Doña Gracia (c. 1510–1569) was an incredible woman. She was a wealthy converso who fought continuously to free Sephardi Jews from the clutches of the Inquisition. She was skillful in her efforts to support Jewish life, overcoming much adversity along the way. Using her finances passed on by her deceased husband, she was able to establish schools, synagogues, and a trade fleet which helped Sephardim escape to the ancestral homeland (of Zion). These were only some of the things that Doña Gracia and her family accomplished.
The safety of the Sephardi Jews seemed to concern her very much, both the physical and spiritual aspects were on her mind. You can this through her actions throughout her life. She was only really able to really make changes in the fate of many Jews once she escaped the grip of the Inquisition. Much of what she has done would likely not have happened if she didn’t reach Constantinople. Her diligence in her work is amazing and for a woman during that time period it most definitely notable.
Doña Gracia and her family were so determined to help their fellow Jews that were in danger they also helped spread Judaism is there own way. This was also something important and dear to them. Their love for the Torah was no less than their love for the people they cared so much about. They were trailblazers and one way I think can be seen is through the printing center they established.
Her daughter Doña Reyna Mendes (c. 1539–1599) whose husband was advisor to the Sultan one of the most important men in the Ottoman Empire, was one of first women to be involved in Hebrew printing. She actually established a press which even her mother had never done.
She established a press in Belvedere, near Constantinople, and later another press in the Constantinople suburb of Kuru Cesme. She published at least fifteen books, including prayer books and a tractate of the Talmud. Such work I would imagine must have taken much dedication.
The story of Doña Gracia’s life I find very inspiring. She exemplifies to me what a leader can be and (sometimes) should be. No one person or leader is perfect but I feel like there is a lot that we can learn from a woman like Doña Gracia (and her family). With determination and grit she accomplished a lot in her life. To me she is a reminder not to give up on myself or the work that I’m passionate about and continue even if the going gets rough. She also shows the importance of not forgetting about other especially when it’s in your power to help them. She took care of herself and her family, which is something I aspire to do one day. Her intense devotion to Jewish life and triumph I believe will always leave people in wonderment of what it would have been to witness the movement of such an incredible figure.
In Miriam Bodian’s book “Hebrews of The Portuguese Nation” she writes about the conversos that fled to Amsterdam. We can see they too like Doña Gracia brought their wealth with them in conjunction with their Catholic converso ways of thinking. There were social differences between them and the Ashkenazi community, they were looked down upon in part because of their Catholic influence. Nevertheless the conversos in Amsterdam were very much interested in keeping in what they knew about being Jewish alive. They may not have helped people like Doña Gracia did but they still as a community tried to keep their traditions and heritage alive.
Miriam Bodian. Hebrews of The Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1997)