Renaissance Heroines

For centuries, Renaissance Italy has provided a backdrop for tales of villains and star-crossed lovers. Two recent books, though they feature old-fashioned romantic intrigue, bring something new to the plot; the heroes are women, the crime is Judaism, and the stakes are conversion or death.

In The Woman Who Defied Kings: The Life and Times of Dona Gracia Nasi (Paragon House, $23.95) Andree Aelion Brooks chronicles the life of Dofia Gracia Nasi, a financial powerhouse of Renaissance Europe and a Spanish conversa. The book opens on young Dofia Gracia as she inherits her dying husband’s fortune and business and follows her from Inquisition-controlled Iberia to Antwerp, Venice, and Constantinople, providing a window into the cutthroat world of Renaissance finance and the even more dangerous world of the Renaissance convert to Christianity. Late in life, she launches an unsuccessful attempt to rebuild a Jewish community in Tiberias before dying under unknown circumstances.

Brooks reconstructs Dofia Gracia’s biography from its financial paper trail, relishing each piece of evidence with a thoroughness that slows the book’s pace but provides a compelling resource for Renaissance politics, finance, and Jewish life. Despite the author’s tangents, Dofia Gracia’s character leaps out of the archival material—she is headstrong and intelligent, as charismatic as any fictional protagonist.

The heroines of A Woman’s Voice: Sarah Foner, Hebrew Author of the Haskalah, (translated and edited by Morris Rosenthal, Foner Books, $21.95) are tame by comparison. But one would do well to remember the context in which they were written. Foner was a pioneer—and lone female—writer in modern Hebrew during the 19th-century Haskalah (Jewish Enlightenment). In this new translation of her work, we see Foner combining Jewish folktale with pure melodrama. In the Dvinsk of her childhood, a man must pay ransom for his own possessions to a mysterious rabbi; in Renaissance Milan, young Jewish women are abducted by nuns; and in Herodera Israel, kings and priests outdo each other planning bloody coups d’etat. But A Woman’s Voice is more than romance and counterplot: Foner’s fiction also reveals passionate Zionism. In language overflowing with biblical references, she connects with ancient Israel by idealizing its beauty and retelling its past. Foner’s context adds a crucial layer to an appreciation of her fiction.

Foner’s writing can stand alone, though, and her story, like Dofia Gracia’s, deserves to be told. In bringing their heroines to light. Brooks and Rosenthal have created studies in Jewish history-as-melodrama—only the happy endings are harder to come by.

Miriam Felton-Dansky is the director of the Jewish Student Press Service. A recent graduate of Barnard College, she is also a writer and dramaturg.