Doña Gra­ci­a’s Secret: The Adven­tures of an Extra­or­di­nary Jew­ish Woman in the Renaissance

  • Review
By – February 1, 2021

The search for impres­sive Jew­ish female role mod­els to inspire the youth of today has received a dra­mat­ic boost with the arrival of Doña Gra­ci­a’s Secret: The Adven­tures of an Extra­or­di­nary Jew­ish Woman in the Renais­sance. Out the mist of Jew­ish his­to­ry emerges a por­trait of a woman who, from a young age, was a com­mu­ni­ty leader of inter­na­tion­al rep­u­ta­tion. She was fueled by pas­sion, tal­ent, and a seri­ous desire to guide oth­er Jews through the per­ilous days of the Inqui­si­tion. Doña Gra­cia became a bea­con of hope in her own time, a fig­ure of pur­pose and mys­tery. This book appears at a time when young read­ers are nav­i­gat­ing a com­pli­cat­ed world, and can learn from Doña Gar­cia as a mod­el of intel­li­gence, grace under pres­sure, and ded­i­ca­tion to her people

Doña Gra­cia was from a fam­i­ly of Anusim, hid­den Jews, often referred to deroga­to­ri­ly as Mar­ra­nos, who need­ed to keep their Jew­ish obser­vance secret while mas­querad­ing as con­vert­ed Chris­tians. While the pow­er­ful forces of the Inqui­si­tion attempt­ed to erase Jew­ish life, she worked behind the scenes to enable its preservation.

Equal­ly as chal­leng­ing as her deter­mi­na­tion to pre­serve Jew­ish her­itage, was her unique abil­i­ty to suc­cess­ful­ly reach polit­i­cal and busi­ness goals dur­ing a time when women had lit­tle pow­er in the pub­lic sphere. She was self-edu­cat­ed and became high­ly accom­plished. At the age of eigh­teen she mar­ried Fran­cis­co Mendes, a wealthy busi­ness­man who was, like Gra­cia, a secret Jew, and he became her men­tor; after his ear­ly death, she car­ried on their ambi­tious joint projects. Oth­er close fam­i­ly mem­bers pro­vid­ed either sup­port­ive assis­tance or addi­tion­al chal­lenges. Among her projects and acco­lades were the reset­tle­ment of the Holy Land, almost unheard of in her time, assist­ing the escape of belea­guered Jews to more wel­com­ing lands in Europe, nur­tur­ing Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al ini­tia­tives, head­ing suc­cess­ful finan­cial endeav­ors, and wield­ing immense polit­i­cal power.

The author’s clear, detailed prose helps bring the his­to­ry to life. She includes a map, a time­line, and a bib­li­og­ra­phy, all help­ful to a young read­er learn­ing about a sig­nif­i­cant time in his­to­ry which may be unfa­mil­iar but which is cer­tain­ly fascinating.

This biog­ra­phy of a remark­able woman who changed her world and left a last­ing lega­cy is high­ly recommended.

Michal Hoschan­der Malen is the edi­tor of Jew­ish Book Coun­cil’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A for­mer librar­i­an, she has lec­tured on top­ics relat­ing to lit­er­a­cy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.

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