Friday, July 18, 2008

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes - Book Review

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes
by Naomi Ragen
Published 2001

This is a novel by Naomi Ragen (author of Jephte's Daughter and Sotar) based on the true life story of Dona Gracia Mendes who grew up in Spain and Portugal during the beginning of the Spanish & Portugese Inquisitions. It is also the story of Gracia's fictionalised descendents now living in USA.

Dona Gracia Mendes was from a Jewish family living in Spain under the Moors. In 1492 the last of the Moors were forced out of Spain, and that same year, all the Jews who did not convert, were expelled as well. Those Jews who did convert to Catholicism were called Murranos or Conversos. Most of them converted only to stay alive and stay at home. Which meant they were required to go to confession and Mass on a regular basis, and to eat the communion (mass) wine & bread representing the Lord Jesus Christ who died and rose again. These converso Jews took the host on their tongues, and then spit it out as soon as they were able. At home, they had their own sabbath meetings in private underground basements where they read from the talmud, lit candles and celebrated the Passover and Purim festivals.

Gracia Mendes had been given the secret Jewish birth name of Hannah Nasi (the family name was Nasi) and the christian name of Beatrice de Luna. Gracia is the spanish version of Hannah. When she grew up, Gracia married Francisco Mendes (also a Jewish Converso). Francisco and his brother Diego owned ships and they started the spice trade in pepper from India to Europe. The Mendes family became very very wealthy.

In present day New York Catherine Nasi da Costa is saddened that her only daughter and her two grandaughters have no interest in their Jewish heritage. Catherine is dying, and she decides to send her granddaughters to Europe to look for the legendary lost manuscript of Dona Gracia Mendes. Catherine's granddaughters (Francesca and Suzanne) both end up falling in love with good Jewish men in Europe. Marius is a rare book seller based in London. He helps Francesa and Suzanne in their search for the manuscript pages. The other man is Marius's best friend, Gabriel, a doctor whose family lives in Gibralter (an English colony at the southern tip of Spain).

I picked this book up because of the family tree hunting. I love genealogy. I also love history. There was one thing that was somewhat unrealistic in the story. The Ghost of Gracia Mendes. She appeared to Catherine, Francesa and Suzanne at various times during the journey. But despite the ghost, I ended up enjoying this book a lot more than I expected to. It has been very well researched, and I loved the details of Jewish life as a converso in the middle ages - having to live a double and secret life.

I also loved that Gracia was not treated like a chattel by her father. She was allowed to choose her husband. She was also educated, taught to read and write (spanish, portugese and probably hebrew). This is a true story about a women who is treated with respect by her father, brother and husband in a time where women were normally sold by their fathers to the highest bidder for the largest dowry. This is also the story of Gracia's family and how they are forced to move from country to country staying in front of the Inquisition, just to find a place they could finally call home.

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