Abraham Seneor (1412-1493) was born in Segovia, Castile, into a wealthy Sephardic Jewish family who served as treasurers and accountants for Spanish monarchs. Seneor himself served the Castilian crown. In 1469, he was the key negotiator that arranged the marriage of Isabella of Castile to Ferdinand of Aragon, resulting in the eventual birth of the new Kingdom of Spain. Seneor became Isabella’s main advisor and confidante. In 1480, Isabella decreed that Seneor would receive a lifetime pension of a whopping 100,000 maravedi coins per year for his invaluable services. He was also appointed the Jewish chief justice and “crown rabbi”. In this role, he worked together with his close friend and fellow rabbi-treasurer, Don Isaac Abarbanel. Between the two of them, they were able to raise the sums needed for the Spanish to defeat the Moors in the War of Grenada. They were also the ones that got crown support and funding for Christopher Columbus’ first trip to America. Seneor often intervened on behalf of the Jews, and saved countless Jewish lives by ransoming those that had been captured by pirates. In 1492, the Spanish decreed the Edict of Expulsion to exile all Jews who did not convert to Christianity. Seneor was 80 years old, and knew he wouldn’t survive exile and expulsion. While the younger Abarbanel refused to stay in Spain (although he was given an exemption), the older Seneor decided to convert, at least publicly, in order to keep his influential role and try to ease the plight of the Jews as much as possible. He helped secure temporary refugee for the Jews in Portugal, then did whatever he could to make sure the Jewish exiles did not lose all of their wealth. Still, he was unable to survive the stress of the ordeal and passed away just months after the Expulsion. Seneor had taken on the new name Fernando Coronel, starting a new lineage of Spanish nobility. The Coronel children continued to play important roles in Spanish affairs for decades to come. Many of them were arrested by the Inquisition for continuing to practice Judaism in secret; some were executed and others deported. A great number ultimately returned to Judaism in Holland and the Americas.
Words of the Week
Israel was extraordinary in being the one socially revolutionary people in the Near East to produce a literature and to survive as a distinctive cultural and religious entity.
– Norman Gottwald, renowned professor of Biblical studies and political activist
Sinan Reis (c. 1492-1546) was born to a Sephardic family that was expelled from Spain during the Expulsion of 1492 and settled in the Ottoman city of Smyrna. At the time, many Jews became pirates, attacking Spanish vessels both for revenge and to reclaim some of their confiscated wealth. Sinan joined the Barbary corsair pirates that sailed under the Ottoman flag. He became the right-hand man of the well-known pirate and Ottoman admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa. The two fought and won many battles against the Spanish and the Holy Roman Empire. The most famous was the Battle of Preveza in 1538. Barbarossa took Sinan’s military advice, leading to a magnificent Ottoman victory. Two years later, Sinan’s young son was captured at sea and forcibly baptized. The Christians refused to release him to the “infidels”, so Barbarossa led a fleet to bombard the Italian city of Piombino until Sinan’s son was finally freed. Barbarossa later dedicated his memoirs to Sinan, who was often referred to as Sinan Reis or Rayyis, Arabic for “chief”. Historical records from England describe him as “the famous Jewish pirate”, while the governor of Portuguese India at the time called him “the Great Jew”. Sinan went on to become Supreme Naval Commander of the Ottoman fleet.
Scholars believe Rembrandt’s famous painting ‘Man in Oriental Costume’ is a portrait of Samuel Pallache.
Samuel Pallache (c. 1550-1615) was also born to a Sephardic family, one that had fled Spain long before the Expulsion and settled in Morocco. His father and uncle were renowned rabbis, and Pallache became a rabbi, too. He also engaged heavily in commerce, and often took his merchant ships to the Netherlands, where other members of the Pallache family lived. When the Dutch made an alliance with Morocco against the Spanish in 1608, the Moroccan sultan appointed Pallache as his envoy to the Dutch. Two years later, Pallache negotiated a free trade agreement between the Dutch and the Moroccans, possibly the first such treaty ever made between a European and non-European state. Around the same time, the Dutch prince Maurice made Pallache a privateer (a pirate for hire). Pallache’s merchant fleet became a pirate fleet, and for the next several years his job was to capture Spanish and Portuguese vessels. In 1614, a storm diverted his ship to England, where he was arrested at the request of the Spanish. Prince Maurice got him released, and Pallache returned to Amsterdam where he lived out the rest of his life. Records show that he was a co-founder of Amsterdam’s illustrious Jewish community. His son was one of Amsterdam’s greatest rabbis, and a teacher of (former Jews of the Week) Menashe ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. Another descendant is the renowned Rabbi Haim Palachi.
Words of the Week
I like the impossible because there’s less competition. – Walt Disney
Mordecai Manuel Noah (1785-1851) is considered by many to be America’s first famous Jew. Coming from a blended family of Sephardic-Portuguese and German-Ashkenazi Jews, Noah’s father was one of the main financiers of the American Revolution. Mordecai began his career in trade, then moved into law while living in South Carolina. He made a name for himself as a journalist, writing passionately to drive the American cause and boosting the nation’s morale in the face of war with the British Empire. For his wisdom and eloquence, President Madison appointed him consul to Imperial Russia in 1811, then consul to Tunis in 1813. There he worked to fight against marauding pirates and saved countless Americans captured and enslaved in Morocco. However, in 1815 the anti-Semitic President Monroe repealed Noah’s position. This stirred a massive controversy. Former presidents John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison all joined Noah’s side, championing equality for all. Nonetheless, Noah left politics, returning to New York where he founded a variety of newspapers (including the Enquirer). He wrote several popular plays (including the famous She Would be a Soldier), as well as three books. He is a founder of New York University and Mt. Sinai Hospital, and also served as a judge and sheriff of New York. But most intriguing of all is that in 1825 Mordechai Noah bought a massive piece of land near Buffalo to be established as a Jewish state called “Ararat”. Surprisingly, thousands of Christians came out in support to lay the first cornerstone, along with Masons, the New York militia and St. Paul’s Church! Unfortunately, the project failed, and Noah realized a Jewish state could only be established in the Holy Land. To this he dedicated the last years of his life, spearheading the return to Israel long before Herzl and the Zionists.
Words of the Week
The progeny of Abraham are likened to the dust of the earth (Genesis 13:16), and to the stars of the heavens (Genesis 15:5). For when they fall, they fall as low as dust; when they rise, they rise as high as the stars.