By Cindy Mindell
Award-winning journalist, author, and lecturer Andrée Aelion Brooks is perhaps best-known for her book, “The Woman Who Defied Kings,” a biography of Doña Gracia Nasi, whom she calls “the Jewish Queen Elizabeth.” Born into a prominent Lisbon family of Spanish conversos (those forced to convert) in the early 16th century, Doña Gracia eventually took over her family’s banking, trading, and shipping businesses. One of the wealthiest Jewish women of Renaissance Europe, she became an outstanding leader of her people, using her position to help other conversos flee to safety in the Ottoman Empire.
Brooks, who lives in Westport, will teach a two-part adult-education course on genealogy at Temple B’nai Chaim in Georgetown on Dec. 7 and 14. She grew up in suburban London, the daughter of a Greek Jewish father and French Jewish mother. Her publications and lectures explore some of the more unusual aspects of Jewish history, including the Jews of Cuba, Jews in Stalinist Russia, and “Out of Spain,” a multi-media educational program on Sephardic Jewish history. Her most recent project is a lecture series on Persian Jewish history.
An Associate Fellow at Yale University, she is an historical advisor and board member of the Gomez Mill House and historic site in Marlboro, N.Y., the oldest surviving Jewish residence in the U.S.
Brooks spoke with the Ledger about her unique approach to uncovering Jewish history.
Let’s start with your most recent investigation into Persian Jews.
A: The project started at a Sephardic book festival at the Center for Jewish History in New York, where a young woman asked me to speak to her group in Great Neck, the Iranian Jewish Mother’s Association. I suppressed a raised eyebrow because the name sounded so unusual. We worked out a date and I was curious about the organization. Before the lecture, I met with two of the organizers and they told me that there is still such a huge gap between the Jewish Iranian culture and the Jews in the U.S., even in Jewish day schools. So they had started to help Iranian Jewish parents who immigrate to the U.S. through that transition.
I got very friendly with them and they invited me to their houses. I thought, why not? Because if I’m unfamiliar with them and their past and their history, most people are. We know who they are and we meet them but it’s not a Jewish culture that we have any connection to. It was off the radar screen for most of us. Most Persian Jews came to the U.S. in 1979, with the fall of the Shah. I was interested to learn why they’re still a tight-knit community and haven’t assimilated into the wider Jewish world. I thought it would be really interesting to research the Jews of Persia.
I’m not doing books anymore because for five years I’ve felt that the book world isn’t the place to go any more for me. So I started concentrating more on lectures.
What struck you most during your research?
A: The fact that we are so Western-centric in our learning, that we have no idea of how advanced Persia was, and China and India too – way, way ahead of the West until the Renaissance, when the West started to catch up. Many inventions we think of as Western were actually Persian, Indian, Chinese.
The Jews were very heavily involved in all of it because they were totally assimilated into Persian life. It was only in the more recent centuries, during Islamic rule, that they were severely persecuted, until the Persians went completely downhill. Focusing on that later time eliminates the glory that was the Persian civilization until 1100 or 1200.
I also didn’t realize that the Persian empire extended from India to Africa – including Egypt, Turkey, Afghanistan, and Iraq, and north to Russia. It was high culture, higher culture than the Greek in its day; in fact the Greeks wanted to be Persians. The Jews were part of the court and the intelligentsia from the beginning. You see it in the Bible when they talk about Persia because the empire had swallowed up Israel, which was like a state in the U.S. For most of the biblical period, Israel was part of the Persian empire.
Babylon was also part of the Persian empire for most of the biblical period. Cyrus the Great let the Jews come back to Israel from Babylon and rebuild the Temple. The Bible states that God told him to do so. But in the Persian version, Cyrus’s policies were that when he swallowed up a people, he made sure that the God of that people was his god; he liked the gods to be on his side, to safeguard his properties and triumphs. So he would always make sure that the subject peoples offered prayers in his honor. The best way he could honor the god of the Jews was to make sure that they could rebuild the Temple. You have to honor that god so that everything goes in your favor. Cyrus comes across as a good guy in all the histories, as an empire-builder and administrator.
I was most surprised about the early Muslim period, which was also a period of tremendous intellectual activity. Babylon became and always was a great center of learning and became a tremendous center of new research, particularly mathematics, and the Jews were heavily involved in medicine and mathematics and geometry, among other fields. I never knew that a lot of the things we think of as Western finds weren’t. They knew then that the world revolved around the sun and the circumference of the earth, and the Jews had tremendous participation until the more radical Muslims came in and closed them out of everything.
There is the old joke that one can sum up every Jewish holiday with the narrative, “They tried to kill us, they failed, let’s eat.” As a historian, do you find truth in that comic line?
A: One of the problems of Jewish history is that we dwell on our victimhood, so a lot of the good stuff is written out and we’re left with the persecutions and expulsions. I teach a mini-course, “Jews in the Renaissance” and the first question from a student is always, “Were there any?”
The noted American-Jewish historian Salo Wittmayer Baron called this approach the “lachrymose conception of Jewish history,” a term reinterpreted by a professor of mine at Yale as “the oy vey” school.”
I wanted to know why this was so and I got a very interesting answer when I asked around: There was always that belief, maybe biblical, that before the Messiah comes there would be a great calamity, so every time there was a great calamity, the rabbis wrote a detailed account. All the good times – and there were plenty – weren’t written down. There were decades and centuries and they’ve been expunged.
Unlike all other nations that celebrate their victories with holidays and festivals, the Jews never ferret out and commemorate their achievements. In the Italian Renaissance, there were musicians, poets, artists who were Jews, and historians are discovering more and more that Jews were part of Renaissance art. There were workshops whose leaders’ names would appear on the paintings, but the works were actually done by anonymous painters, some of them Jewish. If you trace altar pieces with the local records of contracts, you can see the Jews were contracted to create them.
Recently, I was contacted by the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, where students were studying Shylock and “The Merchant of Venice” and re-enacting an appeals court to examine Shylock’s case. The students were divided into the defense, the Republic of Venice, and the panel of judges. They invited me to give a presentation on Jews in Italy in the 16th century, because there was almost no research on the subject. I reread the play, after I’d done all this work for years on Jews in Italy in the 16th century, and I got a completely different Shylock and a completely different understanding as to why the play was written.
The real significance of Shylock’s sentence was never understood by subsequent companies who staged the play. The sentence came after a century of forced conversions in the area, which was the hot-button issue of the day, the most important Jewish issue of the day throughout Europe.
The amazing thing is how brilliantly and spot-on the Shylock character is rendered in the play. His dress, as typically portrayed, is totally absurd because the Italian Jews looked like any other Italian at the time. So I found a painting to show the kids, then showed a picture of Shylock’s typical long, shabby clothes and unkempt beard. He’s not described that way in the play. Portia’s question about who is the Jew and who is the merchant would not make sense if Shylock looked so different.
This is so important because the work has always been viewed as an antisemitic play, one of the symbolic antisemitic plays of all time, a view that has never been questioned. I started out with that mindset like everybody else, and it’s not antisemitic at all. The play was trying to put forward a totally different message than has been understood.
What do you see as the problem in the modern Jewish understanding of Jewish history?
A: I sometimes ask my audience to name three outstanding Jews between the destruction of the Temple and Eastern Europe circa 1800s, and no rabbis allowed on the list – a musician or mathematician or merchant. The room is silent. You’re going to tell me that for nearly 2,000 years, there wasn’t a distinguished Jew in the entire world?
That is so much the part of the image that we project onto young people of what Jewish life was like. We don’t talk about the successful Jews; we tend to take a negative aspect of what their lives were like. Just to teach the calamity of Jewish life – what sort of mindset are we giving kids? For every calamity, there should be a unit on an achievement or a success. I have a portrait medal of the niece of Doña Gracia that I show to kids I speak to in Hebrew schools. The medals were like the Facebook of the Renaissance, what the wealthy young things of the period had struck to exchange. I ask the kids for an initial reaction: Is this young woman Jewish? They say, ‘She doesn’t look Jewish.’ I ask why and they say, ‘Because she’s beautifully dressed.’ It’s overcoming those mindsets that are the basis of my approach to Jewish history.
I’m working on a TV mini-series about Doña Gracia Nasi; it’s in the pre-production phase and we’re looking for people interested in the project. It’s glorious, a story of love, sex, money, glamor, and every court of Europe. We’ve created a Facebook page and are trying to bring together all the disparate fans from around the world, and have linked to the Nasi family’s Facebook page. A composer in Germany wants to write an operetta about Doña Gracia. There’s a lot of interest in her now. She lived in the same chronological period as the Tudors; she was our Jewish Queen Elizabeth.
For more information on Brooks two-part course at Temple B’nai Chaim call (203) 544-8695.
For more information on the Doña Gracia Project: www.donagraciaproject.org/