Daily Israel Report

16th Century Female Philanthropist Land-Builder's Untold Story

Tzvi said, "I have a dream," Yaakov said, "Here's a 5,000-square building to make it happen" - and it did. A report about an Israeli museum-hotel, honoring the woman who preceded Herzl by 350 years.
By Hillel Fendel
First Publish: 1/7/2007, 2:26 PM / Last Update: 1/7/2007, 4:10 PM

The life of Dona Gracia Nasi - a former Maranno, the richest woman in the world, and a Baron de Rothschild-type supporter of Jewish settlement in the Holy Land in the 1500's - was a story very sparsely-told - until the Dona Gracia Hotel-Museum was built in Tiberias in recent years.

Tzvi Schaik (pronounced S-kha'ik, from the word Yitzchak), the curator of the unique museum, told the story to IsraelNationalRadio's Yishai and Malkah Fleisher. He said that about eight years ago, he came to know the amazing personage Dona Gracia, and also met a wealthy Israeli man named Yaakov Amsalem. "Wealth, in this case, was not enough, however," Schaik said; "he also had a very Zionist, Jewish heart. I told him the story of Dona Gracia, and of my dream to create a living monument dedicated to her special life. He was barely able to believe the story, and I told him that I had barely told him 10% of it... At the end of the evening, he said, 'Here it is - a 5,000-square meter building for you to build your dream' - a beautiful building in the heart of Tiberias, which Dona Gracia began to build up from its ruins 350 years ago."

A short recap of the woman's life includes the following: Born to a secretly-Jewish family that had been expelled from Spain and then Portugal in the 1490's... Fiercely dedicated to her Jewish faith... Married into a wealthy Jewish banking family, assuming control of the business at the age of 32 after her husband and his brother died... Running through Europe, pursued both by Inquisition elements and those who wanted her fortune, yet emerging all the stronger and wealthier after each encounter... Ended up finally in Turkey, where she was admired by Sultan Suleimon the Magnificent, who acceded to her request - for which she paid a high yearly fee - to build up the city of Tiberias for persecuted Jews from all over the world.

It was this story, Tzvi Schaik said, that aroused the Jew within Yaakov Amsalem: "He's a businessman, and a former Israel Air Force pilot - very Israeli. But when I told him this story, he said that this was the first time he really felt Jewish, not just Israeli. This is something very significant; it says something about us Israelis, that when we hear about Chanukah and the like, we feel Jewish..."

Schaik also noted that Amsalem, fittingly, is a descendant of Rabbi Chaim Abulafia, who helped rebuild Tiberias in 1740 after 1,600 years of ruin.

"This is a living museum," Schaik said, "with no pictures on the wall or statues or the like. My dream was to rebuild Dona Gracia's palace in which she lived in Constantinople [Istanbul]; the palace no longer exists, nor do we know what it looked like. So I planned that the lobby would represent all the cities in which she lived. Her parents lived in Spain, and she was born in Lisbon, and also lived in Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara, Thessalonica in Greece, and Koshta (Constantinople). So for example, when you enter the Lisbon room, it's like a synagogue... Each room has a theme, such as in Lisbon, curtains hiding a Jewish Star and Moses and Mt. Sinai and the Torah - showing how she was forced to hide her Judaism. Venice, for instance, was a place of feasting and the like, so we use this room for various celebrations like parties and the like, with costumes from the 16th century..."

Schaik said that Dona Gracia helped Jewish causes all over the world, including the Land of Israel: "Unfortunately, most of the time in Jewish history, we hear about men and not women. Dona Gracia is a special case; she was born 400 years before Theodore Herzl, and was the only woman who after 1,500 years of exile and destruction came to the Sultan - essentially, the leader of the world at the time - and said, 'We are the richest family in the empire. May I have some land for my people?' The Sultan Suleimon the Magnificent said, 'Of course, how about Hungary?' She said no thanks; she wanted Tiberias."

Departing on a tangent for a moment, Schaik asked, "Why did she choose Tiberias, and not Jerusalem or any other holy place in Jerusalem? Dona Gracia told the Sultan that Tiberias was the capital of Israel from the 2nd to 7th centuries - not Jerusalem. The Sanhedrin was in Tiberias, and the Jerusalem Talmud was completed there, and more. It was the capital of the Land until the Arabian conquest."

"And so," Schaik said, "Suleimon agreed that Tiberias would be the capital of a new Jewish state following the expulsion from Spain and Portugal. He signed this into law, in the year 1562. She immediately sent workers to Tiberias to build the [city's southern] wall and houses, and she wrote a letter to European Jews, offering land, a house, sheep and mulberry trees for silk to whoever comes to Tiberias. Some Jews did come, in fact, but one day in 1569, [after she had been ill,] she was found dead in her palace in Constantinople..."

The story does not end there, as Dona Gracia's son-in-law, the famous Don Yosef Nasi, took over her endeavors.

Among the projects Dona Gracia supported was a Kabbalah-study program initiated in the Galilee city of Tzfat by the saintly Rabbi Yosef Karo, the author of the Shulchan Arukh - the Jewish People's classic Law Code. Rabbi Karo visited her in Constantinople; he and other leading rabbis of the day praised her generosity and courage in standing up for Jewish causes.

Click here for more information on the fascinating Dona Gracia Hotel-Museum.