracia spent about eight years in the city, but they were far from the best years of her life.

As if it were not enough that she had to leave Lisbon out of dread of the Inquisition, now here too a serious danger hung over Jews who wanted to openly fulfill the commandments of their religion

The business of the Mendes bank expanded more and more. Its immense capital enabled the bank to finance loans even to kings and various governments. The rulers were careful to keep up good relations with the owners of the Jewish bank.

Donna Gracia's status made it necessary for her to pay periodic visits to the palace, so that she had to revert to the double life of a Portuguese noblewoman on the surface and a Jewess only in secret.

Her nephew Yosef, who was gradually entering into the family business and whose behavior and wisdom impressed everyone who saw him, often accompanied her on her visits to the king's court.

At that time Diogo married Breinda, the sister of Donna Gracia. Gracia herself never remarried after the death of her husband.

Helping Where they Could

The members of the Nasi family could take comfort from the massive financial aid they were able to hand out to their fellow Jews, as a result of their money and status. They aided Marranos to reach Moslem Turkey, where they were free of any fear of the Church. Their agents were instructed to allocate all kinds of aid to Jews and Jewish communities in trouble. Their greatest dream was that they should also be able to leave for a country where they could at long last openly return to their people. But the dream had to be postponed when Diogo died and Gracia was left alone at the head of the manifold family business.

In 1544 (5304), the time came when the family realized that they had to leave. One day Donna Gracia was invited to the palace, where she was informed that the great Kaiser himself had turned matchmaker. And the person he had in mind was her own daughter Reina-Malka, whom the king wanted to marry off to a certain nobleman. At that Gracia realized that there was no future for either her or her family in Antwerp.

One spring day in 1554 (5314), Donna Gracia and her sister left secretly, together with her daughters, to Venice. They did not wait to take care of extricating their vast possessions, and simply told their acquaintances that they were traveling for convalescent purposes.

Donna Gracia's flight caused a tremendous upheaval in the palace. The Kaiser was especially disturbed by the thought of Donna Gracia's great wealth, which it was obvious that she would try to take out with her. The ultimate charge was immediately whipped out—the two Jewish widows were charged with `heresy' to Christianity. What was the flight if not clear proof of that?

Their property was seized and transferred to the King's treasury. It included the rights to 34 treasure chests, a real find for the King's palace which was always in financial distress.

The complex task of retrieving the stolen property for the family fell on Yosef's shoulders. In the beginning it seemed as if he would be able to persuade the King, but Queen Mary, the Kaiser's sister and his substitute, turned out to be a particularly hard nut to crack. All attempts at compromise, including the generous loans that Yosef attempted to offer, were rejected outright.

Judaism in the Open

Donna Gracia, who had settled meanwhile in Venice, took her own steps. Many of the forfeited treasure chests had been deposited with German merchants. Those merchants also had property in Venice, and Donna Gracia managed to persuade the Venice authorities to attach their property as a means of compulsion. Left with little choice in the matter, the merchants returned the chests to their owners.

Back in Antwerp, Yosef continued to conduct wearisome negotiations over the fate of the remaining property. However, at a certain point, he left the country quite suddenly. Perhaps he had managed to gradually take out the assets, or it could be that he felt that the Kaiser's patience was exhausted and was worried about his own safety.

In any event, the wealth that they did retrieve came to a considerable amount. The Mendes family remained, in spite of the losses, one of the richest in the generation.

The two De Luna sisters, as they were called in Venice, were careful to live modestly. They might have been able to reside there peacefully for many more years, had it not been for a trouble that came to Donna Gracia from a completely unexpected quarter. Her sister Breinda, for reasons that are not clear, informed the government that Gracia was secretly observing the Jewish commandments, and that she intended to smuggle her property to Turkey and move there herself.

The Venetian government was delighted at the opportunity to lay their hands on the vast property of the Jewish dowager. They seized her possessions and threw her into prison. As for her daughter Reina and `little' Gracia, Breinda's daughter, they ordered them to be placed in a convent to prevent the prisoner from having any thoughts of escape.

Breinda soon discovered that informing could be a two-edged sword. Greed on the part of Breinda's agent led him to open his mouth, and he informed the government that Breinda herself was no less a secret Jewess. Obviously, they were only too pleased with this additional revelation, and lost no time in throwing her in prison.

The trial of the sisters went on for two months. Enormous sums of money were exchanged to bring this affair to a close, but to no avail. In the end, R' Yosef Nasi, who at the time was in Constantinople on business, decided that there was no choice but to request the intervention of the Sultan. He met with Moshe Hammon, the Sultan's Jewish physician, and asked him to try to influence his master to intervene in the affair.

The physician spoke to the Sultan and contended that it was a very worthwhile move for him, since the Mendes sisters wished to bring in their property and to settle permanently in Constantinople.

When the Sultan's request reached Venice, the government was left with little choice, and it released the prisoners. The road to Constantinople, which had already been taken successfully by masses of Jewish refugees during that time, was open.

However, in order to leave Venice for Constantinople, Donna Gracia would have to declare her property, a declaration which would mean huge losses. She therefore decided to move first to the city of Ferrara, which received her with joy and immense reverence. Her sister, Breinda, joined her. She regretted the great suffering she had brought on both of them, and preferred to live close beside her sister, as a Jewess.

Medallion in Hebrew

Once in Ferrara, Donna Gracia was able to enjoy a freedom such as she had never had before. The letter of asylum that the Duke of Ferrara granted her contained a solemn promise that she was entitled to live in accordance with her religion and to take her property out from the place whenever she so desired.

In an instant, years of suffering were removed. Donna Gracia was finally able to remove her gentile mask and to openly observe the dictates of her religion. She went back to her original surname, `Nasi.' She gave immense financial support to local community institutions, and her home was open to rabbis and talmidei chachomim. For authors of seforim who could not afford it, she sponsored the printing.

In Ferrara, Breinda's daughter married Shmuel, the brother of Yosef.

Donna Gracia's name was uttered with reverence and prayer throughout the entire Jewish world. She established a secret organization to rescue Jewish refugees in Europe, a ramified structure which was a work of art. Hundreds of her agents who were dispersed throughout Europe were commanded to aid refugees with everything they needed, until their safe arrival in Ferrara or Turkey. Don Yosef paid frequent visits to his aunt during his journeys to the European capitals. He would be given rescue instructions, which he faithfully carried out.

During that period, Donna Gracia had a famous medallion coined, which bore her name and image in Hebrew letters.

Meanwhile in the gentile world outside, a storm was brewing. A number of years earlier, in 1517 in the city of Wittenberg, Germany, a man by the name of Martin Luther had laid out the principles of his system, and thereby set in motion the wheels of the Protestant Reformation.

The new movement called for changes to be made in the ranks of the corrupt Catholic Church. The idea began to disseminate in Europe, and for the first time in many generations the Church was seriously threatened. The reaction of the Catholic Church was typical: the decision was made to forcefully exert the Inquisition against any manifestation of `heresy.' The Jews, as usual, were among the first to suffer.

The plague which struck in Ferrara intensified the hatred towards the Jews of the city, and Donna Gracia once again felt that the ground underneath her feet was unsteady.

In the spring of 1552 (5312), the Nasi household gathered up their portables, and finally left behind them Christian Europe. The ship upon which they sailed was bound for Constantinople, the royal Ottoman capital.

Forty Cavaliers

The Turkish coasts had been the destination of thousands of immigrants ever since the expulsion from Spain, sixty years earlier. They knew that they would find religious freedom there, human decency and tolerance—concepts that were so rare in the countries of their origin.

In 1520 (5280), Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent had ascended the throne which heralded the beginning of the golden era of the Turkish empire. The advisors that he chose were superb, and the melting policy that he introduced led to the streaming of immense sums of money to the Turkish treasury, which were used for development purposes. The Turkish fleet was the most powerful in the Mediterranean.

It was Suleiman the Magnificent who built the walls of Jerusalem which are familiar to us today.

Suleiman welcomed the Jewish refugees who flowed into his country. He permitted them to develop their lives in finance, industry and construction, and even allowed them self-rule. The knowledge that the wealthy Nasi family was arriving in Constantinople gave him great satisfaction.

Prior to their arrival in Constantinople, an agreement was reached between the government and Donna Gracia, in which she was promised that her property would remain hers. A special writ also permitted her and her household to continue to wear their Venetian apparel. In response, Donna Gracia committed herself to paying taxes like any other resident, and not to demand extra privileges.

In 1553 (5313) Donna Gracia arrived in Constantinople. She was then 43 years old. According to sources from that period, the Sultan placed at her disposal a special ship. Besides the Nasi family, another 500 Marranos from Spain, Portugal, and Italy were on the boat. Thousands of local Jews crowded around both sides of the wayside while the carriages bearing the hundreds of refugee-immigrants passed through the streets of the city, with 40 cavaliers riding in front of them. Gossip mongers and peddlers weaved fabricated tales over and over again about the vast wealth of the `senora.'

Following the magnificent reception accorded her by the Sultan, Donna Gracia set up her residence in a mansion in the European Glatta quarter, on the banks of the Bosphorus, the channel between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea — and also the point closest to Europe. She dispensed charity daily to institutions and Jewish organizations, and eighty poor Jews from the community sat around her table regularly.

To the best of her ability, Donna Gracia took care to carry out the wishes of the rabbis and wise men of the community, who also frequented her home.

Donna Gracia allocated enormous sums for the support of those learning Torah. She assumed the responsibility for supporting numerous talmidei chachomim and for maintaining many botei midroshim, some of which had been founded by her even before she arrived in Turkey.

Beside her residence she set up a yeshiva, which rapidly became the central yeshiva in the city. Rabbis and yeshiva students would receive their pay promptly, and were free to devote themselves to their learning.

This was not the only reason for the number of students there, which was constantly growing. The yeshiva was headed by the Mahari ben Lev, one of the gedolei hador who, only a few months earlier, had arrived from Salonika. In the introduction to his Responsa, he writes that he is grateful to, "The lady who is royal both in descent, greatness, piety and yiras Hashem — Madame Gracia Nasi," and to Don Yosef Nasi "son-in-law and relative of the lady."

A year after her arrival in Constantinople, in 1554 (5314), her nephew Yosef also came to settle in the city, delayed by his assignments in Europe. He had managed to extricate most of the family's possessions. Now he openly returned to Judaism, and had his name officially changed from Juan Miguez to Yosef Nasi.

At the same time, Don Yosef and Donna Gracia's status grew steadily in the king's court, as did their business transactions. Wool from Greece, spices from the East, grain from the West, and wine from Moldova — the enormous scope of their commerce necessitated the maintenance of a private fleet of ships. The ships which sailed between the numerous ports were granted an escort by a Turkish convoy of ships.

"Nations would gossip about her riches, the queenly fortress," wrote the poet Rabbi Saadia Longo of Salonika about Donna Gracia.

At that time Donna Gracia fulfilled a dream that she had secretly cherished in her heart for 20 years: She transferred her late husband's remains from the Christian cemetery in Lisbon to Jerusalem, where he was buried at the foot of Har Hazeisim. How she managed to pull this off was something she never did tell. Her prayer was only that her last rest would be at his side, in the Holy Land.

Once she had fulfilled her heart's desire, she went on to her second assignment: to marry her daughter Malka (Reina), who was 24, to Yosef, who was then in his late thirties. In 1554 an enormous wedding was held, the likes of which the Jews of the city had never seen. It comprised seven days of feasting and gifts, while presents were liberally distributed to the poor.

It meant the closing of the circle, in that she was giving her only daughter to her nephew, whom she had fostered in her house all these years, the person who had shared the years of trouble, prayer, and, also, success.

The Martyrs of Ancona

After his marriage, Yosef also set up house in the Glatta quarter, on the banks of the Bosphorus. His relations with the Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, had earned him a standing that had no parallel in the history of the Turkish royal court.

His agents, who were dispersed throughout the capitals of Europe, always managed to get him information on what was happening behind the scenes in the courts of kings and dukes, knowledge which also proved helpful to the Sultan's advisors.

Don Yosef's status was actually third in the hierarchy of the empire, after the Sultan and the Grand Vizier, Rostam Pasha. It was not uncommon for the Sultan to decide to follow the advice of Yosef Nasi rather than that of the Vizier.

Don Yosef and Donna Gracia were involved in a few famous political incidents during the 16th century. The best known was the ban on the port of Ancona.

Ancona was an important port town in east Italy. For hundreds of years the city had been independent. However, in the middle of the 14th century, its dependence on the Papacy grew stronger. The local Jews had an important role in the economy of the city due to their involvement in sea commerce, although life in the hostile gentile surroundings was far from easy. In the years following the expulsion from Spain, Marranos who had returned to Judaism found a haven there and were given letters of asylum by the papal authorities.

Matters took a turn for the worse in the year 1555 (5315), when Paul IV ascended to the papal seat. He was one of the cruelest adversaries of the Jews. He lost no time in this. He forced the Jews in his kingdom to wear a mark of disgrace, forbade them any kind of occupation other than the lowest professions, and was the first to force Jews into a ghetto.

The year before he became pope he was a central figure in the episode of the burning of the Talmud in Rome, a tragedy that led to the destruction of Torah life in Italy. He was even hated by his own people, who nicknamed him `the demented.'

One of his first acts was to take care of the Portuguese Marranos in Ancona. Without any prior warning he ordered Inquisition trials to be opened against them. About a hundred distinguished members of the community were imprisoned, but most managed to extricate themselves though bribery, and escaped to the city of Pesaro and other Italian cities. The rest were sentenced to death.

When the harsh news reached Constantinople, Donna Gracia did not waste a moment. She applied to the Sultan, requesting that he wield his influence on the Catholic Church to let the Jews alone. The Sultan responded by threatening the Pope that whatever the Inquisition did to the Jews he would repay in kind to the Christians in Turkey. This forceful demand led to the release of those prisoners who had any kind of link with Turkey. But others were not as fortunate. In the spring of 1556, fifty-two Marranos died al Kiddush Hashem.

"And they recited Shema Yisroel as their souls left them, and their neshomos ascended in a flame to the Heavens — it was the most evil act perpetrated in Italy up till this day" (Emek Habocho). Seventy-two others who admitted their `guilt' were sentenced to hard labor but managed to escape. This incident is mentioned in the Shalsheles Kabboloh by Rabbi Gedaliah ibn Yihya, and in the Emek Habocho by Rabbi Yosef Cohen.

The world was horrified, and the Nasi family decided, in consultation with rabbonim to take action.

End of Part I


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