Tag Archives: Portuguese Jews

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

Jew of the Week: Menashe ben Israel

Manoel Dias Soeiro (1604-1657) was born in Madeira, an island off of Portugal, where his parents fled from the Portuguese Inquisition. They soon moved to the Netherlands, where Soeiro grew up and became a respected rabbi and author, known by his Hebrew name Menashe ben Israel. In Holland, he established the first Hebrew printing press at the young age of 22, and his writings (in five languages!) would gain great fame, not only in the Jewish community, but among the greatest scholars and philosophers of the age, including Vieira, de Groot, and Huet. A portrait of Soeiro was even painted by Rembrandt! A great kabbalist, Soeiro wrote and published one of the earliest Jewish treatises on reincarnation, called Nishmat Hayim. Among his students was the infamous Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza. In 1638, Soeiro moved to Brazil. At the time, there was a popular notion that the natives were actually the Lost Tribes of Israel. This inspired Soeiro to take up the role of helping Jewish causes around the world. His first stop was England, where virtually no Jews lived since they were expelled in 1290. Soeiro worked hard to open the doors to their return, and in December 1655, the re-admittance of Jews to England was granted. Sadly, Menashe could not continue his work. Upon return to the Netherlands, his son passed away. Unable to contain the grief, Soeiro passed away himself in the midst of the funeral.

Words of the Week

As they set out from their place above, each soul is male and female as one. Only as they descend to this world do they part, each to its own side. And then it is the One Above who unites them again. This is His exclusive domain, for He alone knows which soul belongs to which and how they must reunite.
– Zohar (I, 85b)