Tag Archives: Portuguese Jews

Jew of the Week: Emma Lazarus

Emma Lazarus (1849-1887) was born in New York City. Her father came from a Jewish family that immigrated from Germany, while her mother was from an illustrious Sephardic-Portuguese family that settled in America before the Revolution. Lazarus studied literature and language, speaking German, French, and Italian. She became a famous poet, novelist, and playwright; one of the first successful Jewish-American authors. Her first book of poetry was published when she was just 17 years old, and she went on to collaborate with such great writers as Ralph Waldo Emerson. Lazarus was also an influential social activist. Her first cause was fighting for tax reform and fairer distribution of land. After hearing of the violent pogroms in Russia, she advocated strongly on behalf of Russian Jews and helped settle Jewish refugees in New York. Lazarus worked for the Hebrew Emigrant Aid Society, training impoverished immigrants and helping them find work. She also co-founded the Hebrew Technical Institute to educate Jewish refugees. Meanwhile, Lazarus argued passionately for the creation of a Jewish state in Israel – thirteen years before Theodor Herzl arrived on the scene! (For this, among other reasons, she was once described as the “fiery prophet of the American Jewish community.”) Lazarus is undoubtedly most famous for her poem “The New Colossus”, which she wrote to raise money for the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The sonnet’s powerful words – familiar to most Americans – have inspired many, and have been quoted by leaders like John F. Kennedy and Barack Obama. Two decades after she first wrote it, the poem was etched onto a bronze plaque at the base of the Statue. It has been said that the poem transformed the Statue into a symbol of immigration and freedom, and defined “the American vision of liberty”. Sadly, Lazarus did not live to see this day. She tragically died at the young age of 38, from lymphoma. She has since been inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame.

Words of the Week

“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…”
– From “The New Colossus”, by Emma Lazarus

Plaque of the “The New Colossus” in the Statue of Liberty

Jew of the Week: Daniel Mendoza

The Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza - Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza – Father of Modern Boxing

Daniel Mendoza (1764-1836) was born in England to a Jewish family of Portuguese descent. Little is known of his early life. At 16, he was working for a tea company, and stepped in to protect his employer from a client. It is reported that the bout lasted 45 minutes until the much older and larger assailant could no longer continue. The young Mendoza became a local hero. He was soon drawn to the sport of boxing and found a mentor. By 1788 he had won 27 bare-knuckle boxing matches, all by knockout. By 1792 he had become the undisputed Heavyweight Champion of England, despite being just 160 pounds and officially designated a middleweight. He went on to become the first middleweight in history to win the Heavyweight Championship of the World. Mendoza’s immense success lay in his revolutionary tactics. Until this point, boxing typically consisted of a series of punches and very little movement. Mendoza developed a form of boxing based on defensive principles like ducking and blocking instead of just offence. He is credited with inventing the side-step, and developing the strategy of wearing down an opponent. Later, Mendoza opened his own boxing school and wrote a book called The Art of Boxing where he described the sport as a science. He traveled across Great Britain to teach his methods, inspiring a new generation of boxers. For all of these reasons, among others, he has been called “the father of modern boxing”, and not surprisingly, was first to be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame. Mendoza was also instrumental in changing the stereotypical European image of the “weak Jew”, and was the first Jew to have an audience with King George III. Both a play and film have been made about his life.

Words of the Week

When you are not practicing, remember that someone, somewhere, is practicing, and when you meet him, he will win.
– Ed Macauley

1788 Illustration of Mendoza’s match with Richard Humphreys

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