Dona Gracia reached Turkey in 5313/1553 and fulfilled her dream of acting as a faithful Jew in public. She helped to build shuls, supported Torah learning, ransomed Jews from Mediterranean pirates and was active in the Jewish community.
Most sensational of all was her boycott against an Italian port known as Ancona, halfway down Italy’s Adriatic Coast. In 5292/1532 Ancona lost its independence and became a papal state under the Vatican’s heavy thumb. At first, this was good for the Jews. By 5300/1540 they had so revitalized the town’s economy that Pope Paul III guaranteed that Conversos who went to live there would be free from persecution by the Church. Over one hundred Conversos seized the opportunity. They rushed to Ancona to live as Jews and even founded a shul.
This comfortable arrangement was sweetened by an annual bribe of 1,000 ducats to the Pope’s coffers. Italian Jewry prospered. Rav Binyomin Nechemyah ben El-Natan from neighboring Civitanova complained at the time, “The Jews’ behavior has become ostentatious… they live securely in their beautiful dwellings, courts and palaces, everyone going to his vineyard or field, and carrying his gold and silver with him. But they forget Hashem and do not set aside any time for study.”
AN EVIL POPE
The wheel of good fortune plunged downwards when the fanatical Gian Pietro Carafa was elected Pope Paul IV in 5316/1556. In the days of Christian persecution a “bad gentile” was someone who refused to ease up for the sake of a bribe, and Pope Paul IV was a perfect example. He was so uncorrupt that he expressed surprise after being chosen as Pope because “I have never conferred a favor on a human being!”
The Church elected him because it seemed that this heavy-handed octogenarian, who was once in cahoots with Spain’s King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, was the man of the hour. A man of his ilk was needed to keep the Protestants and Turks at bay and to root out subversive Conversos. Paul IV did his job so thoroughly that even gentiles grew to hate him. A statue of him was once mutilated by a hostile crowd.
To deal with the Conversos in Ancona, the Pope had ninety of them arrested in one swoop. Money, of course, played a part. The Pope initially held out for a ransom of 30,000 scudi to release the Conversos. When the negotiations fell through, the Inquisition used torture to force out confessions. With prodding from Dona Gracia and her powerful nephew Joseph Nasi, Sultan Selim II of Turkey protested to the Pope, arguing that some of the Conversos were Turkish subjects and that their persecution was damaging his commercial interests. The Pope rejected these demands, agreeing to free only Jews who had actually lived in the Ottoman Empire. Meanwhile, sixtyfive of the Converso prisoners managed to bribe their guards and escape, one leaped out of a window, and twenty- four were burnt at the stake between April and June 5315/1555.
The Ancona Conversos who had escaped the dragnet fled to Pesaro, thirty- seven miles northwards, where they were welcomed by the local duke Guidobaldo II. He seized the opportunity to turn his town into a great seaport by utilizing the Conversos’ trading connections.
Guidobaldo defied the Inquisition’s demand to hand over the Conversos, incurring the wrath of the Pope and risking his prestigious position as captain- general of the Pope’s armies.
Pope Paul IV issued his infamous “Cum Nimis Absurdum” Papal bull on July 12, 5315/1555, two months after his induction as Pope.
“It is both absurd and inappropriate,” the bull begins, “that Jews, whose guilt has condemned them to perpetual serfdom, should prove so ungrateful. They repay our mercy with insults. Their insolence has extended so far that, in our capital city of Rome and in several other cities and villages, they not only venture to live mixed with the Christians in the vicinity of churches, without any distinction in their attire, but also dare to rent houses in the choicest of streets and squares. They own property, employ wet-nurses, maids and other Christian servants, and commit many other acts to the shame and contempt of Christianity” (abridged).
To remedy the situation, the bull restricted Jews to dealing almost exclusively in old clothes and second-hand goods, forced segregation of Jews into ghettoes (editor’s note: the word ‘ghetto’ is of Italian origin), forbade Jews from hiring Christian servants, imposed the wearing of special identification – Jewish men were to wear a yellow hat and Jewish women a yellow head-shawl, permitted only one shul per town – the others would be turned into churches, banned Jewish physicians from treating Christian patients and forbade Jews from being called by titles, such as signor. The next pope extended ghettos to most Italian towns while the Jews of Rome were herded into a ghetto whose three gates were locked at night. In later centuries, this city had the dubious distinction of being the last ghetto to be abolished in Western Europe, in 5606/1846.
The Conversos who had fled to Pesaro decided to do something unprecedented in Jewish history – to organize a boycott. They sent a rav, Yehudah Faraj, to Turkey to encourage Jewish merchants to boycott Ancona and use the less important port of Pesaro instead. Many Jews began avoiding Ancona’s port, inducing gentile officials to dash off a desperate letter to the Pope, complaining that “if your Goodness does not help us, this most faithful city of yours, which used to be full of commerce and exchanges like any other noble city of Italy, will become destitute and abandoned.”
However, Jewish opinion was split. As the Conversos organized their boycott, the rav of the Ancona community simultaneously shot off an equally urgent letter, warning that a boycott would instigate revenge by the pope whose “anger will boil and his rage will erupt like fire.” He also pointed out that the small Pesaro port was incapable of absorbing Ancona’s massive trade.
Furthermore, the Ancona rav pointed out that the Pesaro gentiles were not the thirty-six hidden tzaddikim. He cited a recent episode when the duke’s brother and his cronies had embarked on a rampage, raided a shul in Pesaro and desecrated its sifrei Torah. In conclusion, the boycott would not work and it would encourage yet more anti- Semitism.
Countering these arguments were the appeals of the Jews in Pesaro who pointed out that the Duke of Pesaro had begun enlarging his harbor, in anticipation of a huge growth in trade, and would be enraged if the Jews ungratefully continued trade with anti-Semitic Ancona.
Rav Faraj, the Conversos’ representative, had mixed success. At his first stop, Salonica, the Jews agreed to cooperate if Jews of other large trading centers, such as Constantinople, Adrianople and Bursa, cooperated. The Jews of Constantinople also gave him a positive reception and agreed to implement the boycott for eight months. However, the Jews of Adrianople were divided and the Bursa community was not interested at all.
Dona Gracia, who was already sending her trading vessels to Pesaro, became heavily involved, trying to get all the leading rabbanim to support the Conversos’ position.
Her main opponent was Rav Yehoshua Soncino, a member of the famous Soncino printing family and one of the greatest sages of the time, who refused to sign any boycott proclamation until he was better acquainted with the facts. Even after Dona Gracia persuaded various Constantinople communities to back her, Rav Soncino insisted that their support was invalid because she had forced them into it and, besides, it was against halacha to help the Jews of Pesaro at the expense of Ancona Jews.
Instead, Rav Soncino suggested compensating Duke Guidobaldo of Pesaro with a gift of 20,000 ducats. The boycott fell apart despite being supported by Rav Yosef Karo (author of the Shulchan Aruch) and Rav Moshe of Trani (the Mabit, author of Kiryat Sefer) in Tsefas.
Seeing that his assistance to the Jews went unrewarded, in 5318/1558 the Duke of Urbino not only banished the Conversos from Ancona and also those who had settled in his town beforehand. It is to his credit that he did not turn them over to the Inquisition.
Dona Gracia’s last project was the rebuilding of Teveryah, the town where part of the Mishnah and Talmud Yerushalmi were written, and where the Sanhedrin presided after 3995/235. Its Jewish community was destroyed by Crusaders and, by Dona Gracia’s time, the town was in ruins although a thousand Jews prospered in the nearby community of Tsefas. In about 5320/1560, Dona Gracia petitioned the Turkish Sultan to rebuild Teveryah, promising to personally contribute 1,000 gold pieces annually towards the project.
Despite opposition of local Arabs, a city wall three-quarters of a mile long was completed in 5324/1564 and Jews began cultivating mulberry trees (to raise silkworms), oranges and dates. Buildings, shuls, a yeshivah and bathhouses were set up, Italian Jews were invited to come and settle, and the wilderness began to flourish. Although some say that a mansion was built for Dona Gracia, there is no evidence that she ever made it to the Holy Land. After Don Gracia’s death, in about 5329/1569, the entire project collapsed. “I came to Teveryah on May 19,” a German traveler, Salomon Schweigger, reported in 5341/1581, “and there was only a travelers’ inn and next to it just a few houses.”
Today, little is left of Dona Gracia’s financial empire. A street and a hotel are named after her in Teveryah. In Izmir, Turkey tourists visit the old Sinyora Giveret Synagogue, built long ago with her funds.
(Important source: “The Woman who Defied Kings: the life and times of Dona Gracia Nasi” by Andree Aelion Brooks, Paragon House, 2002)