Sisterhood Blog

Reviving Dona Gracia

By Sarah Aroeste

  • Print
  • Share Share
saraharoeste.com
Dona Gracia Nasi inspired Sarah Aroeste’s new Ladino-language album.

Before Golda, and even before Herzl, there was Dona Gracia Nasi, the 16th-century Zionist, feminist, and the Harriet Tubman of the Jewish people. She is one of the most remarkable women in Jewish history — and in history, period. It’s a tragedy that so few people know her name.

Dona Gracia — the inspiration for my latest album, out next week — was one of the wealthiest women in Renaissance Europe. Born in Portugal in 1510, she grew up in a family of conversos, Inquisition-era Jews who were forced to convert to Catholicism. But Dona Gracia was always aware of her Jewish roots. She married into a prominent banking family and when she found herself widowed at age of 28, she used her business acumen to court kings and popes all the while developing an escape network that saved hundreds of other conversos.

After inheriting her husband’s trading business, Dona Gracia ammassed an empire which included a private merchant fleet, and an immense fortune to match. Today, she would be worth more than Warren Buffett and Bill Gates combined. And what did this single mother do with her wealth? She used it to preserve her culture and provide safe passage to Jews escaping the Inquisition. She made it happen by strategically giving loans and paying bribes to kings, popes and sultans. She risked her life, fortune and reputation to save her people.

Dona Gracia’s ultimate dream was to create a Jewish national home in what is now Israel — and this was some 350 years before Herzl planned the First Zionist Congress. She leased land in Tiberias from the Ottoman Sultan, and became a one-woman Jewish Agency, settling hundreds of conversos there. She also spearheaded the effort to translate the Bible into Ladino — the translation is now known as the Ferrara Bible — and to distribute it throughout Europe during the Inquisition.

That so few people have ever heard of her likely has something to do with the fact that she was a woman. It is difficult to understand another explanation for why such a commanding historical figure could be so flagrantly overlooked in history books for the past 500 years.

ael Postal Company
Israel’s Dona Gracia postage stamp.

Thankfully, the tide is beginning to turn. Although nearly 500 years too late, the State of Israel, in a ceremony led by Shimon Peres, finally gave Dona Gracia official recognition in October 2010, and there is now a Tiberias museum in her honor. New York City designated a Dona Gracia Day in June 2010, followed by a similar proclamation in Philadelphia in 2011. There are now several Dona Gracia tribute websites, as well as lectures, exhibits and festivals in her honor all over Europe. An Italian white wine has even been named after her.

The Jewish people owe so much to her. I owe so much to her. She is an iinspiration to me as a woman, as a Jew with a proud Sephardic heritage. Although obviously not faced with the threat of death or conversion, I worry today about the viability of my Sephardic culture, especially that of the Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) language. So much so that I have dedicated the past two years of my life to writing a new Ladino music album in Dona Gracia’s honor.

The CD, “Gracia,” features a title track all about what her legacy means to me. As the English translation of the song states:

You give us grace
You give us life
You give us promise
You give us bravery
You give us strength
You give us defiance

You give us command
You give us voice
You give us inspiration
You give us esteem
You give us value
You give us admiration

Because of you we have the
Honor, fight, effect;
Because of you we stand with
Power, height, respect
Some have the deeds, some have the fame —
You have both and the same.

It’s well past time for Dona Gracia Nasi to take her rightful place in the canon of Jewish heroes.

Listen to an audio clip from ‘Gracia’:

Sarah Aroeste is an international singer of contemporary Ladino music. Her third album, ‘Gracia,’ a mix of feminist, experimental and original Ladino songs, will be released May 22.


Permalink | | Share | Email | Print | Filed under: Zionism, Tiberias, Spanish Inquisition, Sarah Aroeste, Portugal, Ladino, Dona Gracia Nasi, Dona Gracia, Conversos

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.




Find us on Facebook!
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • Vered Guttman doesn't usually get nervous about cooking for 20 people, even for Passover. But last night was a bit different. She was cooking for the Obamas at the White House Seder.
  • A grumpy Jewish grandfather is wary of his granddaughter's celebrating Easter with the in-laws. But the Seesaw says it might just make her appreciate Judaism more. What do you think?
  • “Twist and Shout.” “Under the Boardwalk.” “Brown-Eyed Girl.” What do these great songs have in common? A forgotten Jewish songwriter. We tracked him down.
  • What can we learn from tragedies like the rampage in suburban Kansas City? For one thing, we must keep our eyes on the real threats that we as Jews face.
  • When is a legume not necessarily a legume? Philologos has the answer.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.