DoÑa Gracia Nasi Mendes:
A short documentary video on the Life and Times of a remarkable 16th century Sephardic Woman

Music by Mor Karbasi “Judía [Ojos Rientes].” Uploaded videos by History of Sephardic Jews. Link to video

Reviewed by Shoshana Segal

Doña Gracia Nasi Mendes, also known as Beatrice de Luna Mendes, was born in 1510 into an ancient, venerable, Sephardic family that immigrated to Portugal when Spain expelled its Jews in 1492. Though the family was forced to convert to Christianity, they secretly continued to practice Judaism. These converted Jews were known by the gentiles as ‘conversos’ or ‘New Christians’, while the Sephardic people called them ‘anusim’ [the forced ones].

As a young girl, Beatrice de Luna secretly married one of Europe's wealthiest spice traders, Francisco Mendes. At age 27 she became a widow and her remarkable rise to power made her one of the greatest Jewish women of all times. She was a woman of formidable business acumen, personal courage, outstanding altruism and devotion to the Jewish people. Inheriting her husband's wealth provided the means to contribute tremendous amounts to charity and to organize rescue efforts for Marrano Jews.

The most ambitious of Gracia Nasi’s interventions on behalf of Jews was the boycott of the port of Ancona, an Italian town under papal rule in 1556—one of the rare acts of organized Jewish resistance to persecution in the pre-modern period.

Doña Gracia Nasi Mendes wandered Europe, rose to financial power in Antwerp, escaped to Italy and finally found sanctuary in Turkey, where she spent her last years as the uncrowned Queen of Jewry in the Ottoman Empire. She persuaded Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent to grant her a long-term lease on the Tiberias region of Palestine, where she spearheaded one of the earliest attempts to start an independent state for Jews in Israel.

Professor Cecil Roth in his book, The House of Nasi: Doña Gracia (1948, 1969), compares her to Henrietta Szold, who saved Jews during the Holocaust.

Award-winning journalist, author and lecturer Andrée Aelion Brooks, best-known for her book The Woman Who Defied Kings, the first modern and comprehensive biography of Doña Gracia Nasi(see article elsewhere in this issue), calls her the Jewish Queen Elizabeth.

She stands as a credit to Jewish--and particularly Sephardic--history; a role model for the ages.

This is a short video, beautifully filmed, depicting the life and times of Doña Gracia Nasi Mendes. The music by Mor Karbasi, “Judía [Ojos Rientes],” is beautiful, the lyrics that tell the story are simple and easy to understand.

Miriam Woelke, Blogger, Shearim points out that the video, although beautiful, includes a number of mistakes:

1. Doña Gracia wasn't reported to the Italian authorities by her servant but by her sister. When her brother in-law died he left all his money including the business to Doña Gracia and not to his wife. He obviously felt that Doña Gracia would be the better businesswoman of the two sisters. Brianda was so upset that she reported Doña Gracia to the church accusing her of being a secret Jew. A stupid act because both sisters got arrested.

It is noteworthy that ties between the Mendes and de Luna families were reinforced in 1539, when Brianda de Luna (Doña Gracia’s sister) married Diogo Mendes (Doña Gracia’s brother in-law).

2. Doña Gracia died near Istanbul and is NOT buried in Jerusalem. In fact, no one knows the exact location of her grave.

Perhaps she would have liked to be buried in Jerusalem, but it wasn't possible at the time. or, since she was so famous, maybe she made sure her grave was anonymous, so that it wouldn't become a place of pilgrimage.

3. Doña Gracia wanted to settle the Jews in Tiberias but not in Safed (Zfat). Some people say Tiberias and Zfat but it actually was only Tiberias.


Shoshana Segal is Assistant Director of Technology Development at the National Institutes of Health.

Copyright by Sephardic Horizons, all rights reserved. ISSN Number 2158-1800