Tag Archives: Marranos

Jew of the Week: Fernando de Noronha

Founder of Brazil

Fernão de Loronha (c. 1470-1540) was born in Lisbon, Portugal to a Sephardic Jewish family that had been forcibly converted to Christianity by the Inquisition. Like many such families, they continued to practice Judaism in secret. Loronha became a wealthy merchant, and also worked for the German Augsburg banking family. He was knighted by King Manuel I of Portugal (and for this reason, was often associated with the Noronha nobility, being incorrectly referred to as “Fernando de Noronha”.) In 1501, he financed a Portuguese expedition to explore the newly-discovered lands of South America, then called Vera Cruz. Scholars believe his primary motivation was finding a new home for persecuted Jews, where they could finally live free of the Inquisition. Some say Loronha captained the expedition himself, and we know for sure that on board was Amerigo Vespucci (after whom “America” is named). At the time, Europeans imported expensive red dyes made from brazilwood from India. Loronha came back to Portugal in 1502 describing the abundant brazilwood in the new lands and the opportunity for great riches. King Manuel gave him an exclusive ten-year charter for all the commercial rights to brazilwood in Vera Cruz. In exchange, Loronha had to send at least six ships per year on behalf of Portugal, build a fort for the Portuguese military, explore new coasts, and pay the crown 4000 ducats per year. His first six-ship fleet set forth the following year, establishing the first brazilwood factories in the New World. Soon, vast amounts of the precious dye were being imported to Europe, making it the continent’s second most valuable commodity (after gold). The fleet also discovered a new group of islands, which Vespucci named São Lourenço, or São João. Shortly after, a grateful King Manuel gave the islands as a gift to Loronha and his descendants, and made him the first official donatario (“administrator”) in South America. Today, the idyllic islands are still referred to as “Fernando de Noronha” in his honour. Unlike many other colonists, Loronha did not employ slaves, and obtained all the brazilwood through trade with local natives. Most interestingly, it was Loronha who was responsible for renaming the new land to “Brazil” instead of its original name, Vera Cruz. Still a Jew at heart (and soul), Loronha did not want to use the Christian term Vera Cruz (meaning “True Cross”), so he would always refer to it in all of his business dealings as “Brazil” instead. The new name stuck. Similarly, he renamed his main ship from São Cristóvão (“Saint Christopher”) to A Judia (“The Jewess”). In 1506, his crew on that ship discovered a set of islands in Mozambique, named Bassas da Judia. Today, the name has been corrupted to “Bassas da India”.

Words of the Week

Given the history of the attacks on Israel and the oppressiveness and aggressiveness of other countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, boycotting Israel indicates a moral blindness for which it is hard to find any explanation other than antisemitism.
– Steven Weinberg, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, who passed away two weeks ago

The main island of the Fernando de Noronha archipelago of 21 islands, off the coast of Brazil.

Jew of the Week: Isaac Aboab da Fonseca

America’s First Rabbi

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the first rabbi to set foot in America

Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693) was born in Portugal to a family of Conversos, or “Marranos” – Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity during the Inquisition. Despite the conversion, their persecution persisted, and Conversos often continued to practice Judaism in secret. In 1581, the Dutch Republic separated from the Spanish Empire, triggering a large migration of Sephardic Jews to the area. By 1603, Dutch law officially made it legal for Judaism to be practiced openly. In 1612, da Fonseca’s family moved to Amsterdam, where they could finally practice Judaism once again. Da Fonseca went to study under the tutelage of the great doctor, poet, mathematician, and rabbi Isaac Uziel, who had opened a new Talmudic academy a few years earlier. Da Fonseca showed his genius early on, and was made a rabbi by the age of eighteen. Some twenty years later, he was invited to serve as the chief rabbi of the Dutch colony of Pernambuco in Brazil. This colony had a population of about 600 Sephardic Jews that fled the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition. Da Fonseca’s arrival in 1642 likely made him the first rabbi to set foot in the Americas. During his thirteen years there, the colony established a proper synagogue, mikveh, and yeshiva – perhaps the very first in the New World – and the Jewish population grew to as many as 5000. During this time, he also wrote what is thought to be the first Hebrew text produced in America. Unfortunately, a Jesuit priest convinced the Portuguese to reconquer the colony and destroy its Jews who “have their open synagogues there, to the scandal of Christianity”. The Jews took up arms alongside the small Dutch army, and resisted the Portuguese forces for nine years. The Portuguese ultimately prevailed, but the Dutch would not surrender until the Portuguese agreed to let the Jews go. The majority sailed back to Amsterdam with da Fonseca. (One of these ships was attacked by pirates, lost its way, and ended up in the nascent colony of New Amsterdam. These first Jews in North America helped establish what would later become New York City.) Back in Amsterdam, da Fonseca soon became the city’s chief rabbi. He was on the panel that excommunicated the famous philosopher Benedict (Baruch) Spinoza. In his old age, Rabbi da Fonseca became known as a great mystic and Kabbalist. He passed away at 88 years of age. In 2007, the Jerusalem Institute published a book of his writings and teachings.

Words of the Week

If you want to change the world, change yourself.
– Jack Ma

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