Tag Archives: Feminism

Jew of the Week: Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Coin of Dona Gracia Mendes

Commemorative Medal of Dona Gracia Mendes

Hanna ‘Gracia’ Nasi (1510-1569) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a family of conversos – aka Marranos, Jews who were forcibly converted to Christianity – and named Beatriz de Luna Miquez. She married Francisco Mendes Benveniste, a wealthy spice trader and banker. When she was only 28, Gracia’s husband passed away, leaving the business to her and his brother. Gracia thus joined her brother-in-law in Antwerp (then part of the Spanish Netherlands). From there, she organized an escape network for Jews to flee Spain and Portugal from the Inquisition, smuggling them in spice ships, providing them with money and documents to make their way to the Ottoman Empire where Jews were still welcome. This saved the lives of countless Jews, who nicknamed her ‘Our Angel’. Shortly after, her brother-in-law died as well, leaving Gracia alone at the helm of the massive Mendes financial empire, dealing with the likes of European kings, the Sultan of Turkey, and several Popes. At the time, she was possibly the most powerful woman in the world. After a series of political intrigues, which included an unjust imprisonment and several attempts to seize her wealth, Gracia settled in Istanbul, where she was now free to return to her religion. She built and financed dozens of synagogues and yeshivas across the Ottoman Empire. In 1558, the Sultan granted her a lease for the desolate town of Tiberias in Israel. Gracia began rebuilding the town, allowing Jewish refugees to settle there, with the vision of reestablishing a Jewish homeland in Israel. Many historians consider this the earliest modern Zionist attempt. Today, Donna Gracia has become a feminist icon, and is celebrated as a hero around the world. Both Philadelphia and New York City host a ‘Dona Gracia Day’, and the Turkish government has sponsored exhibits in her honour. There is a museum exploring her life in Tiberias, and the ‘La Senora’ synagogue of Istanbul, named after her, still stands to this day. Dona Gracia is the aunt of past Jew of the Week Joseph Nasi

 

 

Words of the Week

One of the greatest tragedies of intellectual human experience is that we study Bible stories when we are 55 in the same manner as we studied them when we were 5.
– Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetsky

Jew of the Week: Muriel “Mickie” Siebert

The First Woman of Finance

Muriel Siebert - the First Woman of Finance

Muriel Siebert – the First Woman of Finance

Muriel Faye Siebert (1928-2013) was born to a Jewish family in Ohio. At 22, having dropped out of university, and with just $500 in hand, she moved to New York City. Siebert got a job on Wall Street making $65 a week, and quickly moved up the ranks. Frustrated that she earned only a fraction of what her male colleagues did, she decided to buy her own seat in the New York Stock Exchange (with a price tag of $445,000). After two years of hard effort, during which time she faced severe sexism and anti-Semitism, Siebert became the first woman to do so, and the first woman to own a stock brokerage. She would remain the only such woman for 10 years (among over 1300 males!), and continued throughout to fight for equal rights – not only in salaries and opportunities, but even basic necessities like a ladies bathroom. In 1977, Siebert was appointed New York’s Superintendent of Banks (another first), overseeing over $500 billion in finance. Under her watch, not a single New York bank failed, at a time when a great many others did. From there, Siebert ran for the Senate, but was unsuccessful. She returned to her brokerage and continued working into her old age. Both a feminist and a great philanthropist, Siebert gave millions of dollars to the cause, helping countless women open their own businesses and find success in the world of finance. She served as president of New York Women’s Agenda, developing a popular program called ‘Financial Literacy for Women’ (which was later adopted to New York’s high school curriculum). Siebert was awarded 19 honorary doctorates, and was elected to the National Woman’s Hall of Fame. Sadly, the ‘First Woman of Finance’ passed away last Saturday after a battle with cancer. Click here to see a recent interview with Muriel Siebert.

Words of the Week

In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent. This is man’s problem: that he learns to talk before he learns to be silent.
– Rabbi Nachman of Breslav

Jew of the Week: Tikvah Alper

Born in South Africa to poor immigrants from Russia, Tikvah Alper (1909-1995) showed a talent for maths and sciences at an early age. At age 20, she traveled to Berlin to work on her doctorate with former Jew of the Week Lise Meitner, where she published an award-winning paper on delta rays. Alper had a son who was born deaf, so she moved to the U.S. to study diligently from the best experts in the field, herself becoming a teacher for the deaf. Returning to South Africa, Alper was a professor at Witwatersrand University, where she became famous for championing black people’s rights, causing her to draw the ire of the government. For opposing apartheid, she lost her position at the National Physics Laboratory, and nearly lost her passport, too. Alper fled to Britain, where she worked for the remainder of her life in a radiobiology lab. It was there that she researched various brain-eating disorders and proposed a new mechanism of disease: an infectious protein. At the time, the idea was laughable, but it has since been proven and confirmed (now called a “prion”), especially after the mad cow disease scare. Alper’s book Cellular Radiobiology became the bible for radiobiologists. All of these things, as well as her iconic feminism, made her a heroic figure for many around the world, and her London home became a meeting place for the best and brightest in the field of radiobiology. Alper enjoyed sailing, and continued to travel the world well into her 80s.

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Words of the Week

A person’s main vitality lies in his intellect. One who is not using his intellect to its full potential is considered asleep. Many people who seem to be alive are in fact sleeping their lives away…
– Rebbe Nachman of Breslov