When one thinks about the city of Tiberias, one thinks mainly about the Sea of Galilee and its shores, about the amusement park and the amusement boats that sail in the waters of the Sea of Galilee and from which one can hear the sounds of an oriental music that is being played in a way too loud a volume. Very few are those who know that the city of Tiberias was the spiritual center of the People of Israel and of the Jews in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora for about five hundred years after the destruction of the Second Jewish Temple. Even less familiar is the saying that it is from the city of Tiberias that the Messiah will come and that from it will come the Salvation to the people of Israel, and the fact that the origin of punctuation in the Hebrew language comes from this city and it is for that reason that it is called to this day the "Tiberias punctuation”. Even less than that have people heard about the fascinating woman who was once a sort of patron of the city of Tiberias, who truly believed, three hundred and fifty years before Benjamin Ze’ev Herzl, that in Tiberias there will be founded a Jewish State. This is Dona Gracia, after whom both a hotel and a museum are named in the city of Tiberias, as well as a festival which takes place this year for the second time.
A Jewish woman between Christianity and the Islam
Beatrice de Luna, who later became known as Gracia or Dona Gracia, was born in 1510 to a Spanish family of "Conversos"- Jews who were coerced to abandon Judaism against their will- who moved to Portugal in 1942 together with many other Jews who were also forced to leave under the duress of the Inquisition and started their journey of wandering around Europe with the hope of finding a new home. At the age of eighteen Dona Gracia was married to Francisco Mendes, a son to a family of Jewish "Conversos" as well, who was a wealthy man, the owner of the Mendes Bank in Antwerp in Belgium, who also dealt with international commerce and trade with the Far East.
After the sudden death of her husband, at a young age, Dona Gracia was revealed for who she really was. No more the little woman who takes care of the house, but a brave lioness who learned well what it was all about and took on herself the management of all of the family business and the intricate business of the bank in the various states in Europe. With time, Dona Gracia accumulated important connections and expanded her wealth. Dona Gracia moved to Antwerp, the city in which the brother of her husband lived. As a part of her activities her life became filled with politics, conflicts and religious wars. The Catholic Church, with the Pope at its head, stood in front of the world of Islam, at the head of which stood the great conquering Turkish Sultan.
Because Dona Gracia found herself standing between these two dominant factors, she was forced to move from country to country for seventeen years while suffering great danger due to threats to her business and life. Through all of those escape routes moved other persecuted Jewish refugees for their fear of the Inquisition, and Dona Gracia, the wealthy and well connected Jewish woman, helped them with the assistance of a rescue and aid organization which she has founded. It was such an organization which could proudly compete with the modern day "Mossad” or CIA organizations of today. Toward the end of her life Dona Gracia has arrived at Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire and founded there a home which became a center to the Jewish communities of the world. Here Dona Gracia started to get interested in Jewish studies, encouraged the printing of important books, established a printing house, donated generously to the building of synagogues and Torah study schools, and paid wages to the Rabbis who worked with the Torah.
At this stage Dona Gracia has thought of the idea of adopting the city of Tiberias as a refuge place to those same Jewish refugees whom she met along the years and got the permission to do so from the Sultan for great amounts of money. Her dream was cut short suddenly when she died in the year of 1569, at the time when her followers completed the constructing of only 1,500 meters of the southern wall of the city of Tiberias.
Spreading the values of Dona Gracia
Hundreds of years have passed without the name of Dona Gracia appearing in the pages of history, until Yaakov Amsalem entered the picture, eighth generation in Tiberias, an ex-Air Force pilot and the owner of a travel agency. In 2000, toward the Pope’s visit, which was expected to bring with it hundred of thousands of pilgrims to the Holy Land, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism encouraged the people who work in the field to build guest rooms and gave them generous budgets in order to do so. Yaakov Amsalem decided to turn a fading shopping center under his ownership into a hotel and after deliberation gave it the name of "Dona Gracia” to suit the population which was about to visit the city in their multitudes. When the historian, Tzvika Schaick, encountered the place, he told Amsalem that Dona Gracia is not only a name but that it was a real figure who has done a lot for the city of Tiberias and the Jewish People. The owner of the hotel was thrilled by the revelation and was carried away after the fascinating stories that were told to him. He founded a museum at the hotel and an association by the same name, the purpose of which is to tell the story of this brave woman and spread her values. And thus you can sail away at this living museum on a journey to the sixteenth century, within a setting in the style of the palace of the lady and to the sounds of the music of the Renaissance period. At the "Spain Entrance” one learns about the time in which Dona Gracia lived, at the "Lisbon Hall” we convene in order to hear about the life of this lady, at the elegant "Venice Salon” we enjoy intricate masks and the atmosphere of the "Dolce Vita” and at the "Café Kushta” (Istanbul today) we drink Turkish tea (?ay) to the sounds of oriental music.
A hotel and a museum which tell the story of this strong woman are great but it was not enough for the enthusiastic Yaakov Amsalem and his staff. "Last year we celebrated the 500 years anniversary to Dona Gracia’s birth and we thought that a festival which will deal with the culture of the Jews of Spain will be an excellent way in which to connect a large target audience with the character of Dona Gracia”, says Irit Ahdut, the manager of the Dona Gracia Museum. "To our joy it received great success and in each evening visited and enjoyed here about 3,000 people”.
In light of the enthusiasm with which this festival was received, its organizers have promised that the Dona Gracia Festival will become a tradition and so it was. This year, it was decided, the Dona Gracia Festival will be held over three days from the 14th until the 17th of November and will signify Women's Empowerment. For that purpose numerous artists were invited to perform in this festival such as Miri Mesika, Keren Peles, Yona Elian, Anat Atsmon, Sarti Hadad, Ilana Avital and many more. At the center of the Dona Gracia Festival will stand an exhibition in which will be presented the figures of ten strong and brave women who similarly to Dona Gracia acted widely for the Jews in the Diaspora and for the bringing of Jews into the Land of Israel but which are not known enough and as well as Hanna Szenes and Sarah Aaronsohn. Thus, for example, in this exhibition the amazing story of Shulamit Kishik will be told, a woman who lived in Lebanon before the founding of the State of Israel and served as an agent quite some time before the Israeli "Mossad” was established. Kishik relayed important information and assisted in the smuggling of Jews from Iran, Iraq and Syria into Israel. When she was caught she was sent to the Syrian prison for seven years of torture. At the end of the Six Day War she was included in a prisoners exchange deal and came to Israel.
A combination of audiences of different ages
The visitors to the Dona Gracia Festival and the city of Tiberias can also participate in guided tours on foot and in vehicles, also under the sign of brave women, as well as in workshops and lectures on the same subject. "The uniqueness of this festival is also in its being held mid week, a time which usually suits better the more mature audiences”, says Ahdut. "Because most of the artists that perform at the festival draw younger audiences as well, there will be a fine combination of audiences and this is the fusion that we wanted to create”.
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