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May 25, 2015 / 7 Sivan, 5775
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This day in history

March 31 and Dona Gracia


Jewish visitors dressing up at the Dona Gracia Museum in Tiberias

Jewish visitors dressing up at the Dona Gracia Museum in Tiberias
Photo Credit: Stephen Leavitt

At first glance, March 31 is not a day that particularly stands out in Jewish memory, but it is actually a day of significance.

In 1492, the Alhambra Decree (also known as the Edict of Expulsion) was signed by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, which led to the expulsion of all Jews from Spain 3 months later on Tisha B’Av 1492.

Some Jews at the time also went into hiding as Crypto-Jews (Conversos). Many went to Portugal, which welcomed Jews in.

Two such Converso families were the Nasi (de Luna) and Benveniste (Mendes) families who eventually joined together in marriage.

In the 1500’s Dona Gracia (Hanna Nasi) took over her husband’s (Francisco Mendes) spice business after his death, building it up, and ending up becoming one of the richest Jewish women in Renaissance Europe.

But what stands out most about Dona Gracia is that she bought the entire city of Tiberias from the Sultan.

She began to rebuild the city, and invited the Jews of Europe to go to Tiberias, where she would give them start-up funds and land, in the hope that the Jews of Europe could finally come back to their home in the Holy Land, and find refuge from unfriendly Europe. Unfortunately, it appears that very few people took her up on her pre-Nefesh B’Nefesh offer.

Dona Gracia herself never visited Israel.

Today there is a Dona Gracia museum in her honor, located in Tiberias.

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