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. She has lectured on a variety of topics relating to children and books and her greatest joy is reading to her grandchildren on both sides of the ocean. Michal lives in Great Neck, NY and Efrat, Israel.