Gracia Mendes lived during the turbulent times after the expulsion from Spain. Her family remained in Portugal after the 1497 forced conversions, and lived as secret Jews. Her name to the outside world is Beatrice de Luna. She is married to Francisco Mendes, one of two brothers who controls a growing trading company. The House of Mendes probably began as a company trading precious objects, but with the boom in spice trade following the Portuguese explorations leading to the sea route to India, they become important spice traders. When her husband dies she takes over his role in running the business with his brother Diogo, and when Diogo later dies she takes charge of the business. She later brings her nephew, who is to eventually become the illustrious Joseph Nasi, Duke of Naxos, to help her.
As head of this large international enterprise she has two secret goals. One is to reach a land where she can be free of the threat of the Inquisition and practice her Judaism openly. The other is to help as many of her fellow crypto-Jews reach freedom. For a former Jew, attempting to leave Christian lands is prima facie evidence of heresy. She assists many others in doing so, but it is easier for poor person to slip away from Christian lands than for someone as important as Gracia. Not only are her movements more visible. But her wealth creates two special problems. She wants to retain control of her company, and knows that assets that she leaves behind will be confiscated. Also, she is caught in the classical double-bind created by the desire of the Christian kings to retain the advantages of housing the head, and hence the administrative home, of such a large business.
Through a series of careful moves she takes her business and family to Antwerp, Venice, Ferrara (where she declares her Judaism), and finally Constantinople. In the process she is taken by the inquisition, accused of heresy by her own sister (Diogoâ€™s widow), and provokes international incidents when, while she is still in Italy, the Sultan of Turkey places her under his protection.
In Constantinople she uses her considerable wealth to help individuals and communities, to support academies of learning as far away as in newly revived Jewish settlements in Palestine, and sponsored printing presses, which were invaluable in keeping Jewish texts alive.
After a particularly heinous torture and burning of Jews in the Italian city of Ancona, she uses her wealth and influence to attempt a worldwide boycott by all Jewish merchants of the port of that city. Unfortunately, both from fear of reprisals and conflicting Rabbinic opinions this effort was not successful, even though Gracia had the support of such figures as the great scholar Joseph Caro.
Gracia was universally venerated for her strength and courage and good works. Rabbi Moses di Trani, after Proverbs 31:29, said of her “many daughters have done virtuously, but Hanna hath excelled them all.”