The Dona Gracia Project

Commemorating a Remarkable Jewish Woman

This book, "A drizzle of Honey" by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson, is a wonderful source of information on the cuisine of conversos like Dona Gracia. See Discussion 1.

The novel in French mentioned in our Discussion No.2.

Charles V - see our Discussion No. 3 about Madrid.

Discussion 4. Sultan Suleyman at his palace in Istanbul.

Discussion: your questions and comments: 5 to date... add your own

1. Food in the life of Dona Gracia

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Q. Did Dona Gracia keep kosher?

A. This is a question that keeps coming up. Certainly there is evidence that she probably kept kosher as much as possible. We have reports from at least one servant during interrogations in Antwerp that the family resisted eating any meat brought home from the market, unless it had been butchered by one of their own men, who no doubt knew the techniques of Jewish ritual slaughter.
This servant, Marie, even gave the name of the man who did the slaughtering – one Robyn Pinto. This gives her statement a ring of authenticity, since the Pintos were either related or very close to the Nasi-Mendes clan.
On another occasion in Venice, we are told that a close friend and servant of Dona Gracia’s sister, Brianda, would slip into the nearby Jewish ghetto to purchase meat for his own use– a highly dangerous idea since Brianda had always argued in public that she had become a sincere Catholic.
And thus, she should have only employed sincere Catholics in her household. The implication is that the servant may well have been purchasing this meat for her table as well.

Q. What kind of food did her family eat?

A. Probably similar to the Portuguese cuisine of the period, with overtones from the Jewish cuisine of Medieval Spain, since this was where the family had originated. Underscoring this is that we do know that Dona Gracia moved around with a tight circle of converso servants from the same heritage.
There is a wonderful cookbook called “A Drizzle of Honey” by David M. Gitlitz and Linda Kay Davidson. It consists of recipes taken from Inquisition testimony, with the stories of the accused on a facing page. It lists a marvelous cornucopia of meat, poultry and vegetable dishes favored by converted Jews in Spain and Portugal of that era – at least the ones that had been apprehended for heresy to prove their backsliding.
Their cooking, of course, had to be done with olive oil rather than the pork fat which was otherwise used widely in the region. Some dishes had a really strong Jewish “identity;” sort of like rye bread and bagels do today. Among those would have been eggplant dishes prepared in a myriad of ways.
Another would have been adafina, a stew normally made with pork, but one where they typically substituted chicken or other fowl to keep it kosher. It was often described as their Sabbath Stew as it was kept warm in embers overnight, ready for a Saturday meal – a time when Jewish law prohibited the kindling of fire and thus the heating of food.

We'd love to include your thoughts or information.

2. Translating a French Novel

Sent to us by Marion Lignana Rosenberg:

In July 1997, when I was at the Avignon Festival on a trip sponsored by the French Institute Alliance Française of New York, I knew nothing of Doña Gracia Nasi, conversos, or the Alhambra Decree. I did, however, know the critical writings of Catherine Clément, in particular Opera, or the Undoing of Women, a magnificent screed that shaped my thinking about opera and inspired me to begin writing about it myself.

One afternoon I was browsing the bouquinistes when a book by Clément caught my eye. I was surprised to find that it was a novel, because like many Anglophone readers, I had been familiar with Clément only as a theorist. (She has in fact written more than twenty novels, including 2010’s award-winning Dix mille guitares.) The cover image was a detail from the Rembrandt painting known as “The Jewish Bride.” I noticed that La Señora took place in the 1500s and that some scenes were set in Ferrara. Since my academic specialty is the poetry of Ariosto and Tasso, who served as court poets in sixteenth-century Ferrara, this information alone made La Señora irresistible to me.

I purchased La Señora, began reading it back at my hostel, and didn’t set it down again until I had turned the last page. For many reasons, the novel’s power overwhelmed me. Among them was the pleasure of secrets unveiled: here was a novel about Jews keeping their faith in secret; about an unspoken passion that burned for decades; about a righteous and heroic woman whose name had been lost to history as I knew it.

The stakes in La Señora are staggeringly high. The novel unfolds against a backdrop of all-too-real horrors and tells of equally real acts of goodness and courage. The outrage of the forced conversions, expulsions, extortion, and violence inflicted upon the Nasis and other Jews is brought dramatically to life. I still weep over the burnings and torture carried out by fiends who profess a love that “is kind” and “rejoiceth not in iniquity.” At the same time, Doña Gracia’s valiant exodus to freedom in the Ottoman Empire, her rescue of Jews from the Inquisition, and her patronage of Jewish learning offer hope and a model of resistance. Clément’s prose is elegant and sensual and her feeling for place superb: Ferrara’s still, dusty streets under a scorching summer sun; the soft, rosy light of Venice; and the peculiar beauties of Lisbon, Antwerp, Istanbul, and the many other places through which Doña Gracia and her family travelled.

And, yes, I was also caught up in the tale of forbidden love that pulses through La Señora, of desire that is “always present because always overcome” (to borrow a phrase from Lampedusa’s The Leopard). Thanks to a note in The Woman Who Defied Kings, I recently learned that a tantalizing wisp of evidence exists suggesting that this love may have some basis in historical fact. (If you want to know more about this aspect of La Señora, I invite you to purchase the novel when it comes out!)

When I returned to New York, I confirmed that La Señora had not been translated into English. Working initially with the French Publishers’ Agency, I translated two chapters and pitched La Señora to several dozen publishers over the next few years, scoring two near-misses. It was not until 2011 that I was able to take advantage of a spell of unemployment to complete the translation as a labor of love. (Indeed, I wondered whether I hadn’t received the gift of time for this very purpose.) After hearing me read a selection from my translation, my future agent introduced herself.

I now have a complete, 150,000-word manuscript and an agent. Naturally, I devoured The Woman Who Defied Kings when it appeared, and I also keep up with works of fiction about crypto-Jews: Richard Zimler’s The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Mitchell James Kaplan’s By Fire, By Water are two that I especially admire. Over the years, a number of English-language readers who would like to be able to read La Señora have contacted me to ask when my translation will be published. With any luck, I will have good news for them soon.

There is so much more I could tell you—for example, how I took the name “Chana Yosefa” (inspired in part by La Señora) when I became a Jew by choice—but that is a story for another time. As for Catherine Clément’s unforgettable and beautifully drawn characters, her use of kabbalistic motifs in La Señora, and how the “facts” of her work of imagination stack up against the latest research (especially the Brooks biography), I see no reason to deprive readers of the pleasure of discovering and debating these matters for themselves when La Señora appears.

I would love to hear your comments. Please post.

3. Pictures at an Exhibition, Madrid

Sent in by Andrée Aelion Brooks: andreebrooks@​

I just got back this afternoon from a visit to the Prado Museum in Madrid where, among its fantastic paintings, I found myself entering a room where it seemed that on the walls all around me were old friends from my Dona Gracia research days. And suddenly those paintings felt like I was encountering real people with secrets I now knew!
In Room 56 there was Catherine of Hapsburg, wife of John III of Portugal -- the Queen who should have raised Dona Gracia´s infant daughter had DG allowed her to do so. Thank goodness she didn´t. Peering past the exquisite black velvet dress trimmed with gold, was a plump, double-chinned woman who could only charitably be called ¨plain.¨ She seemed dour and devoid of emotion -- decidedly watery blue blood flowing in her veins. Still, I wanted to speak to her and we did have a sort of a ¨chat.¨
And she did look like she knew well how to play the royal power game and what was expected of her. After all, she once wrote a personal letter to her brother, Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor up in Flanders, pleading with him to let Diogo Mendes, Dona Gracia´s brother in law, go free after Diogo had been jailed for supposed heresy and aiding the Turks. But this was only because the pair wanted Diogo´s money and tying him up in jail also tied up his money. So take that haughty look off your face, Catherine, I now know your game!
Next to Catherine, on her right, was a portrait of Mary Tudor who may have met Dona Gracia in England. Mary also was unbelievably plain, uneasy and stiff. Her clothes were as plain as her face, oddly enough. Not someone you would want to meet, except if you had no choice.
Maybe I was a bit biased, but next to her was a portrait of an unnamed young ¨Lady with Gold Chains¨ from the same era. Her eyes and face were so full-blooded that -- pardon my imagination - she looked very Jewish. Could this have been Ana? or the niece from the medal?
Indeed, she was so different that it occurred to me that one day we might discover that the members of the House of Mendes have their anonymous portraits hanging in museums and private collections all over the place without anyone knowing who they are. So I would like to put out a call to any gallery, museum or private collector; if you have a portrait from the mid 16th century with any of the family names -- Mendes, Nasi, Micas, de Luna and so forth, please let us know. We will offer a full list of names in a coming post.
Upstairs in Room 27 was Titian´s famous portrait of Charles V on a horse - the quintessential Charles, determined, regal, cunning and painted just after his victory at Muhlberg. Not a mention, of course, about who he tried to strong-arm into giving him the cash to pay for his endless battles. Okay, Charles, I now know the real story!!! Okay, Charles. Get off your high horse (literally). You don't have to show up with that supersized codpiece (stuffed, I am sure).
And over in Room 49 was Raphael´s famous ¨Portrait of a Cardinal¨ who could well have been one of those righteous Vatican cardinals that the family bribed for so many years to keep the Inquisition from coming to Portugal. It was painted a little earlier, but the young man could have well been in his middle years by the time the Mendes came along with their lobbyist, Duarte da Paz. The cardinal´s right hand is not in the picture, symbolic of his hot hand for cash?
It was all a little much - as though they had suddenly come to life before my eyes and had to answer for their nefarious deeds.
More another time...

4. All the news from Istanbul!

Sent to us by Aaron Nommaz: aaron@​

Some time ago, I set out to write a book on Dona Gracia in Turkish, as there is none, to serve as a monument and encourage future Turkish writers that would be interested in her. My aim was to dig into the Ottoman archives and get some more information about her.

But, as you might know, it is a difficult task for local academicians, let alone for an engineer-businessman like myself. The director of the Dolmabahçe Palace, who has been the assistant of Halil Inalcik for the past 17 years, is helping me. And I have two master's degree students of history digging. But so far I am not satisfied with the progress. Since the family had no official status, apart from The Naxos title, there is little written in govermental chronicals.

Presently there is a very popular TV series in Turkey about the “great 100 years” of the empire with Suleyman the Magnificient and Roxelana as main characters. We are looking if we could insert an episode with Dona Gracia to awaken more interest in her.

I am also working with the Portuguese Embassador to see if we can set up an exhibition that would travel her world, starting in Lisbon ending in Tiberias. We had several meetings with the Portuguese and Turkish ministers of culture and both expressed interest in the subject. There is interest in turning the empty La Sinyora synagogue in Haskoy, Istanbul, into a Dona Gracia museum. We need ideas and material to develop this.

As I finish my book I find that Brooks' biography, as well as Roth’s, has served as an invaluable guide. Andree Brooks seems to have said all there is to say; but I also made an effort as an Ottoman Jew of Portuguese origin to inrease awareness in the local Jewish community as well as a broader circle. And I intend to work a few days in the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris and perhaps do some research in Venice, if I can find the time. Thats all for now.... Aaron Nommaz, honorary consul of Portugal in Istanbul.

5. Blood really can really be thicker than water.

Sent to us by Sonya A. Loya: tav_22@​

Growing up in a Spanish Catholic family, never feeling like the shoe fit, I left the church when I was 18 and Christianity all together at 36. After life long drawn to Judaism, and practicing on my own for eight years, my father announced to me that he had known since he was six that he was a Jew. This news came after several years of telling my parents that I thought we were Spanish Jews.

My formal conversion took place a year later with Rabbi Leon of Congregation B'nai Zion, in El Paso, Tx. This led yet on another journey - working with others like me and discovering we had the same dreams. Working with those other B'nai Anousim led to conferences, a learning center and finally having us all go on a trip to Israel this past summer.

At our visit to the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv, I discovered information on the Loya name. There were 3 Loya rabbis from 15th-19th centuries listed in their Moroccan data bank. I also discovered 15 Loya families listed in the Tel Aviv, phone book.

Our second day was spent in Tiberias, we visited the Dona Gracia Museum. The group had a great time dressing up in period clothing and touring the museum. We even learned, later on, that there was once an ancient Loya synagogue in Tiberias, which had been so beloved by Dona Gracia. As someone who also started out living life as a Catholic, Dona Gracia had become my heroine. May her memory be for a blessing!

How to reach us?

Upcoming Events
July 5 - 11
A session on Dona Gracia will be part of a week-long program studying Jews in the Renaissance. Berkshire Hills Adult Vacation Center, Copake, N.Y.
August 3 - 5
Ninth annual conference of anousim/conversos. Congregation B'nai Zion, El Paso, TX. Details contact Sonya Loya,
Numerous programs for Road Scholar, formerly Elderhostel, at the Hotel Elegante, Albuquerque, N.M. Contact Sonya for dates and details at: Email: